Putting education and entertainment centre stage

~ By Cheryl Long

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It’s not your average conference. When The Art Of co-founders Christopher Novais and Scott Kavanagh put together one of their leading-edge events, attendees can expect a lineup that rivals some of the top business symposiums held across North America. In fact, just a couple of months ago, The Art of Marketing and The Art of Leadership for Women conferences brought names like Gene Simmons, Leeza Gibbons, Suzy Welch and bestselling author Dr. Robert Cialdini to Toronto for two separate one-day events.

It was a keen interest in continuing education and the drive to put true thought leaders in front of professionals across Canada that inspired these two innovative entrepreneurs. In 2008, they launched a new approach to the business of organizing conferences that would not only entertain but more importantly educate. They began with The Art of Sales and took the event on a national tour. Each year they expanded their offerings into different areas of the business world, working to develop their brand and raise their profile across Canada’s major cities.

“For the first couple of years we felt that we had to leverage the names of our speakers,” Novais explained, “but then The Art Of brand started to take on a life of its own.”

Today, the Toronto-based company organizes about 10 events annually. They’ve grown to include national conferences based on a number of themes, including sales, marketing, leadership and leadership for women. More recently they launched a learning division that takes the thought leadership from their stage and brings it to organizations in a dynamic, engaging classroom experience. Positioning themselves as a media, events and training company, The Art Of focuses on “providing business professionals with the tools, techniques and knowledge needed to succeed in today’s changing marketplace.”

High profile guest speakers at each event

Their brand is unique in the way they organize each event around a roster of high quality guest speakers, Novais said. When the business was in its earliest years, it was a challenge to maintain that level of quality given the substantial fees, ranging from $75,000 to $200,000 USD, that high profile keynote speakers demanded. But bringing in names like Jack Welch, Rudy Giuliani, Arianna Huffington, General Colin Powell, Martha Stewart and Malcolm Gladwell has been instrumental in establishing The Art Of as a force in the world of business conferences. “We focus most of our resources on our speakers and more specifically the content that is shared on our stage, as that’s the one thing that (attendees are) going to take back to their organizations and implement.”

They put themselves in the “edu-tainment” category, describing their one-day events as “Ivy League school lectures meet rock concerts”. That’s why the choice of speakers is so critical to the success of the conference. They’re looking for people who are engaging, have a message that’s relevant to the challenges businesses are facing, and are able to deliver that message in a captivating presentation.

Surprisingly, about eight out of 10 times the keynote is not the highest rated speaker post-event, Novais said. Though their celebrity status can be instrumental in attracting attendees, the lineup for each event is so well-planned that participants come away with a variety of favourite speakers. Organizing and running each event leaves little time to enjoy all of the speakers, but Novais takes time to watch the recorded sessions after the conference. For Novais, it is Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield who stands out most among the myriad of big names that have graced The Art Of stage.

“The fact that he was a small town boy who decided he had some big aspirations and was able to command a spacecraft, escort Soviet bombers out of Canadian airspace, live in a research vessel at the bottom of the ocean and then parlay that into becoming a YouTube sensation is remarkable,” Novais said. “We haven’t seen a speaker who was able to resonate with an audience the way Chris Hadfield has. All said and done, he was such a down-to-earth — pardon the pun — kind of person. He wanted to meet everyone and sign all their books … it was definitely a pleasure to work with Colonel Hadfield.”

The Art of Leadership’s fall national tour

The next event scheduled for 2015 is The Art of Leadership in Calgary on Sept. 11, which will move on to Vancouver on Sept. 14. The conference returns to Toronto on Nov. 17 with varying guest speakers including Tom Peters, one of the most influential business thinkers of all time; John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market; Captain Richard Phillips, inspiration for the movie “Captain Phillips”; Amy Cuddy, author and associate professor at the Harvard Business School; Marshall Goldsmith, world-renowned leadership expert; and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. Ticket choices include a General, VIP or Platinum pass, and range in price from $499 to $899.

Conferences are held in major cities across Canada, including Montreal and Ottawa, and they’ve begun venturing into the U.S. market with past events held in Chicago. While smaller conferences will attract about 1,000 participants, the larger events have drawn as many as 3,500 people. Each event has its own target audience ranging from sales and business development professionals to more senior executives who typically attend the leadership-focused conferences. So far, the attendee return rate has been fairly high, Novais said.

“Once we have a champion within the company, essentially someone who has experienced our conferences and knows that we deliver consistently year after year, the groups start to grow and although they might be dependent on who the main speaker is, for the most part we are having people already purchase tickets for the following year without knowing who the speakers are,” he said.

Some companies view The Art Of conferences as a training and development opportunity for their employees, or as a chance to increase team engagement and motivation. Other businesses will purchase additional tickets for their customers. Rather than booking a day on the golf course, organizations and their clients can attend the conference together, providing valuable insights that they can bring back to their respective businesses. Each event also offers extensive networking opportunities for those who take the time to meet their fellow attendees, Novais said.

“Our goal is to inspire our attendees and teach them something new in a fun and engaging environment,” he explained. “If they can bring value back to their organizations and implement those ideas that they’ve learned, ultimately giving their businesses a competitive advantage, we’ve accomplished our mission!”

To learn more about The Art Of and their upcoming conferences, visit www.theartof.com.