An Education Revolution

By: Kim Fernandez

Associations are leaving behind the traditional education-session format and introducing interactive, lively, much shorter sessions—often minus the PowerPoint slides. Members are loving it.

Longtime conference attendees know the drill: three days in a large hotel or convention center, general sessions that precede education seminars that wrap around tradeshow hours, followed by cocktails and finger food at networking events, tied up in a neat bow with a closing event that involves dinner and music.

It's a formula that's worked for decades. Attendees get professional development opportunities and time to network with their peers, while the association gets to engage members in person, strengthening everyone's perception of the association's value.

It works well, except when it doesn't. And when a recession happens to intersect with the widespread adoption of technology that makes it possible for people to get that face time without spending money on airfare and hotel rooms, the traditional association meeting can feel a little stale.

What's an association meetings department to do? Shake things up. And that's exactly what they're doing—finding new ways to draw members in with education sessions and networking all bundled into one, exhibition halls that feel anything but traditional, and learning opportunities that ditch the PowerPoint presentation altogether in favor of something more exciting and real.

Several associations, large and small, have introduced new programming in recent years that has transformed their annual meetings, and often they didn't have to spend a lot of money to do so. Turn the page to learn how three organizations have revolutionized their education formats.

The Learning Lounge

Who: Jeff Hurt, executive vice president of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, worked with the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) and Freeman Exhibit Services.

When: 2011

The Basic Concept: PCMA's annual conference introduced four stages arranged in a circle that ran simultaneous, 15-minute presentations based on the popular TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk model that has taken the web by storm. At the same time, a "genius bar" (hat tip to the Apple Store) offered the chance to ask questions of live speakers, while the conversation was live-streamed to a worldwide audience.

The Details: Hurt came up with the idea after giving a lot of thought to how adults learn.

"Simpler and shorter is better," he says. "[P]eople have short attention spans. This gives adults the ability to not commit to a longer program. They can stand around and listen to an individual presentation if they want."

Hurt calls the concept a "learning playground" and says his other inspiration was the traditional school science fair. "We wanted to make this completely around the learning experience," he says. "People have choices, and the events come in short spurts."

For the first year, four stages were arranged in a circle. Presenters had 15 minutes onstage to talk and then were welcome to leave the stage and stand in the audience to continue conversations with individuals or small groups.

In 2012, the concept included an area equipped with 30 iPads. "There might be a topic such as sponsorship. So they'd be talking about apps—apps that were usable across the board," Hurt says. While the conversation was going on, attendees could be checking out those apps in real time.

In another area were screens that played recorded interviews. "We'd have a bank of four to 15 interviews on a topic," Hurt says. "The audience would decide which one they wanted to start with. They could fast forward, back up, or stop the video at any time and discuss it. The facilitator let them know that they were in charge and could let him know what they wanted to do." The small groups were a hit, he says, and those video presentations were the highest-rated segment of that year's conference.

"It resulted in these intimate discussions," he says. "If a general session speaker is really good, you want to put it on hold and talk about it—you're taking notes, but you really want to have a discussion with your team about what he or she just said. This was a way to bring in big-name thought leaders without having to pay fees, get customized content, and let those conversations happen naturally."

For the future, Hurt says, PCMA is taking the idea and running with it. "This was never something to be trademarked," he says. "I wanted to let people see how to do this differently and then use it at their own conferences. Twenty-five percent of the conference experience should be things you've never done before."

The learning lounge idea, Hurt says, has been a huge success for the group. "It doubled the amount of content going out, and it created more community-sized experiences instead of a general session of a few thousand folks," he says.

Genius Bars and Situation Rooms

Who: Texas Society of Association Executives (TSAE)

When: 2010

The Basic Concept: Genius bars modeled after those found in the Apple Store were set up between education sessions and during longer break times at TSAE's annual meeting. Once those succeeded, TSAE introduced the Situation Room, where CEOs could answer questions and explain case studies in an interactive setting.

