Creative Conference Formats

How planners are finding new ways to engage and educate attendees

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?"


Ignite So-called Ignite learning sessions feature multiple speakers presenting at a rapidfire pace, creating a highly entertaining and sometimes frenzied atmosphere. Each speaker prepares 20 slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds, forcing him or her to create a choreographed presentation that is short and concise. If they start lagging on a point and the slides advance without them, they are forced to make up for lost time, often resulting in candid moments of good-natured anxiety. Speakers are encouraged to use their slides as illustrations, rather than crutches, and presentations tend to lean toward personal moments of enlightenment that may or may not directly relate to specific workplace issues.

Aaron Wolowiec, founder and president of Event Garde, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based professional development consulting company, recently hosted such a session for an association conference that was based on the theme of "transformation," during which four Ignite presentations alternated with a seven-minute Q&A with the speakers, giving audience members an opportunity to interact and ask more business-oriented questions.

"Ignite allows individuals with varying degrees of experience and background the opportunity to share their passion, their causes and their meaningful moments with other attendees," says Wolowiec. The program, which can be produced during a session or in a more casual environment like an evening event or even a keynote, is more personal and allows attendees to unwind a bit. "You might not walk away with a million great ideas," says Anne Blouin, who uses the Ignite format during ASAE's annual meetings, "but it's a fun way to transfer information, and sometimes attendees need that after a long day."

Jam sessions Anyone who's been to a content-rich conference knows it can be difficult to retain all of information imparted throughout a long day. Jam sessions are intended to help attendees reflect on previous sessions by taking a step back to decompress. "The best learning always takes place in the hallways, where we get to debrief," notes Hurt. "If we don't let attendees think about what they're engaging in, then it's not learning."

A jam session typically is scheduled at the end of the day or conference, with members grouped by area of expertise or the education track they attended (e.g., marketing or mobile technology), says Carol McGury, senior vice president of education and learning services with association management company SmithBucklin, who has helped implement this program with various clients. Initially, attendees sit in rounds, with a discussion initiated by a facilitator who provides leading questions to help reinforce key concepts and recurring themes that stood out during the day. Participants are then regrouped based on their biggest takeaway, allowing them to engage in highly targeted conversations specific to their priorities.

World café The world café format is designed to tackle one major issue that affects an entire industry. For example, when the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association needed to address how members could compete with larger "big box" retailers, they held a world café session titled "Possibilities Café: A Conversation About Our Future" following lunch on the first day of a recent toy show.

The process began with a brief introduction and leading question about the problem of smaller retailers challenged to complete in a changing marketplace.  Attendees, seated at tables of four to encourage an informal café-style meeting, were asked to discuss the topic for 20 minutes. Once time was up, three participants from each table moved to a different table and repeated the process. One participant at each table stayed put to function as "table host" and review what concepts were discussed during the previous rounds. 

"This format is designed to allow for a cross-pollination of ideas," says Kathleen Edwards of Learning Evangelist, who implemented the toy show's Possibilities Café. "New ideas arise, and you don't quite know where they came from because seeds might have been planted at several different tables from several different group combinations. The room together is smarter than everyone individually." A typical world café needs a minimum of 16 people and at least two or three hours for participants to dig through an issue and for ideas to surface, Edwards notes.

Learning groupA learning group functions in 15-minute sessions held several times throughout the day. Attendees are assigned to groups of three, tailored to their levels of experience and areas of expertise. For the duration of the conference, members disperse for sessions then reconvene at prearranged times, bringing with them questions, concerns and potential topics of interest.

"This format gives attendees a familiar and consistent home base where they can get comfortable with their groups and make meaning out of what they are learning," says Aaron Wolowiec, who helped implement this format during a recent Michigan health-care association conference.

Groups can be given leading questions to encourage dialogue or can have free rein to drive their own discussions. Wolowiec says learning groups work best at lecture-heavy conferences, where attendees don't get many opportunities  to interact.

The App ArcadeApp Arcade at the CoreNet Global SummitEspecially when it comes to technology, hands-on sessions are increasingly popular. During CoreNet Global's 2012 conference in San Diego, organizers set up an App Arcade with iPads chained to love seats and couches so attendees who didn't own or bring their own tablet or other personal gizmo could still get a hands-on experience (without walking off with the gadget). "It's a basic learning principle: We learn better when we do," says Jeff Hurt. "This format allows members not only to receive information, but also to apply it on the spot."

The App Arcade offered 30-minute demonstrations of relevant apps specifically related to the world of corporate real estate. For those associations where a hands-on experience might be difficult to apply within the confines of a conference center, Hurt recommends having attendees visualize going through the motions. "The brain doesn't know when something is real or fake, so if association members can imagine performing the action or walking through a process step-by-step out loud, that's a form of learning."

Flash Learning Room
Most education agendas can't help but omit at least some topics of interest to some people, so at its recent conference, ASAE set up a designated space known as the Flash Learning Room, where any attendee could lead his or her own session. Interested organizers signed up for time slots and were responsible for marketing their session over social media platforms. Keeping it simple, conference directors set up the room with chairs, tables and a sign-up sheet, and not much else.

"This format is popular because it's entirely self-directed," says ASAE's Anne Blouin. "A session might not attract hundreds of people, but it could become a really great intimate discussion with a handful of passionate people on a topic that wouldn't otherwise be offered."

Fish bowl No, this does not involve being immersed in water. Rather, attendees, armed with questions and concerns based on a predetermined issue, stand facing each other in two concentric circles. Those in the outer circle pose a question to their counterparts in the inner circle, who then provide feedback based on their own experience. After five minutes, the two circles shift to the right or left and the process repeats.

"In this way, everyone gets a chance to ask questions and receive one-on-one feedback in a very personalized and customized manner," says Jeff Hurt. "This is a chance to hear multiple views on the same subject from a variety of people about whatever is relevant to that specific participant."