Many say it’s the single most important component of a conference and the primary reason members attend — yet when it comes down to it, attendees don’t always embrace it or even show up.
Never mind that it’s required by some industries and desired by most, and that the deeper employees dive into it, the higher the salary they are likely to command.
There is no one right way to do it. Current technology is critical — or not. Short is better than long — or not. Making it interactive is a game-changer — or not.
So how do associations and planners integrate education into conferences with a high likelihood of success? In part that depends on how they view education and their ability to take advantage of trends currently impacting conference learning.
“It’s the experiential and networking components of a conference, rather than formal structuring, that can really make the educational value of the conference experience sticky, aid in retention or sense-making and keep participants excited about coming back for more.”
— Rhonda Payne
Rhonda Payne, CAE, chief learning officer with ASAE, says one of the biggest changes is how attendees make use of what they learn at conferences. “If we look back a few years, people came to your conference, attended sessions about a bunch of new things, some of it they enjoyed, some of what they enjoyed they even learned, but then went home and that was that. For learning and development professionals, the big tragedy in this cycle is a phenomenon we call scrap learning — learning where satisfaction is high and new knowledge is transferred but in the weeks and months after the conference the session content is not applied. When your conference attendees can’t put what they’ve learned into practice, the impact of the event remains at a surface level and ultimately time and money is wasted.”
Payne believes today’s conference trends are changing that. “Top things that come to mind include increasing use of educational technology (virtual reality, wearables, competency-based adaptive learning, mobile first) and increased peer learning (social, mobile learning engagement during an event including matching tools that facilitate knowledge-sharing face-to-face, or use of apps, social tools, live streaming to share themes and content beyond an event to a community of participants not physically present).”
Other trends Payne sees include format changes such as fewer, more high-impact sessions and more interactive workshop formats; thought leadership from outside the given industry; session content leveraged into white papers, articles, blog posts, podcasts, videos and visuals/infographics and shared as part of a year-round content strategy; and more sophisticated expectations around learning outcomes and ROI, such as beacons and assessments that assist in data/learner analytics.
No stranger to education, Kelly Peacy, CAE, CMP, is the former senior vice president education and events at PCMA and now founder/CEO of Insight Event Strategy, an Austin-based company offering, among other things, ideation workshops and education/program content analysis and consultation. Peacy notes that multiple generations with diverse backgrounds and levels of experience attending the same conferences drive trends. “Clearly there can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach,” she says. “I’m seeing a focus on takeaways and immediate application of what’s being learned. I’m also seeing more informal places for people to gather and discuss the content as well as quiet spots for people to organize their thoughts and next steps. The idea is to have a variety of content and content engagement to suit a variety of preferences.”
Kismet Saglam, MS Ed and a certified credentialing specialist, is director of education for Kellen, which manages more than 125 trade associations, professional societies and charitable organizations. She says the days when straight didactic lecturing was enough to engage learners are gone, and association leaders must find new ways to deliver content. “We need to move learners further on the continuum to make an intentional decision to attend ‘our’ education events because they derive the most out of them from a growth perspective. The general trends in education today focus on promoting learner self-awareness as a springboard for change. They have to ask the question, ‘What am I missing, and how can I close that gap?’ ”
The bar, she says, is set higher now in terms of engagement. “Education planners need to move away from selecting speakers based on the ‘Who’s Who’ of an association. They must take risks and invite people to speak who can engage learners, spark changes in their performance and subsequently lead them to make an impact in their field. Education sessions need to be delivered in shorter time segments with frequent opportunities to test not only knowledge but application. These sessions should be interactive beyond audience response systems or group discussions. Learning should continue outside of the classroom and connect people in ways that promote community engagement where peers have access to each other after they pack up and leave the conference.
“Hands-on, task- and performance-based education should be more the norm rather than the exception,” Saglam continues. “Getting people to work collaboratively to solve problems in a setting such as an annual meeting has the potential to create outstanding outcomes by bringing the best minds together in a quasi think-tank environment.”
