How Consensus became the biggest event in cryptocurrency
From 2015 to 2019, Consensus has always been a reflection of the industry at the time.
Consensus New York is widely agreed to be the single biggest event in the cryptocurrency calendar. Every year since the inaugural Consensus 2015 – with the exception of 2018 – it's been at least vaguely associated with a rise in the cryptocurrency markets, probably in part because a lot of cryptocurrency projects save their biggest announcements for the event.
With Consensus 2019 kicking off on 13 May, you won't have to wait long to see whether the rule holds true this year.
And as an annual cornerstone of a quickly changing industry, and as the place everyone goes to in order to find out what blockchain can do for them, Consensus holds a very clear window into how the space has evolved year on year and what people really want from crypto.
Consensus 2015: A Summit on Bitcoin and Blockchain.
"My second day was actually Consensus 2015," Peter Bordes said. "Second day in the industry, and I just sat in the audience and had no idea what everyone was talking about."
Today, Peter Bordes is the vice president of events and sales at CoinDesk. He's spearheaded every Consensus since then, and with both the industry and Consensus itself growing so quickly year on year, that sharp learning curve hasn't let up.
There were only about 600 attendees at Consensus 2015, Bordes said, coming together on 10 September to talk about the state of the nascent industry, which was still largely mired in dark-web markets, and about how to move the technology towards legitimacy. They also discussed how Bitcoin's growth in 2015 compared to previous years.
Bitcoin and blockchain were still largely inseparable, and the event was described as "a summit on Bitcoin and blockchain." It's quite telling that the blockchain space was small enough at the time that you could have a holistic global summit on the stuff.
Consensus 2015 was mostly a place for interested parties to take a step back and take stock of the situation.
Some reflection may have been necessary too. At the time, Bitcoin prices had spent over a year reeling downwards from a late 2013 high of over US$1,100 before the Mt Gox incident to hang around in the $200 to $300 range. After a couple of years of slow bleeding, there were very real concerns over whether Bitcoin would bleed out entirely.
But as you can see, Bitcoin prices started rising after Consensus 2015, pushing past $500 shortly after the event. Whatever it was, Consensus seemed to be just the shot in the arm that Bitcoin needed, and the simple idea of getting everyone from all over the world in the same place at the same time had proven to have real value.
"Ever since the initial launch, our attendee base has been about 50% international," Bordes noted. "It's going to be interesting to see if we can maintain that."
2016: Making Blockchain Real.
The next year would see Consensus coming around in May instead of September – a spot it's retained in following years. And with cryptocurrency's existential crisis largely abated, the theme that year would be "making blockchain real," focusing on solid applications for blockchain technology, rather than just being a broad industry summit.
It increased from a single day to several days and introduced exhibits to Consensus for the first time. It also changed from being a crypto summit to an entire blockchain expo. The goal wasn't just to gather crypto fans anymore. Now it was also to introduce people to blockchain for the first time. It was also time to start subdividing the event and introducing new tracks to cater to different interests.
All of this would come together to be an enormous pain for whoever had to organise the entire thing.
"2016 was very challenging," Bordes recalls. "The industry was obviously still in its infancy – you could almost say it still is. But 2016 was challenging as far as logistics go, going from 600 attendees in 2015 to a little over 1,400 in 2016. When you double in a year, it's a great headline, great news, but it was very challenging leading up to the conference because a lot of people still didn't know what Consensus was."
This had the effect of putting Bordes on the very front line of the entire cryptocurrency and blockchain space for a while, presenting the value propositions of Consensus, and by extension the technology itself, to prospective speakers and other guests.
"So it really came down to the last six to eight weeks," Bordes recalls. "...a huge sprint for attendee sales, onboarding speakers, planning a two-day hackathon and three-day conference... finalising all those logistics in a matter of weeks was a hell of a sprint.
"It was interesting to see the conference kind of grow from being a conference to almost a conference and an expo. Because 2016 is where we introduced exhibit opportunities as well, which adds a whole level of logistics but also experience."
