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

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Beyond the talks, there are all sorts of indulgent experiences to keep attendees occupied. I showed up at the 2018 TED conference to check it all out.

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(TED Conference/Flickr)

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, and 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 $10,000 to attend (there are $5,000 tickets available to select first-timers), and 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.

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

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 harbor, with wall-to-wall views of the water.

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

The space sits right on the harbor, 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).

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). play

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.

It's certainly better than your average conference food. play

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.

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. play

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.

(Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider)

There are different dinner options available each night, including a "Jeffersonian Dinner," where 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.

Select attendees are also invited to private lunches and dinners. play

Select attendees are also invited to private lunches and dinners.

(Marla Aufmuth/TED)


And at this year's opening night party, there was the ultimate indulgence: a donut wall.

And at this year's opening night party, there was the ultimate indulgence: a donut wall. play

And at this year's opening night party, there was the ultimate indulgence: a donut wall.

(Lawrence Sumulong/TED)


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

One of the 2017 TED events. play

One of the 2017 TED events.

(Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider)


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

Autonomous BMW i3 play

Autonomous BMW i3

(Ariel Schwartz/Business Insider)

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...

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

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...

...lounge spaces to relax in... play

...lounge spaces to relax in...

(Jason Redmond/TEDs)


... and VR experiences to explore.

... and VR experiences to explore. play

... and VR experiences to explore.

(Lawrence Sumulong / TED)


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

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

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

The second floor of the conference center is dominated by a Steelcase-branded quiet workspace, with desks, couches, and private rooms. I've spent a lot of time up here writing stories. play

The second floor of the conference center is dominated by a Steelcase-branded quiet workspace, with desks, couches, and private rooms. I've spent a lot of time up here writing stories.

(Marla Aufmuth/TED)


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

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

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.

Some workshops are even more creative. play

Some workshops are even more creative.

(Jason Redmond/TED)


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

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

The convention center has just one theater, 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 getting to a good seat.

Donors, who pay $25,000 for the conference, get a separate line and choice seating at the front of the theater.



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.

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. play

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.

Poppy Crum, the chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories, was one of this year's speakers. play

Poppy Crum, the chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories, was one of this year's speakers.

(Bret Hartman/TED)

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.

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

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.

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. play

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 theater — 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.

Not everyone watches every talk in the TED theater — 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. play

Not everyone watches every talk in the TED theater — 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.

There are also some more creative types of seating. play

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".

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

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.