Rebecca Turner, vice president of education, professional development and training services for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), says education is an attendance-driver for IAAPA’s large conferences and trade shows. “Our education programs offer unique learning environments a person will only get from the hands-on, in-the-field experiences,” she says. “Plus, information-sharing is an essential part of long-term learning, and conferences provide multiple opportunities to grow your knowledge network.”
Turner hopes that everyone who attends IAAPA education programs will gain at least one new idea or new learning they can implement immediately to better their company and career.
Payne also sees education as an attendance-driver. “Educational sessions are the most obvious motivation for most people who attend conferences, and, given the quantity of conferences out there, prospective attendees would be hard-pressed to garner employer support to attend without extremely compelling learning content in this formal context.”
Yet, Payne notes, “it’s the experiential and networking components of a conference, rather than formal structuring, that can really make the educational value of the conference experience sticky, aid in retention or sense-making and keep participants excited about coming back for more.”
Implementing successful programs, however, isn’t easy. There are major challenges for planners to overcome.
“Competition for attendees and their dollars is ever present,” Saglam says. “Cutbacks on funding travel, a narrowing pool of educational grants and sponsorships and the availability of ‘free’ education are factors we contend with. Staying relevant within our respective spheres of influence means trying new things and being willing to take risks and let change happen,” she continues. “Staying with a tried-and-true model may be less uncomfortable; however, change is inevitable so planners need to embrace it rather than resist it. If we build it and they don’t come, then what? We can’t wait for it to happen before we react.”
Turner says IAAPA’s biggest challenge “tends to be time and resources — and not just our time and resources, but also the time and resources of our speakers. Another challenge,” she says, “is finding a way to offer the right mix of topics to address the needs of members today as well as sessions that look ahead to anticipate future issues.”
Time also is a factor for Payne. “In order to develop content for large major conferences, we do this work months and even years out. But the speed at which society is moving makes it hard, then, for the event content to reflect the current pulse by the time the conference date arrives,” she says.
Not surprising given the depth and breadth of associations and conferences, there’s no one right strategy for success.
“The important thing,” Payne says, “is to first determine what you want to accomplish and then leverage the best strategies to reach the goal. Sometimes a call for proposals is the right way to go. Sometime curating content from other sources or subject experts makes more impact. And there is often a need to go even further and design conference-session content from scratch.”
Turner’s strategy includes attendee surveys to learn exactly what attendees want and why they attend, as well as diverse content. “We do our best to offer a balance of what’s trending along with business staples and new programming along with evergreen sessions. Attendees can participate in everything from in-depth, multiday programs to behind-the-scenes EDUtours and general education sessions.”
Saglam points to the need for data and analytics. “If we are doing this right, we are offering variety in the length of sessions, diversity of content, technology, etc. But we need to take a step back and ask ourselves what data is driving our decisions in the first place?”
Many associations, she notes, follow a “formulaic process of education planning that keeps things the same year after year. But even associations that have enjoyed higher-than-average attendance with the traditional model will start to be impacted by trends (generational motivation, competition for education dollars, changes in education best practices) whether they get out ahead of them or not,” she says. “In order to make data-driven decisions about what to plan and how to plan, we need to start measuring the value of our education over time.
“It’s not just asking about learner satisfaction and the overall conference or education sessions,” Saglam says. “We are measuring their engagement and providing them with personalized data so they can plan their own educational goals. We advocate for our education planners to focus on addressing the things we need to be teaching year after year as foundational knowledge in an interactive way. Then we work with them so they take a more longitudinal approach to gathering data from our learners so our education is relevant to them over time and as their educational needs change and careers evolve. This is transformative planning that will drive education strategy.”
Peacy also believes research is critical. “Personalization of the content and the overall experience is often talked about but can be tough to execute,” she says. “Planners need to take advantage of what research is out there, such as brain science. The way we are currently being bombarded with information and stimuli, we really can’t focus for very long without losing interest. So, does that mean much shorter sessions with one key takeaway? Or do your participants want to connect and learn from each other? What’s the best way to get them to do that? Conference attendees are looking for something that they can’t find elsewhere, so how can you deliver it?”
Associations and conference leaders have been grappling with generational differences for years. But it may be less of a divide than you think.
