Lee Schafer
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It wasn’t yet lunchtime on the first morning of the Manova Global Summit this week in Minneapolis, and conference CEO Mark Addicks had seen enough.

“I think we already do” know that this inaugural event is a success, he said.

Maybe launching a conference on the future of health with “global” in the title isn’t the kind of thing glass-half-empty people try. Yet by eyeballing the room and chatting up some participants this week, you could see why Addicks thought he had already won.

The main hall at the Convention Center was full with roughly a thousand people who registered to be there, the presentations were mostly informative as well as slickly produced, and all over the room at the break people seemed to be chatting and shaking hands — when they weren’t staring into their iPhone screens, but that’s an unfortunate aspect of life anywhere in 2018.

Maybe one problem with the first Manova Summit was just unfamiliarity, as it couldn’t have been all that easy to characterize the event when asking the boss for permission to attend. Just hearing the name Manova wouldn’t have been any help.

It’s clearly not a convention, nothing like what trade or professional organizations hold, an event to catch up on the latest in a certain industry. And if anything big was for sale at Manova it was kept out of sight and the selling from the stage was subtle.

The easiest way to describe Manova is that it’s a health care conference, but health care seems far too limiting, too. Traditional health care conferences probably don’t book a speaker on urban design.

The idea for Manova — a name that comes from a mashup of Medical Alley, the Minnesota med-device association and event cosponsor, with the word innovation — came out of the failed effort to land the 2023 World’s Fair in Minnesota. That proposal was built around the broad theme of health and wellness.

When the promoters of the idea regrouped after the expo bid went to Buenos Aires, the idea of a health-oriented event still looked compelling.

With no World’s Fair to hang it on, Addicks and two partners in 2023 Partners, LLC, became promoters of what became the Manova three-day conference. 2023 Partners is a for-profit company, but more or less in theory only. It’s their “fervent hope” that the conference comes close to breaking even, partner Kathy Tunheim said.

“It’s a little Davos, it’s a lot of South by Southwest, with lots of different people and lots of different topics all threaded together,” Addicks said. “And then it’s a lot of TED talk.”

Addicks was hustling backstage that morning and had only a few minutes to talk, but by “Davos” he meant the annual conference of the World Economic Forum.

It’s certainly true that newsmakers attend the Davos event to talk about real problems. Yet some of the news coverage might be about the hundreds of hotel cleaners, cocktail servers, chefs and other staff flown in to meet the needs of its wealthy participants — part of why we have come to think of Davos as a self-congratulatory week off for the super-rich in a Swiss Alpine resort town.

TED you have likely heard of, too, a conference series that gives its audience (including online) big ideas and opinions in easily digestible bites. Addicks clearly likes how TED talkers use plain language and get on and off the stage quickly.

But easily the most interesting model Addicks has in mind for what Manova can become is South by Southwest, usually just referred to as SXSW.

SXSW got its start in the late 1980s in the Texas capital of Austin. It was conceived as a modest regional music festival by managers at the local free weekly newspaper. Instead, more than four times as many people showed up as the organizers expected, and before long the legendary musician Johnny Cash was delivering, with his guitar, the keynote speech.

The festival kept growing, eventually going well beyond giving music fans a chance to hear new bands, like adding SXSW Interactive, which is all about technology. The microblogging application Twitter famously got its first real surge of user acceptance after SXSW in 2007.

This year, over 10 days, more than 432,000 people participated in some way at SXSW, according to the conference organizers.

Reportedly, part of the fun in Austin is what happens offstage, the unstructured mingling of musicians, educators and moviemakers with technology entrepreneurs, investors and marketers.

The same kind of planned serendipity is part of what Addicks and his partners had in mind here, with programming that attracted the interest of people outside of health care or health policy. That meant booking the likes of Dan Buettner, best known for his work on the “blue zones” in the world where people live longer and are happier.

The speaker lineup also included Gil Penalosa, founder of 8 80 Cities, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the livability of cities with parks, walkways and other features that let people be more active and spend more time outdoors, whether they are 8 years old or 80.

Addicks says there’s no secret strategy for creating a sustainable conference other than what’s obvious; recruiting enough speakers that people have heard of to tell them something they haven’t heard before.

According to the organization, about a quarter of the 1,000 or so registered attendees this year came from out of state. Maybe half the participants work outside of health care, in fields like retailing, government and consumer technology.

In addition to conference sponsors like the Mayo Clinic, the Meet Minneapolis, Convention & Visitors Association jumped in to promote the event as well.

Health care-related meetings are top prizes in the acutely competitive convention business, said Nathan Hermiston, senior director of destination sales at Meet Minneapolis. One big reason is that people who go to health care conferences seem to spend a lot on hotels, bars and restaurants.

Asked when Meet Minneapolis would know if Manova worked, Hermiston was more cautious than Addicks.

“If attendance grows in year two,” Hermiston said, “we succeeded in year one.”

lee.schafer@startribune.com • 612-673-4302