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Confab Crazy, From TED to SXSW

Harvard Business Review

The countdown to the TED conference in Long Beach, California, has begun. This year's event is called "The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered." This particular TED is the product of an American Idol-like adventure spanning 14 cities and six continents to find the hidden gems among us who can produce killer TED Talks about everything from robotics to politics and more.

Curiously, TED's opening session on Monday features Jennifer Granholm and Bono — not sure if they really had to search too hard for those two.

No matter. TED is still a tough ticket to get. The overwhelming success of the enterprise allows them to charge around $7,500 per ticket and they regularly sell out. TED Talks have become very popular online, and I'm sure this year will produce a fresh batch of 18-minute videos for TED's growing fan-base to consume.

I know how tough it can be to get under the TED tent — I spent years trying to get an invite, like a freshman trying to get into a frat that just didn't want him. I finally got my chance in 2010 and my breathless enthusiasm was evident in these first posts for HBR.org.

But this year I'm no longer panting to attend. Instead, I've booked passage for South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, where the latest in music and technology gets the spotlight during the second week of March. There's only so much time one can dedicate to networking with the other badge-wearing masses — and breathlessly blogging. You gotta pick your shots.

Welcome to the season of confabs. The first quarter of each calendar year is laden with one big pow-wow after another — starting with CES and the Detroit Auto Show, running to Davos, and then there's "Big TED" and SXSW to take us through to the end. It's a gauntlet of gatherings, and I've spoken to more than a few CEOs who lament that they can't be in more than one place at a time.

But even if I did have the time to spend, I'm not sure I'd really want to expend the effort. It seems that I suffer from what I call "confab envy" — wherever I am sucks, and everywhere else is cool. I'm rather convinced that I am a walking bellwether of events in decline. By the time the event gets around to allowing me in, it's over.

TED was the classic example. At my first event, I could tune out all the downers who were pompously telling me that this year was "beat" — that I should have been there in '92, dude. Which would have been fine, but in '92 I was too busy enjoying the downslide of the Grateful Dead.

But by year two, I was crowing with the others who felt that they had seen or heard many of the ideas before and that the crowd wasn't quite up to snuff. Where had they all gone? PopTech? Doubt it. Davos? Hasn't that one been in decline forever? I just figured that the Europeans still needed some reason to party. Sun Valley? That seems likely, since I'll probably never get an invite to that one.

I'm really not sure. But maybe you know? You tell me what are your favorite events, and which ones have lost their sheen, and I'll come back with some of the best and worst confabs derived from the HBR crowd.

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