And it worked. The Consensus magic happened again in 2016, with markets rising shortly after the event. Bitcoin prices would double between Consensus 2016 and the end of the year.
Consensus 2017: Consensus
Following the success of 2016, Consensus was standing on its own two feet under its own name in 2017. But with the crypto industry exploding under the growth of the last couple of years, it was also worth going back and re-cementing the position of Consensus and doubling down on its position as the cryptocurrency event.
One of the ways to do this, Bordes says, was to reinforce the link between Consensus and CoinDesk, whose base doubtless also expanded with the growth of crypto.
"One thing we learnt very quickly in our post-con from 2016, was that it's great to grow the Consensus brand, but we need to maintain that link and brand association between CoinDesk and Consensus," Bordes explained. "Whether it's signage, marketing or the Consensus logo itself, which now many times has the "powered by CoinDesk" tag in it. Although Consensus needs to have its own identity, it needs to be very closely associated with CoinDesk, which always has that brand power we need to harness."
And beyond the brand power alone, the publication's reach helped attract guests, and the team added more hands and experience to the event.
"The exposure CoinDesk has was definitely integral to growing the Consensus brand," Bordes said. "Consensus is certainly a company-wide collaboration. Obviously there's a very strong distinction and barrier between the business side and editorial, but we'd be crazy not to tap into the expertise of the editorial team when it comes to the content of the conference."
On the whole, things went swimmingly, and the number of attendees multiplied again.
"I think the biggest challenge in 2017 may have been the speaker front," Bordes mused. "Obviously we invited some speakers back from previous years, but as a conference organiser, you always want to get some fresh blood back on the stage. But in an industry as young as this one, that was pretty challenging. You also want to grow your exhibit base, your conference base, which was obviously a challenge as well. That's where we really relied on the CoinDesk reach."
Guess what Bitcoin prices did after Consensus 2017?
Consensus 2018: Consensus
Like most people, Bordes knew 2018 was going to be a big one.
"Very quickly, we saw at the end of 2017 that we needed more space just to accommodate the growth of the conference. So we relocated to the New York Marriott Marquis. That's where we really were able to offer a variety of different opportunities for sponsors."
But while you can plan for sheer size, it's more difficult to anticipate sheer enthusiasm.
"Last year, we had 8,800 registered attendees, and 90% of them were checked in by 12:30 in the afternoon Monday," Bordes said. "Between crypto fever and everyone coming at one time, it was one hell of an experience last year to say the least... we just got so big so quickly from a footprint standpoint and conference standpoint."
But this is also where attendee experience can start suffering, and the circus of 2018 ended up imparting some important lessons.
"It was great that we had over 8,000 attendees there, but it was just cryptomania and we didn't do a great job catering to the different personalities that were at the event," Bordes conceded. "What we're looking at now is doing a lot more attendee engagement pre-conference, during and post [to] understand what different industries want to get out of Consensus.
"If we were only in the game of making money, and not in the business of building a following... If we were just an event company that would have been a successful event."
Cryptomania had some effect on attendee experience, and it probably didn't help that some of the criticisms swirling in the lead-up to the event saw prominent figures in the industry, such as Vitalik Buterin, decide to boycott the event in 2018.
Despite, or perhaps because of the cryptomania, the consensus market magic didn't arrive in 2018. On a side note, this view really gives a sense of how utterly unusual those market doldrums of September to November 2018 were.
Like every year, 2018 provided lots of lessons for the next year.
It's tough to say whether the flattening of the crypto markets throughout 2018 has diminished people's interest in Consensus 2019. Overall, Bordes's experience suggests that crypto's most famous event is still as magnetic as ever, but that the slower markets have made people act a bit slower too.
"We can see the brand power really in our call for speakers or requests for press passes," Bordes says. "There's still so much interest to be part of the conference. But with the market where it is, I think people are obviously a bit more conservative with partnerships. People are waiting a bit longer to register. [It] obviously makes logistics more challenging, you don’t know how many attendees there will be.
