You probably wouldn’t expect a former shipyard to be the perfect place for a conference, but challenging expectations is the mission of the wildly successful “commerce-meets-creativity” annual gathering that is turning heads around the globe: C2 Montreal.

Each year since 2012, the area in and around Arsenal, once Montreal’s largest shipyard and now a massive art space, is transformed from a blank slate into a playground of sensory experiences that inspire thousands of attendees to engage, step out of their comfort zones—both physically and mentally—and kick around ideas for three days.

That might mean sharing an umbrella with a stranger for a one-on-one walk around a path as artificial snow falls from above, collaborating on a giant layered cake with fellow attendees and a food artist, or being hoisted 30 feet off the ground for an intimate brainstorming session.

“We have a whole ecosystem of creative people to design completely new experiences each year,” said Genifere Legrand, vice president of creation and content for C2. “For instance, the idea for the ‘meetings in the sky’ lab this year was to sit in a chair and ‘elevate your ideas’ as part of a brainstorm to come up with the next ‘moonshot’ in your industry. In taking people out of their comfort zone, they lose their foothold, take risks and become more engaged in the conversation.”

Engagement is key to the entire design of C2, which was imagined by Sid Lee creative agency and founded by Cirque du Soleil, both headquartered in Montreal. Content programming incorporates everything from inspiring talks and panels with trailblazers and thought leaders to boundary-pushing collaborative exercises such as labs, workshops and Braindates, to performance artists such as aerialists, acrobats and musicians.

C2 has steadily grown year-over-year, with the 2017 edition luring 6,000-plus executives, creatives, innovators and visionaries from 50-plus countries and 20-plus industries, a testament to the event’s game-changing concepts and Montreal’s allure as a city of innovation and industry.

“C2 is very representative of Montreal and Montrealers,” said Yves Lalumiere, president and CEO of Tourisme Montreal. “It embodies our creative energy and shows how we are a midsize city that really punches above its weight. Montreal is a city that likes to challenge the status quo, disrupt and experiment, create and recreate. We are constantly reinventing ourselves, and C2 is part of who we are.”

C2 has helped position Montreal as a creative space where businesspeople, innovators, researchers and artists can come together to share ideas and explore opportunities, according to Lalumiere.

“C2’s mission of bringing commerce and creativity together makes it a fantastic platform for us to introduce Montreal to international and North American associations, corporations and meeting professionals,” he said. “They are always amazed and inspired by their experience.”

Other tourism entities are also taking note of C2. Destinations International (formerly DMAI) spotlighted C2’s successful concept at its annual conference in Montreal in July with a keynote by C2 President Richard St. Pierre, while at the recent MPI-World Education Congress in Las Vegas, MPI President & CEO Paul Van Deventer sang the praises of C2’s groundbreaking approach to experience design.

Meanwhile, Rick Blackburn, vice president of convention sales and services for the Greater Palm Springs CVB, challenged convention by inviting a group of meeting planners to C2 Montreal this year instead of bringing them to the “Desert Oasis” for a fam.

Blackburn, who describes C2 as “a hybrid of Ted Talk, Burning Man and a little something extra a la Cirque du Soleil,” said the CVB launched an interactive LinkedIn promotion asking why planners would want to attend C2 Montreal and chose those who seemed the most passionate about their profession.

“The fam to C2 was all about educating planners and immersing them in an environment of amazing experiences,” Blackburn said. “In the industry, we’ve talked for years about meeting in places other than ballrooms and boardrooms, so C2 is an opportunity to showcase how to do that in creative ways and deliver content that is dynamic and appeals to various audiences.

We also wanted to show that we are passionate about this industry and remaining at the forefront of new ideas.”

Blackburn has attended C2 two times and lauds the diversity of collaborative and individual experiences, as well as the organization of the event, the pre-planning aspect and the fact that attendees customize their experience of the conference.