Payne says that the fundamental drivers for adult learners are largely consistent, regardless of age. “Millennials are seen as an internet-surfing, Snap-chatting, texting, tweeting, Googling, Facebooking and Periscoping generation,” she says. “But aren’t many adults of all ages? I’m not suggesting that a generational divide in terms of the volume of use of electronic media isn’t a real one. Research has proven as much. I am suggesting that the ways in which education professionals need to adapt (e.g. retooling traditional lectures, teaching inside and outside the classroom, using collaborative peer-learning approaches) can benefit millennials and non-millennials alike.”
Peacy, too, sees overlap among the three main generations attending conferences — millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers. “Yes, you have three different levels of work experience, life experience and expectations,” she says. “However, as much as we want to put generalizations on how each of these groups wants to experience conferences, it’s not that easy. Many boomers are tech savvy and love learning from millennials on the latest tech. Many millennials grew up being educated in collaborative, group-like settings, so they’re accustomed to learning and engaging in small groups; but then how do you address those introverts who would rather learn independently? It’s about offering a variety of learning experiences and guiding participants in a way that helps them find what they are looking for.”
Saglam says that regardless of attendee age, traditional education models are no longer adequate. “Yes, there is a greater emphasis on the use of social media to engage younger members at conferences. Offering networking opportunities with peers as well as top-level executives is more and more important. Additionally, millennials tend to require more involvement and feedback from instructors, supervisors and peers, so this needs to be considered and integrated as a deliberate part of planning. Millennials also tend to prefer less structured learning environments with group-based, practice learning. Interestingly, this intersects nicely with what boomers and Gen Xers need more of today, so this can create a level playing field whereby people from various career levels interact in a meaningful way and learn from each other.”
In spite of its ubiquitous presence in human lives, technology is only one tool in an educator’s engagement arsenal.
“Having state-of-the-art technology can be an important factor when that technology plays a significant role in how participants learn the content,” Saglam notes, pointing to the use of technology for teaching the latest surgical techniques and other medical innovations to doctors, as well as more conventional technology including audience response systems. However, she says, “The focus on bells and whistles should not overshadow basic principles. Education does not have to be ‘wired’ to be innovative.”
Peacy agrees. “Technology can be an enhancer to your education sessions, but I don’t believe it’s a ‘must have’ in every situation. Any time you bring people together in an engaging environment who want to share and learn, you can have effective education, no tech required. There are times, however, when technologies such as second-screen mobile engagement at a session can keep people’s interest and allow organizers to collect valuable data about participants. That’s a win-win for all.”
And sometimes, technology matters. “Using current technology tools is critical in terms of credibility today,” Payne says. “Participants are surrounded by great tech in every other realm so their expectations are no different when it comes to the conference learning experience.”
Generational differences and job trends have impacted the certification side of education.
“Certification programs have proliferated as standards have become increasingly important and as competition for jobs increases,” Saglam says. “There are other generationally related factors as well. Younger people coming into professional fields do not necessarily stay in them, meaning their investment in long-term certification may not be as imperative. Relative to this point, the emergence of micro-credentialing is impacting the certification industry, and many associations are taking a closer look at offering this as a steppingstone to high-stakes certifications or as a way to expand their credentialing reach to members who focus more and more on specific competencies or subspecialties within their industries.”
Case in point: IAAPA launched its own credentialing program two years ago to help industry professionals set their career apart from others. Turner says members can earn credit hours toward one of IAAPA’s three professional designations by participating in education offered throughout the year, including conference programs. The three levels of certification are IAAPA Certified Attractions Manager (ICAM), IAAPA Certified Attractions Leader (ICAL) and IAAPA Certified Attractions Executive (ICAE).
The challenge is that programs often must meet the needs of attendees seeking certification and those who are not. “Ensuring that the content you may be curating from scratch meets the certification requirements for credit is one challenge,” Peacy says. “Sometimes, however, you want to offer strong content that doesn’t match certification requirements, yet you believe it’s valuable for your participants. It’s a challenge to balance those who are following a certification track and those who just want good information.”
In the end, education programming can meet those different requirements as long as planners do their research and fully understand the needs of participants on both tracks. Conference education can and should provide ongoing value for all attendees and for associations themselves. AC&F