Staying Ahead of the Learning CurveAugust 1, 2013

Trends in Delivering Effective Education Programs By
August 1, 2013

Staying Ahead of the Learning Curve

Trends in Delivering Effective Education Programs
Attendees interact with their iPads during an American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Foundation education program. Credit: AAO-HNSF and The Photo Group

Attendees interact with their iPads during an American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Foundation education program. Credit: AAO-HNSF and The Photo Group

As a leading revenue producer for associations and their events, education programs have never been more important. An education program is a key driver of association membership and event attendance, but in our ever-changing world, there is an increasing array of educational resources potentially competing with “live” educational experiences, and planners and association education program managers are under newly intensified pressure to ensure that the distinctiveness of that live experience is not diminished.

“Everyone in the association industry is working twice as hard to prove the value of their educational content, and to provide valuable content to their members and meeting attendees,” says Amy Ledoux, CMP, CAE, senior vice president, meetings and expositions, ASAE The Center for Association Leadership. “What we are seeing, within our (ASAE) members, is that there is so much change in organizational environments, but there is more pressure to make education relevant to members. Education is one of the most valuable things an association can provide, and it is what their members tend to value the most.”

Creating educational opportunities, according to Heather Rhoderick, CMP, MBA, director, events and education, American Composites Manufacturers Association, is one of the core components of her organization. For her profession’s largest annual conference, “Exhibits and networking are the top attendance drivers, followed by education,” she says, “However, over the past four years, education continues to gain in importance with attendees. It is becoming more of a reason they are attending our trade show.”

“Everyone in the association industry is working twice as hard to prove the value of their educational content, and to provide valuable content to their members and meeting attendees.”

— Amy Ledoux, CMP, CAE, Senior Vice President, Meetings and Expositions, ASAE, Washington, DC

Core Mission

Why this growing importance of education as enticement to attend an annual event? “Attendees are expected to come back with solutions and ideas, and companies spending travel and expense budgets to send attendees to events want to be sure that their employees are taking advantage of all the event has to offer,” says Rhoderick.

In many professions, life-long training not only sharpens your competitive edge in tight job markets, but is a requirement to actually work. “Education is one of our core reasons for existence,” agrees Mary Pat Cornett, CAE, CMP, senior director, education and meetings, American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. “In addition to their constant learning to improve practice and patient care, otolaryngologists face increased need for education to keep up with changes in the business of medicine due to health care reform, medical technology, and requirements for measuring and reporting outcomes as well as changes in certification and licensing.”

“Engaging in professional development offered by experts in one’s field is one of the core reasons to participate in an association,” says Lydia Kamicar, manager, education and learning services, SmithBucklin. “In the medical profession, standards and requirements for licensure and board specialty practice have become much more defined in recent years as medical boards and state licensing entities have started to align their competencies in an effort to standardize continuing education requirements in professional practice. Non-medical education has followed suit, recognizing that defining core competencies and standards of practice lead to improved performance and job outcomes in any profession. This has led to an increased interest in formal certification even in non-medical fields.”

Avoiding Cuts

When education is the main reason for an association and its events, cutting that component seems not to be an issue. “We have cut nothing,” says Frank E. Gainer, MHS, OTR/L, FAOTA, CAE, director of conferences, American Occupational Therapy Association Inc. “We have to offer a breadth of sessions in order to meet the various needs of our attendees. If anything we are increasing our budget in the logistical support to put on our educational sessions. We are offering more educational sessions, including posters (pictured on page 46), so this takes more space.”

In the current belt-tightening climate, “Education has fared rather well, because even as budgets are being cut, the emphasis is being placed on investing in meaningful programs for the association membership,” says Ellie Hurley, senior manager, event services, SmithBucklin. “Many times this means training opportunities. The justification to attend events is getting more competitive, so investing in building a strong education program could actually gain the association more membership/attendance revenue if they focus in on their core membership needs.”

Stay Fresh

Even though most association education programs seemed to have dodged the blade of the budget-cutting knife, planners still feel the pressure to avoid a seminar rut. Education must evolve in order to continually attract attendees. “Don’t fall into the trap of ‘we did this event last year and it worked, so we’ll do it again’,” warns Rhoderick. “Work to set new goals and continue to refresh events and education so it is clear to the audience that the information is new. One of the biggest challenges in continuing to produce quality and timely education is identifying the topics and finding new — and good — speakers or content experts.”

