aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

Why Conference Education Sucks

Posted by Ellen on May 21, 2011

Okay, maybe it doesn’t totally suck, but that word always gets attention, and it’s close enough to the truth to be a legit title for this post.

You need to know that I served my association faithfully as its education director and organized my share of sessions for our national conference. So why would I say what I was doing sucked?

I wouldn’t. Like many association education leaders, I did the best with what we had: volunteers with limited time and experience as organizers and facilitators, a budget so narrow we could only fit through it sideways, and a timeline squeezed with other responsibilities and demands.

All of this, and — in the end — we were thrilled if we returned dollars to the association (in corporate terms, “make a profit”) and content when we broke even.

With such a constrained budget, it was very hard to provide events that engaged learners — providing active learning environments rather than subjecting our members to an endless stream of PowerPoint presentations.

So why did we struggle against those odds? Why not just chuck the whole educational component and give attendees the networking opportunities, some motivational speakers, and a great expo/trade show experience?

Simple. As a trade association, the main reason our members got approval to attend our annual conference in the first place was for the education they’d gain from it.

Here’s the simple truth about conferences, and the reason they (can) suck:

  • Members attend because they want to network. Networking leads to increased career mobility. Networking means they can connect with people they can mentor or be mentored by — the ultimate in professional development, let’s face it. Members also want to attend so they can lead sessions, which enhances their professional profile and their resume. And yes, they want insight into industry trends, polish some rough skill areas, and learn something new.
  • Vendors attend because they want exposure. Exposure in their trade show booth increases the potential for sales. Exposure as a sponsor elevates their image in the industry (which increases the potential for sales). They have good reason to want to donate dollars, especially if they can secure a spot (or two or three) as a content leader in an educational session (or two or three) along the way.
  • Associations provide conferences because they want to be seen as THE organization that provides important connections among members and valuable professional development opportunities. Plus they want to make some money. For many organizations, the annual conference is the event that brings in the most revenue for the organization, revenue that nurtures other programs and services.

All that sounds well and good, right? Seems that this provides motivation to keep offering them, for our members to attend, and for vendors to participate on a few levels… So what’s the problem?

One Example

Connie, the conference attendee, is a mid-career professional. She’s been a member of your association for twenty years now. She’s loved her job, but it’s getting too predictable for her and she’s ready to make a change. She’s scanned the job listings on your Web site and knows that she can make some key connections at your annual conference, which she last attended five years ago (she started feeling she wasn’t getting anything new from attending, and devoted her professional development budget to other things).

She goes to Barry her boss with her request for funding to attend this year. She’s asking for about $2700 to attend the five-day conference. The cost includes her airfare, hotel, conference registration, and per diem for meals and incidentals.

Barry looks at her request. It doesn’t seem to have anything padded — the airfare, hotel, and even the conference fee sound reasonable to him. But that’s a lot of money to spend on one employee for one event. Not to mention the fact that she will be out of the office for an entire week.

Barry wants to know what he’s going to get for his $2700. “What’s the advantage to attending — especially this year?” he asks.

Of course, Connie can’t say, “I want to do some networking so I can find another job.”

As she’s thinking of something that will deliver an ROI that satisfies him, he says, “Why don’t you show me the brochure for the conference so I can get a better idea of what it’s all about?”

When she hands over that brochure, he sees a few things:

  • a keynote speaker he feels pretty neutral about
  • a list of educational sessions that seem to cover topics Connie should already be experienced in
  • general sessions that are just that — general
  • and a list of trade show vendors for products and services they aren’t shopping for

Fortunately, Connie has studied the brochure a bit and when Barry looks up at her, she says, “There are a few sessions on XYZ trends that could impact us. Getting that insight could save us the cost of my attendance.”

“Great!” Barry says. “I’ll be interested to hear what you find out from those sessions when you get back.” He signs the approval for her expense request.

So, Connie gets to go to the conference, but she’s also attending sessions she might not have picked on her own, and by they time the conference rolls around, it’s possible (even likely) that those sessions will have been so transformed by their presenters that they won’t even resemble the descriptions her boss read.

Can You Spot the Problem?

Go ahead and protest that I’ve exaggerated Connie’s situation to make my point, but I’ve heard this story — and lived it myself — more times than I can count.

