What it's like to attend the TED talks, where attendees pay $10,000 to learn the next big ideas

Ryan Lash/TEDTracee Ellis Ross at TED.

In some ways, attending the TED conference in person is exactly what you’d expect from watching TED talks online. It’s an overwhelming experience jam-packed with scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, and CEOs who all have their One Big Idea to share.

Many of the big-name speakers – in 2018, they included SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, architect Renzo Piano, and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker – stick around for the whole event. It’s not unusual to see them roaming the halls. There are also lots of well-known attendees who never hit the stage (the press isn’t allowed to name names, but you can figure it out with a little Twitter digging).

The conference costs $US10,000 to attend, though there are $US5,000 tickets available to select first-timers. In addition to the talks there are all sorts of indulgent experiences, buffets, and workshops to keep attendees occupied. I showed up at the 2018 TED conference to check it all out. Here’s what it’s like.


For the last several years, TED has been held in the Vancouver Convention Center in Vancouver, Canada.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

TED was founded in 1984, and the first conference was held in Monterey, California. These days, the conference runs from Monday through Friday. People have to apply to go – attendance this year was capped at 1,500 – and it sells out many months in advance.


The space sits right on the harbour, with wall-to-wall views of the water.

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

My first stop at the venue each morning is the food. For every meal, TED lays out a buffet of options with detailed ingredient descriptions (including whether they are vegan or gluten-free).

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

It’s certainly better than your average conference food.

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

If the buffets don’t cut it, attendees can also order from one of several local food trucks for lunch. They all have select items that are available for free.

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There are different dinner options available each night, including a “Jeffersonian Dinner” in which attendees can pick a topic they’re interested in – like the future of psychedelics or urban/rural divide – and eat with like-minded TEDsters at a local restaurant (all for free, of course).


Select attendees are also invited to private lunches and dinners.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

At this year’s opening night party, there was the ultimate indulgence: a doughnut wall.

Lawrence Sumulong/TED

Throughout the conference, attendees can go to several off-site events, some of which come at an additional cost.

Ariel Schwartz/Business InsiderOne of the 2017 TED events.

Some TEDsters (including myself) signed up for test drives of the autonomous BMW i3 prototype.

Ariel Schwartz/Business InsiderAutonomous BMW i3

The ride, held in the basement of the Vancouver Convention Center, was smooth and comfortable.


Attendees inside the convention center also have a huge array of activity options. There are robots to play with…

Jason Redmond / TED

…lounge spaces to relax in…

Jason Redmond/TEDs

… and VR experiences to explore.

Lawrence Sumulong / TED

A bookstore sells a variety of books, many of which are written by TED speakers.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

The second floor of the conference center is dominated by a Steelcase-branded quiet workspace with desks, couches, and private rooms.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

I’ve spent a lot of time up here writing stories.


Workshops throughout the conference also give attendees a break from the brain overload of TED talks.

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

Last year, I attended a workshop called “Understanding city resilience through data.” We each sat in front of a laptop loaded with maps that let us zoom in on the risks facing urban areas throughout the world.


Some workshops are even more creative.

Jason Redmond/TED

The convention center has just one theatre, so you have to wait in line to enter for a talk.

Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider

For especially popular sessions, the line might form at least half an hour before the talk begins. Once inside, it’s a bit of a race to get a good seat.

Donors, who pay $US25,000 for the conference, get a separate line and choice seating at the front of the theatre.


As a member of the press, I’m relegated to one of the back two rows, since those are the only spots where laptops are allowed. There’s really no bad seat, though.

Bret Hartman/TED

Speakers are coached long before they get onstage to make sure their talks go smoothly.

Bret Hartman/TEDPoppy Crum, the chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories, was one of this year’s speakers.

Many talks are just as inspirational as the few that go viral online. But there’s so much pressure involved with getting on the TED stage (online fame and even potential book deals can be on the line), that some people stumble. TED does an impressive job of editing the videos of talks that had hiccups to ensure they look good on the internet.


Speakers often make themselves available at designated meet-up spots after their talks.

Jason Redmond/TED

Almost everyone is trackable. Each name tag comes with an optional tracker that attendees can use to locate one other in the convention center via the TEDConnect app.

Jason Redmond/TED

On more than one occasion, I’ve had people seek me out using the tracker. It comes in handy.


Not everyone watches every talk in the TED theatre — there isn’t enough seating for every attendee. But there are dozens of simulcast screens throughout the venue, with all manner of comfortable seating available.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

There are also some more creative types of seating.

Lawrence Sumulong/TED

In the past, TED has offered attendees a selection of items from a “gift cave”.

Rimowa

This year, attendees received custom luggage from luxury brand Rimowa. It’s not exactly your normal conference swag – but then again, TED isn’t the average conference.

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