In Miami, homegrown conferences are heating up

When Manny Ruiz founded Hispanicize five years ago, he wanted the event highlighting U.S. Hispanic trendsetters in music, film and media to take place outside of his native Miami.

“I didn’t want it to be seen as a Miami-only event or a regional thing,” Ruiz said. “I wanted to build it up on a national level, try it out in different cities — then my idea was always to bring it here.”

After stoking audiences in Dallas and Los Angeles, Hispanicize moved permanently to Miami in 2012 and is expected to draw about 1,700 people over four days to its annual gathering next month.

While South Florida has long been a no-brainer destination for out-of-town conferences and conventions, especially during winter months, the area now is attracting more homegrown events, like Hispanicize. And they’re far from Miami-only or regional: This new breed of conference is pulling in major corporate sponsors, attendees from all over the world, and heavy-hitter speakers from the White House, Google, Facebook, Toyota and more.

“The more and more that we see these compelling gatherings and meetings, the more we realize there really is an insatiable appetite here among entrepreneurs and creators and makers to connect around ideas,” said Matt Haggman, Miami program director of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

This month, the Knight Foundation will partner with The Atlantic magazine to host the second annual Start-Up City: Miami, a one-day seminar exploring the region’s vitality as an urban tech hub.

More than 700 people attended last year’s Start-Up City event, and about 4,000 more watched live streams of the programming online. Haggman said interest has been high for this year’s edition, on March 31 at the New World Center in Miami Beach, despite a new $75 ticket price.

“We had the first event for free, but this year we have a ticket fee because we want to build this into a sustainable concept that’s here every year,” Haggman said.

The Knight Foundation also is a sponsor of this month’s MIA Music Summit, a first-time event that will bring about 40 leaders in digital music, audio hardware and other fields to the New World Center. Organized by the MIA Collective, which put on the recent SIME MIA tech conference, MIA Music Summit aims to help position Miami at the core of music technology.

“What better way to help the local music ecosystem than to create an environment that helps technology startups get closer to these traditional business?” said Demian Bellumio, one of the conference organizers and chief operating officer of music-tech company Senzari.

An overnight HackDay at the LAB in Wynwood precedes the music summit, giving developers a chance to plot out music-related apps and ideas to pitch to panelists.

One of the summit panelists is David Packouz, a Miami singer-songwriter with a mechanical engineering background who invented BeatBuddy, a drum machine operated through a guitar pedal. His project raised $350,000 on crowdfunding site Indiegogo. BeatBuddy is in presales, with first deliveries expected in August.

“I think I’m going to be the only native Miami startup represented on my panel” on new music startups, Packouz said. “I’m very proud of that. Just a few months ago, I was at the SIME conference, listening to people talk, watching speeches. Now I’m on the other side of the table, and that’s a pretty awesome feeling.”

Start-Up City also will feature Miami entrepreneurs, including Joel Pollock, co-founder of Panther Coffee, and Roger Duarte, co-founder of My Ceviche, which global nonprofit Endeavor selected in December as a promising business it will help to nurture.

Following in Start-Up City’s mold is Smart City Startups, a two-day, first-time event next month directed at connecting entrepreneurs and cities. It’s free but limited to 100 participants, who must fill out a brief application in order to get details like workshop locations.

Now in its fifth year, the Miami-bred environmentally focused Sustainatopia is “decidedly not a local conference,” founder John Rosser wrote in an email.

Bina Venkataraman, senior climate change advisor to President Barack Obama, will give the keynote address at Sustainatopia’s opening Impact Conference on April 16. Other speakers during the weeklong event include a senior advisor to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Jolie-Pitt Foundation as well as Brandon Tidwell, sustainability manager for Darden Restaurants (Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Yard House, Capital Grille, Seasons 52).

Sustainatopia has morphed into dozens of community-friendly events, many of them free, that are anchored by three major summits at the Miami Beach Convention Center and the adjacent Botanical Garden. Rosser has compared it to Art Basel for the sustainability crowd.

“We are a global conference with attendees from 40 countries that just happens to be based and started in Miami,” Rosser wrote.

Another Miami-born event seeking global recognition: eMerge Americas Techweek, coming May 2-6 in Miami Beach. The conference aims to help establish South Florida as a technology hub of the Americas. Organizer Diane Sanchez said eMerge is not just an event. “It’s a movement that will transform Miami,” she said.

Even though Hispanicize wasn’t technically started in Miami, Ruiz said it’s staying here.

“Miami is the U.S. capital of Hispanic entertainment, music and media,” he said. “This is a city that represents empowerment of Latinos, more so than any other city. After we had the event here three years ago, we knew this is where Hispanicize should call home.”

Highlights of Hispanicize, April 1-4 at the InterContinental Hotel, include performances by up-and-coming Hispanic musicians and a collaboration with the Miami International Film Festival to spotlight the works of U.S. Latino filmmakers. There also are workshops, panel discussions and networking parties scheduled.

Just don’t call it a conference, Ruiz said.

“Conferences are for old people,” he said. “Ours is an unconference. Hispanicize is an event.”

Miami Herald staff writer Nancy Dahlberg contributed to this report.