No Perking Here

Most planners of celebrity gatherings would say VIPs deserve special treatment, but what happens when the meeting is all VIPs, as in Richard Saul Wurman's case? Wurman may not be a household name, but his TED (technology, entertainment, design) conferences are legendary, with attendees including everyone from Bill Gates and Jeffrey Katzenberg to Deepak Chopra and Courtney Love. The first TED, in 1984, launched both the Macintosh computer and the Sony compact disc. Seats, which cost $4,000 apiece, sell out a year in advance; presenters who normally charge five figures speak for free. Wurman has only one staffer and relies on unpaid, on-site help -- yet has had to turn away volunteers, he says.

Wurman has created this phenomenal success purely by following his heart: "It's my party," he says simply. "I'm not interested in doing a better version of what others have done. I only do what I think is interesting. I'm not a very bright person, so my personal interests align with others' -- I just act on them." Such interests include music, science, magic, cars, animals, humor, jugglers . . . all found in abundance at TED. Whatever it is, "I try to make it better than anyone's expectations, including mine." So the music is Yo-Yo Ma; the magic is David Blaine, and the cars are $20 million of concept vehicles from BMW, Chrysler, Harley-Davidson, and others, all donated. "There's no science to it," Wurman shrugs. "It's stuff people like -- Disneyland for grownups."

Modesty aside, Wurman is a perfectionist who obsessively designs every detail of his three-and-a-half-day confab, including the logo, nametags, and even the teddy bear (for TED -- get it?) attendees receive in their goody bags. Presenters have just 15 minutes to deliver -- not read -- a speech on a topic on which they've never spoken before. (Five years ago, one of Microsoft's top scientists gave a still-talked-about lecture on dinosaur sex in which he never mentioned his company.) The tone is informal, the dress code strictly casual. Most unusually, Wurman offers VIPs no perks whatsoever -- no plane tickets, hotels, or limos, not even reserved seating: "Rupert Murdoch has to find his own seat," he boasts.

Wurman's maverick approach works because he cares deeply about excellence, so much so that he never courted publicity; word-of-mouth is so strong he doesn't even send out invitations. Recently, Wurman sold TED and is now planning his newest brainchild, TEDMED, a conference about the communication of information on health. To better understand what that might mean, "Imagine if Murdoch, Andy Grove, and Michael Milken sat onstage and talked about their experience with prostate cancer and how hard it was to find out what to do about it," suggests Wurman. "That'd tell you a lot about what the rest of us go through."

At Wurman's get-togethers, where the at-tendees are as famous as the

presenters, A-listers are just average Joes. It's reminiscent of what Andy Warhol said about Studio 54: "It's where the stars are nobody, because everybody's a star."