What sort of homework assignments should planners complete to ensure professionals realize they must attend a convention for its education programs? Rhoderick recommends: “Reading industry publications, mining social media sites, working with your association magazine, and talking to your members are all important. Education managers and planners need to understand the industry and stay appraised of the issues.”

According to Cornett, the most effective method of keeping content fresh, thus consistently attractive to attendees, is to encourage participant feedback, stay abreast of trends and be open to new ideas. “Read evaluations to see what your attendees are telling you. Attend other meetings in your business, outside your business and within the meetings industry. Listen to the people with crazy ideas. Some of them are a glimpse into the future.”

In our wired, mobile computing world where the time span for relevant data seems to shrink every business quarter, new information and relevant data are vital. “Just in time” is the hot new phrase among planners, which refers to up-to-the minute training, with content that is exclusive and topical. Ledoux is hearing from association executives that members are demanding more just-in-time programming. “Organizations are responding to the needs of members, and are working twice as hard to prove the value of their content,” she says. “Just-in-time programming takes more time and research, but it draws in attendees because it is information available nowhere else.”

In addition, attendees are attracted not just by the fresh content of seminars, workshops, classes and other educational programs, but by new and innovative formats delivering that content. “Some groups are offering more opportunities for different audiences at their events to maximize their time out of the office, including boot camps on the front or back ends, education on the show floor or hands-on learning labs,” says Kamicar.

Facility Expectations

With education being such a crucial revenue source, and becoming more intertwined with networking, the exhibition floor, general sessions and other event components, planners now have higher expectations of greater input by facility and destination personnel on education. When it comes to education, facility staff often had an attitude of benign neglect, but with so much riding on how effective the education program of a meeting is, planners are calling for more specific attention by facility personnel on those programs.

For starters, Gainer says, facility and destination personal must: “Ensure we have enough space for what we need to do. If there is another group using adjoining space, ensure that we both respect each others needs, for example, no loud music to disrupt the other meeting.”

Facilities are adept at making sure simultaneous events can coexist in terms of foot traffic and allocating meeting space, but often they overlook the exacting demands of education and optimizing the use of multiple meeting rooms for these training and informational purposes. “If multiple groups are in close proximity, the CSM (Client Services Manager) is the one that can help them work together to ensure success,” says Hurley. “For example, if one group is doing test-taking, and the other group has a comedian, the CSM can help coordinate/suggest different timing or moving the rooms so they don’t interfere with each other. The CSM also knows their facility best. They know if certain rooms have louder AC units, or you can hear the kitchen, etc.”

Hurley also recommends that from site selection to final planning, facility and destination staff should be well-informed specifically about the educational needs. Planners should encourage them to offer ideas as well as solutions and other assistance. “The destination can help suggest unique venues for education,” she continues. “For example, a medical group may want to go to a local lab. Or a technology group may want to take advantage of the local corporate office. Or there simply may be a unique venue that gets the audience out of the lecture-style format.”

“Destinations should consider ways to better connect local business to events, in terms of helping to identify education content that is specific and unique to the destination,” says Rhoderick. “While this certainly could not happen with every event, there are times when an association may be looking for a speaker from a business that may not be in the industry, but can still share insights on a common business challenge. For example, there may be businesses in the area that have won local awards for marketing or management who could share their insights.”

What it comes down to is the level of communication between planners and facility and destination personnel about how to best accomplish the education mission of the event. “Don’t just order Internet, explain what you are doing,” says Hurley. “For example, will all 1,200 event attendees be trying to access or download a video at the same time? Or are you streaming a keynote session and need to ensure a flawless feed? Often the IT techs know details about bandwidth, etc. that the planner may not know.”

At the top of the planner’s list of facility expectations for their educational considerations is a dependable, wide-scale technological infrastructure in place to meet contemporary education demands, and not accompanied by exorbitant add-on costs. “With so many attendees and exhibitors on smartphones, social media is accessible and instant,” says Rhoderick. “Attendees want this access, and this can help to complement the program — through immediate response equipment or social sites — and having smartphones work on all carriers and having easy and cheap Web access allows this. It also keeps attendees at the venue and not back in their hotel room checking emails.”

“We network our session rooms and need to tap into a fast, reliable infrastructure,” says Cornett. “Our attendees, staff and vendors are dependent on reliable Wi-Fi. People expect to be able to connect to their home and office anywhere, anytime. Wi-Fi is no longer a luxury and can no longer be priced as such. We are currently enamored with digital signage and video walls as new ways to communicate with attendees and enhance the meeting environment. We’d like facilities to treat these as basic needs rather than revenue opportunities.”