Among the five planners hosted by the Greater Palm Springs CVB for C2 Montreal 2017 in May were Doug Wheeler, principal, Summit Performance Group; Rupal Patel, manager, global accounts, HelmsBriscoe; and Thomas Rado, president and CEO, Base Sourcing, The Gibraltar & Palme Group of Companies.

San Diego-based Wheeler, a 37-year industry veteran, said it’s imperative for him to continue to explore new concepts and remain ahead of the curve when it comes to industry trends.

“I read up on C2 and have worked with a client on South by Southwest. Knowing these types of events were out there, I was very curious about going to C2 to see what’s new and what’s hot, particularly for Millennials, who are a big part of our audience and the meetings, conferences and incentives we plan,” Wheeler said. “It was a very unique adventure. I came back and shared a lot of information with my team and plan to send some of my team members to future C2s.”

Wheeler was impressed with the way the warehouse-like space and area around it was transformed into a meeting venue that was a hive of activity and experimentation.   

“It was a very unique way of creating ‘unforced networking,’” he said. “They had the Braindate area where you could go online, post an idea and invite people to meet, breakouts with experiences like joining a team to create a cake or sitting on chairs suspended by cables and being lifted toward the ceiling to have a ‘meeting in the sky,’ which made you completely focus on what’s going on around you.”

Wheeler also applauded the “cubby holes” with unexpected surprises and interesting goings-on placed everywhere, the “pods” for private conversations and the entire big top tent experience.

“The Cirque du Soleil aspect was very fresh,” he said.  “In between speakers, the stage would open up and out would come actors and acrobats who did performances. The lighting was incredible and really flowed well with a lot of the speakers and the music. It was truly engaging and very different.”

For Denver-based Patel, attending C2 with the Greater Palm Springs CVB was an eye-opener.

“It really allowed me to exchange creatively, stretch my vision and imagine differently when I sit down with clients or do a site visit,” Patel said.

Highlights for Patel included everything from the individual phone charging boxes and the technology that enabled attendees to pay without exchanging money, to the breakout labs such as Cake and the outdoor environment with entertainment and an urban food and drink atmosphere along the river.

“We walked outside for lunch, where there were food trucks and wine bars, and had fresh seafood and oysters, and the last night, there was a big closing party there,” she said. “It was like being at a festival.”

One of the most impressive experiences for Patel was a keynote by Dror Benshetrit, a visionary known for disrupting conventional ideas in art, architecture and design.

“During part of his keynote, he spoke about a new venue he is working on designed to deploy a lunar experience on Earth to give people the perspective of walking on the moon for the first time,” she said. “It was so outside the box. He was very interesting.”

Bumping into another visionary C2 Montreal speaker, Steve Wozniak, was a highlight for Toronto-based Rado, but the most memorable connection he made at the conference was with a teenager.

“I volunteered to lead a Braindate on being the best ambassador when dealing with multiple stakeholders, and within five minutes, all six spots were filled,” he said. “I had five CEOs and a 15-year-old student from Toronto who owns a business that makes biodegradable toothbrushes that are sold in Whole Foods and Costco. She’s now doing another startup. She thought we were rock stars and we thought the same of her.”

Rado, who was honored to have been “the only Canadian chosen by the Greater Palm Springs CVB,” said beyond the Braindate concept, other key takeaways were the sheer organization and pre-planning involved with experiencing C2, the experimental labs and the main tent experience.

“They didn’t skip a beat in terms of the execution of the whole conference—from the connectivity to the fact that we all had a personal concierge,” he said. “And in the main tent, the seating was tiered, which had to be made with scaffolding, and you sat on bean bags. Lying down with a perfect stranger on a bean bag as you’re looking up at a massive screen and chatting with them was quite an experience.”

C2 will bring its unique brand of experience design to Australia Nov. 30 to Dec. 1 for its first global edition: C2 Melbourne. The next C2 Montreal is scheduled for May 23-25, 2018.