The Details: "We made a concerted effort three years ago to take learning outside the classroom," says TSAE President Beth Brooks, CAE. "We do our best to bring high-quality breakout sessions to our conference, but we realized that our members like to learn from each other. That's really how people learn best."

The association stretched its between-session break times and encouraged people to use that time to talk with each other about what they learned and share solutions they could take home to tackle their own challenges. And from that came the genius bar.

"They started as technology demo stations," says Sonnia Montemayor, CAE, TSAE's education and knowledge resources director. "We asked our members [to] think of a problem an association person would face and solve it with technology."

"These are selected tech-type people we ask to come be front and center with our members," adds Brooks. "They can't just come here and show something. They have to solve something." It started simply, with demonstrations of social media for association leaders who hadn't yet embraced it.

Last year, the group introduced a CEO genius bar. "This was a place where seasoned CEOs and executives were available and open to answering questions people had about association management," says Brooks. "That's turned into the Situation Room." These are two breakout sessions where a cabinet of experts—seasoned CEOs—are given association problems to solve. "They dissect them and offer practical solutions," she says. "These are issues we hear about every week in our office."

This year, the group added an apps genius bar that let people come and learn about iPad apps from tech-savvy members who were already using them. "We always encourage our members to bring their tablets and mobile devices," says Brooks. "Now, we invite them to come to the genius bar and get help rather than trying to figure it all out themselves."

"It's incredible," says Montemayor. "The savvy people teach the ones who need help. It's great volunteer engagement for members who have a lot to give.

"There will always be a place in our conference for traditional breakout sessions where people are sitting in a room, learning from an instructor," she says. "But we want to give our attendees breathing space or white space, where they can absorb information from those sessions and talk about what they learned with other people who do what they do."

TSAE also recently introduced the iRoom, a room with plasma screens that can be used by anyone for any purpose. "This is where people can connect with others who have similar interests," says Montemayor. "When activities are not happening, the classroom is free and open for anyone to use. Anyone can bring a laptop in and hook it up to that big screen.

"Sometimes the best information you come back with is what you get when you talk with your colleagues in the hallway," she says. "We're embracing that."

Peer to Peer and SmartTalks

Who: National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE)

When: 2009

The Basic Concept: NACE replaced its traditional 70-minute education sessions with two new formats: interactive sessions that involved the audience, and high-energy, fast-paced events that combined 20- to 25-minute presentations with 40 minutes of interactive group discussions.

The Details: Peer to Peer started three years ago, when NACE asked its presenters to forget about their long PowerPoint presentations and think more interactively about their education sessions.

"We received a positive response," says Megan Ogden, noting that six or seven of the new presentations made it into the program that year. "Peer to Peer presentations have no PowerPoint at all. The topic is filed by a presenter, who sets goals and objectives for the audience. The presenter discusses the topic for a little while and then acts as a facilitator and guides discussion with the audience."

The result, Ogden says, is a high-energy session that lets attendees learn from each other, not just from a speaker on a stage. "Our members are a very conversation-based group," she says. "They like discussing best practices and trends and what keeps them up at night. They like brainstorming."

The reaction that first year was "overwhelmingly positive," she says. "We knew we had to continue to look at other formats and evolve this into something else."

This year, NACE added the SmartTalk. Modeled after the TED Talks, these 20- to 25-minute presentations can include a slideshow, followed by 40 minutes of audience participation and interactive group discussion. "The presenters had to learn how to incorporate activity into their presentations," she says. "We had to coach them. We got tips that we shared with the presenters in advance.

"We've really tried to make sure our attendees are getting a lot more interaction and participating in learning more than regular sessions," Ogden says. "The overall vibe we've gotten from attendees is that they love it. Nobody wants to sit through a 75-minute presentation anymore. This is the one time of year they have to really interact with their fellow attendees and find solutions for things they deal with every day."

The ideas came from staff and were readily approved by committee members, she says. "We're really excited by the response," she says. "We definitely took a chance, but everybody's really happy."

Kim Fernandez is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Maryland. Email: [email protected]

Kim Fernandez