"April is always a crazy month, so when everything comes together over the coming month, it's going to be a sprint to the end."
But this year there's going to be a lot more ground to cover in that final sprint because Consensus is being split, or "decentralised," across multiple locations, occupying both the New York Hilton Midtown and the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel. In the most literal sense of the word, Consensus 2019 will be the biggest one yet, spanning over four acres of New York real estate.
In part, this is just to accommodate more guests. But it's also to give different attendee segments more space to find what interests them. The idea is that every attendee will be able to tailor Consensus 2019 to their own interests.
"We're certainly going back to catering to the different segments," Bordes explained. "We've heard people loud and clear. We've gotten a ton of great feedback.
"You can see that develop and shape Consensus 2019 in the way we've got dedicated tracks; business track, market track, Construct – which is our developer-focused conference – this is helping us passively segregate the attendees so they're not just jumping from room to room to try to find the exhibitor that interests them the most.
"We have to be very mindful of attendee experience," Bordes emphasised. "That's why we're definitely trying to cater to different segments – take temperature on what they're looking for. Developers aren't going to be too interested in the business tracks, so let's get very technical. Microsoft, Deloitte, might want a nice, large booth but don't want to be positioned next to a new coin that's just launching."
What to expect
"Rather than just 'come to Consensus', we're trying to add a lot more activations and to give people a lot of different memorable experiences," Bordes explained.
The breadth of these experiences is also part of the overarching aim of making sure there's something for everyone.
"We've introduced a podcast stage where we'll be hosting several different industry podcasts," Bordes said. "We're going to be launching a call for podcasts. The launch, or relaunch, of Construct [will] certainly cater to the developer community and attract more developers to the overall Consensus brand. We've enhanced the media experience, so members of the press will have a very nice room where they can do interviews, write stories or just get a break from the madness. That was a big focal point just based on the feedback from last year.
"We'll also have a media stage where speakers, once they're done with their sessions if they want to take any additional questions, or if companies have any special announcements to make, they'll have a kind of closed door opportunity with members of the press. It should help break more news at Consensus which I think is what every conference wants.
"And we'd have to be crazy to be in the crypto space and not showcase the technology. It's one thing to be sitting in the audience being talked to, but if you have the opportunity to actually engage with the technology..."
Blockchain obviously isn't the most demonstrative technology, but with various NFC activation stations for attendees, crypto artists putting their work on the blockchain and other tangible demonstrations at Consensus 2019, there will still be plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal with it.
Consensus has always been a reflection of the crypto industry around it.
In 2015, it was a time for the Bitcoin world to gather itself around an uncertain future, and in 2016, it was all about picturing specific blockchain applications in the real world. The 2017 event was about keeping the momentum rolling with consistent growth, and the 2018 event was inseparable from the cashed-up hype that characterised the industry after the astounding rise in crypto markets.
And now in 2019, it's about looking forward to wider blockchain adoption as driven by enterprise interest in the space and showcasing the blockchain developments that have been happening in the shadow of the crypto hype over the last year. This is partly by design, and partly because that's just the kind of event that will inevitably be created by the current state of the industry.
"Obviously, last year, we saw the crypto community take over the conference," Bordes notes. "This year, we have a lot of new speakers and sponsors from the enterprise side.
"If you look at any other industry, large enterprises, they're always competing with each other. They want to be the first to market; they want to have the best product. They think there might be less of a crypto representation [at Consensus 2019], so they might see it as an opportunity to get involved with less noise to compete with.
"We certainly hope, obviously from a content standpoint, that it's a signal they're really taking it seriously and that they'll start building more and releasing more products. That will feed more into mainstream adoption once enterprise takes a larger role."
As Bordes said, "Consensus has just been the global gathering of blockchain and crypto since 2015."
And it's changing shape just as fast as the industry it represents.
Disclosure: The author holds ETH at the time of writing.