Technology Competition

As a main draw for a convention, education is a leading generator of revenue. But this position some feel may soon be threatened by other sources of education, such as new virtual technologies — webinars and other online training programs — which are often offered by the association.

Planners feel that any conflict between live and virtual education is minimal. “Our education program contributes positively to the bottom line of the association,” says Rhoderick. “There are very few times we will provide education that does not generate profit. However, we do struggle to find the correct balance of the education we provide to our members as part of their member dues versus the education we make available for a fee to the entire industry.”

Even so, Rhoderick emphasizes, “I don’t see technology as a competitor to education or face-to-face events. ” She advises using online options as a marketing tool for the convention. “Technology can help you introduce a new audience to your content and value without asking them to spend a lot of time or money.”

The trend is toward utilizing the technology to enhance the actual live educational event. “The perception that your meetings will be negatively affected by adding virtual elements is just that — the perception,” says Hurley. “The reality is that companies who used to send several individuals to a conference might now only be able to send one or two. From what we’ve experienced, membership activity is increased when more avenues to experience the content are available. Streaming a keynote live from a conference, for instance, lets people still feel connected and excited about not missing out on the event next year.”

The recommended approach toward technology options, however, is less is more and to think about it in terms of marketing, not as a replacement for the live event experience. “The key is to pick and choose,” Hurley continues. “Offer one track out of 10 as a virtual offering, or stream one keynote instead of all events to show that there is much more to the onsite experience than a virtual attendee is receiving. We suggest to our clients that promotion of virtual events is saved until closer to the conference to maximize your promotion of the onsite experience above the virtual component.”

“By capturing content at the events, you are also ensuring that the program is expanding and enduring beyond the dates of the conference,” says Kamicar. “By recording great content already delivered as a conference session, the resources in your on-demand library begin to grow through this re-purposing.”

In 2013, ASAE will cease offering take-home audio CD sessions, which were part of some attendee packages. “The technology is older and is not that popular anymore,” says Anne Blouin, CAE, chief learning officer, ASAE, who added that the organization will replace these recordings with a more cutting-edge format, although, it is not ready to release that information publicly. Webinars and some educational seminars are available through streaming and other capture technology, “but not the all the sessions, which would be cost-prohibitive. You do not want to duplicate what you do live, but use that content to supplement and promote.”

Expanding Offerings

Indeed, while technology can enhance and extend the live education experience, for an association it remains a key foundation to event organizing. Gainer says that the main driver for attendance at the organization’s annual conference (“three of the four largest annual conferences we have had have been in the last three years,” he says) has been education. “Our members value face-to-face,” he says. “Our attendees come to our annual conference for the educational sessions and to network.”

In order to accommodate more advanced professionals, some organizations created additional meetings that feature more exclusive — and specialized — content. “We are now offering three specialty conferences a year,” says Gainer, “We used to do one or two. We find that attendees are more experienced practitioners — and prefer the in-depth knowledge of the specialty conferences. These attendees tend not to go to an annual conference.”

With the right content, customized for a targeted demographic within a profession, adding events creates more excitement within the profession and actually augments attendance at the main convention. “The specialty conferences have not hurt attendance at our annual conference,” says Gainer, adding that in 2007, the organization started a National Student Conclave, which is held each fall and features content that caters to younger professionals. “We have found that the student conclave has increased student participation at our annual conference,” Gainer explains.

While creating a separate event to accommodate increased demand for education, Kamicar warns that the mission of each event should be made distinct from the offerings identified with the annual meeting. “If separate events are created, it is key to have a clear direction for the event,” she says. “ What are the goals for this meeting? What audience is this event going to attract? How will we know if this new event is a success?”

Celebrity Downsizing

Cost-cutting may not be as drastic in educational programs as in other segments of a meeting, but ROI-conscious planners have implemented measures that have made an overall program leaner. The most common is getting the most out of speakers. “By working with speakers to deliver multiple workshops or sessions at your event, you may see some cost savings,” says Kamicar. “Sometimes associations feel as though they need a big name speaker to be a draw for attendees, and the investment in keynote speakers can be huge. But often a strong message or relevant content for the organization can be more meaningful to the people in the audience, so think about the themes most important to your membership and look at booking your keynotes according to content and delivery.”

In fact, speaker spending may be the one area of education most impacted. “The name speakers are not attracting attendees like they used to,” says Blouin. “People want speakers relevant to their professions, not just a famous celebrity. And, they want more access to these experts than just a general session.” AC&F

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