by Michael C. Lowe | August 01, 2012

Easy access to information is changing the way association members engage with their education. Today, organizers are faced with unprecedented competition from social media, webcasts and countless other online resources that allow potential conference attendees to learn just about whatever they want, whenever and wherever they want.

"People don't need to wait for formal learning opportunities anymore," says Kathleen Edwards, president of The Learning Evangelist LLC, a Maryland-based consultancy specializing in effective learning environments and strategies. "They're driving their own learning, so where's the incentive to travel to a conference and spend the money if they can get what they need somewhere else?"

The key to keeping attendee learners coming back for more is to offer unique means of engagement, says Jeff Hurt, executive vice president of education and engagement with Velvet Chainsaw, a meeting and education-improvement company based in Cleveland and Dallas. "If the goal is to increase attendance," he says, "if the goal is to increase loyalty, then association planners have got to focus on the learning experience by getting attendees out of their seats and doing things they couldn't do in front of a computer screen. They want to be involved in their education, and they want the information to be relevant, otherwise they'll go somewhere else."

To that end, planners are revamping traditional lecture formats and integrating more member interaction, spontaneous peer-to-peer sharing and hands-on experiences. "Having someone spout research to a room is not education, it's information sharing," notes Hurt. "Association members are demanding a better experience, and they want something different than what they've seen in the past."

Following are examples of how new education formats can create unique experiences for attendees.

Conversations That Matter ASAEs annual meetingRecently, at ASAE–The Center for Association Leadership's annual meeting in St. Louis, conference organizers instituted a series dubbed "Conversations That Matter." These 75-minute sessions begin like a traditional lecture, with a content leader (or leaders) on stage presenting an idea to an audience seated at round tables. But after 15 or 20 minutes, the lecture stops and a room-wide discussion begins. For the next hour or so, the presenter becomes a facilitator, volleying comments and questions around the room and letting the audience steer the session.

This kind of open forum allows members to drive their own learning, according to Hurt. "Attendees are beginning to realize that there's just as much knowledge in the audience as there is onstage," he says.

"Our members are able to hear about the experiences of an entire room and listen to multiple perspectives on the same issue," says Anne Blouin, ASAE's senior vice president of education, who implemented the conversation format with great success last year at the association's annual meeting. Session topics have ranged from new technologies to diversity and generational issues. "After all," Blouin adds, "how often do you get a chance to discuss something with a whole room of your peers?"