aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

Life Support Can Be Expensive

Posted by Ellen on March 27, 2010

Didn’t think your conference sessions need life support? In Jeff Hurt’s Midcourse Corrections post, “The Conference Session is Dead,”  he writes, “The conference session is a triumph of standardization and it is so ingrained in our thinking we still buy and sell seat time rather than performance improvement.”

He is so right.

In his discussion — and the great comments posted by others — lots of reasons for the stagnancy are mentioned and deconstructed.

One I didn’t see mentioned is $$.

Fact: Many associations rely on conferences/conventions to generate a significant part of their annual non-dues revenue.

Fact: Conferences/conventions are a twisted mutation of business meetings and educational events, both of which have sprouted arms and legs from their foreheads.

Fact: Every conference relies on the generosity of their sponsors and their booth space sales to generate their revenue goals.

Fact: Sponsors make those donations and vendors make booth space commitments based on attendance predictions — the higher the number of attendees, the more likely the money will pour in. [For more on sponsorship connections to conferences, Brian Birch has some ideas at Acronym .]

Fact: The more attendees an event attracts, the more difficult it is to design and lead effective educational events.

Fact: Associations are less willing than they should be to part with the $$ necessary to make those educational sessions true learning events.


A few years back, the education committee decided to offer a pre-conference event for our foodservice members that focused on Web 2.0 options. Because our members were all at colleges and universities, some were already starting to use podcasts and Twitter to promote daily specials, and other members were curious about how they were doing it. Great fit, right?

I’ll cut to the chase:

Few sponsors saw a link that was direct enough for them to donate funding. Even though we explained that the same decision-makers would be in the room, they opted out. They didn’t say so, but my guess is that they didn’t see any potential podium time.

So we didn’t have much funding to operate with.

I envisioned at least four break-out sessions, each highly interactive: podcasts in one, blog and Twitter in another, using social networking like Facebook in yet another. We’d have laptops set up so all attendees could play along as the session leader talked them through examples and gave them opportunities to try everything on their own.

Peers would lead the sessions so members would learn from each other. The environment would be set for a free exchange of who’s doing what, why, how. The underlying assumption would be, “If I can do it, you can do it” which breaks down any resistance to learning some feel with technical topics when “experts” lead sessions.

Well, most of our session leaders were peers, but things generally didn’t work out the way we’d planned for several reasons:

  • Internet connections in the hotel meeting rooms were exhorbitantly expensive
  • Laptop rentals were difficult to find locally 


We combined the most Internet-interactive sessions into one room to save wifi costs. We used small-group discussion and other methods of collaboration in other breakouts to engage the learners. Powerpoint presentations were verbotin.


Less than optimal, based on what I was envisioning. But the feedback on the session was the best I’d seen for any we’d ever done. The attendees, after all, didn’t see the planning, just the outcome, so they didn’t know what they were missing.

Attendees appreciated the highly interactive sessions and — naturally — took a lot away from them that they put to immediate use.


We lost money on that session. When I looked the executive director in the eye and said, “But it was one of the best learning experiences in a pre-conference they’ve ever had,” he agreed that it was worth it.

Unfortunately, no organization can do that too often.

So yes, we want to offer more interactive sessions.

Yes, we want to engage our learners.

No, conferences are not the ideal place for that.

But the fact remains that money drives everything, and until there’s another financial model, these are the facts we’ll have to live with.

In the meantime, we’ll have to keep finding ways to trick the system.

That’s our life support for the time being.

17 Responses to “Life Support Can Be Expensive”

  1. Jeff Hurt said


    Thanks for continuing the discussion on your blog. You identifed the quandry that many associations struggle with, especially since their annual meetings and conferences are seen as revenue generating sources. Yes, money drives everything and therein lies the challenge. I agree, it’s our life support for the time being.

  2. Brad Kent said

    As Jeff said, thanks for continuing the discussion.

    There are some things you mentioned that I’m not sure I agree on as “facts”, and others I do agree on. Events are the large financial engines of associations for sure. The funding model has been in place a long time, because it works.

    There is also a lot of duplication out in the marketplace, and sponsors are being asked more and more to “cough up the dough” and pay for the education of others. Because of the duplication, sponsors are having to be more selective. As their revenues have dropped, and their marketing dollars are a % of revenue, the selectivity has had to increase.

    Education, whether at the college level or in the areas of continuing education is expensive. Good education is more expensive. The model of having everything provided to us, as learners (and I’m often a learning attendee and a sponsor), for $25, which includes the education, rental of the facility/furnishings/energy, wifi connections, continental breakfast, lunch, and breaks is getting tougher in some industries.

    As a sponsor, I can tell you it is not always about stage time. There are the issues of whether or not an organization or event aligns with my current goals; Does the organization have similar vision and mission and goals as my organization for the long term? Does my association with this organization help me grow as a professional, or my organization grow in its objectives? In the make-up of the audience, are the attendees the market segment or sub-segment we are attempting to have a conversation with, and will this event allow me to do that?

    There are a lot of factors other than stage time that are important to sponsors. There is also, often, the issue of timing. Are you coming at me for a sponsorship for an event that is a “pop-up” and is outside my budgeting cycle? Are decisions necessary for your sponsor, in order to fund this initiative, to pull money from other initiatives he/she had planned to support? How transparent was the organizations annual plan to its sponsors? Do you go to them once per year with an annual plan after discussion with them around their goals, and present a proposal that includes that event and shows how it aligns?

    Many associations come to sponsors multiple times throughout a year asking for money. That model also isn’t working.

    Finally, we as learners are going to have to realize that the days of “Free” conventions and education are an older model as well. Several associations I know of are now charging $250 registration fees where they had $0.00 before (medical association), because in the past they felt their dues should cover education. However, the money isn’t there any more, and instead of raising dues, the event fees are really “user fees” (like a tollway) and should be funded by those that get the direct benefit.

    So, as you say and Jeff says above, it’s our life support for the time being. New models are needed and necessary, but that’s not always a bad thing.

    Thanks for creating the conversation!

  3. Ellen said

    Jeff — Thanks for raising the topic to begin with! Love your blog — always gets me thinking!

    Brad — I appreciate your providing the sponsor’s perspective on this, and I completely agree on the points you raise! The issues you mention were — in whole or in part — at the source of many of the problems we had.

    Relationships between associations and their sponsoring organizations is a delicate one at best — one that requires nurturing and understanding from both sides.

    We would all do well to implement the suggestions you make to reduce the number of handouts requested per year, provides better expectations and lead time around the events we seek sponsors for, and promote the events that help the learners/attendees appreciate the increased role sponsors must take these days to make such programs possible.

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