Here’s what’s happening:

We include educational sessions because that’s what motivates bosses to approve the expenditure.

We let our members lead those educational sessions because peer-to-peer is the type of training most of our members want.

We let our vendors lead educational sessions because they’ve donated enough money to “earn” a place at the front of a room. (Come on, be honest. You’re doing this, too, right?!?)

We set up as many rooms as we can in half-rounds because we know our members want to connect to each other, and this set-up helps conversation.

We set up other rooms in theater style because we’re pretty certain the topic will attract so many people it’s the best way to fit them all in.

Here’s what’s NOT happening:

Learning. Quality learning. Tranformative learning.

Our members might have bountiful expertise to share, but they aren’t necessarily trainers. And we’re too overworked or meek (use the word “hesitant” if you want, but you’re still being meek) to prepare them adequately for that role.

Even when we coach our vendors to keep the session educational rather than sales-oriented, it’s hard for them to resist. At the mildest end of the spectrum, they use their own products/services as examples. And in the worst cases, they offer an infomercial rather than an educational experience. It’s not because they’re crass or have other devious motives, it’s because they’re under pressure to prove their attendance is worthwhile. Someone signs their approval to participate, too — and that person usually wants to see some ROI related to sales or leads or bigger pipeline as a result.

We set up our rooms for crowd control or to meet other needs (like networking) rather than to serve the purpose of education.

The conference environment is a challenge for the best of education leaders. The fact is, whatever learning occurs in those sessions is purely accidental.

But we can’t toss out the educational sessions because that’s what motivates the person signing the checks for those important registration fees, right? And we can’t cut our vendor members off at the knees either, right?

So What’s the Solution?

We need a conference overhaul.

Yep, that’s been suggested before. Well, we can’t do without too many ideas, can we? So here’s one more that will make all kinds of other differences:

Shorten the conference. It’s that simple.

Think it can’t be done? How about this:

First morning: Brunch with opportunities to immediately meet others (tables organized by topics of interest, regions, or other categories that make sense to your organization). This is value-add for those who arrived the night before, but won’t be missed by those who prefer to arrive in the morning to save a night’s hotel stay.
First afternoon: “Open” the event with a keynote speaker followed by a few concurrent workshops and facilitated sessions.

Second day morning: Trade show.
Second day afternoon: Concurrent workshops and facilitated sessions.

Third day morning: Concurrent workshops and facilitated sessions.
Third day afternoon: Closing session, early. This allows people to hop flights late in the afternoon or early evening and save yet another hotel night.

What that’s you say? Can’t fit in all the sessions you need? Well… you know how I like to do the math on these things.

You can if you nix the idea that sessions have to be 40 or 50 or even 90 minutes long and organize 35 minute sessions with ten minutes inbetween.

Yes, 35 minute sessions with 10 minute breaks.

Don’t freak out. Don’t say “But…”

Here’s the real deal: 35 minutes will force everyone to be focused — your session leaders and your learners must make the most of those 35 minutes. And the fact of the matter is that most people won’t absorb more than one or two key takeaways per session anyway. Focus, focus, focus. Make it relevant. Make it real. Make it fast.

And you know what else will happen with shorter sessions? People who just have to make that cell call or sidebar meeting will opt out of an entire session rather than start it then leave, or pop in late and hover in the doorway. This means the people who actually show up can commit to fully participating.

Plus you can offer as many concurrent sessions as you want.

Yes, it can work. And the remedy won’t just treat symptoms — it will go a long way toward curing the illness causing those symptoms.


For those of you who’d like to see this madcap plan plotted out:

*First Day*

9:00 am – Noon: Brunch, with networking organized by table, or break-out rooms by topic, region, or other category.
12:30 – 2:00 pm: Opening session with keynote speaker
2:15 – 2:50 pm: First educational session
3 – 3:35 pm: Second session
3:45 – 4:20 pm: Third session

*Second Day*

9:00 am – 12:30 pm: Trade show
12:30 – 1:30 pm: Lunch
1:30 – 1:35 pm: First educational session
1:45 – 2:20 pm: Second sesson
2:30 – 3:05 pm: Third session
3:15 – 3:50 pm: Fourth session

*Third Day*

9:00 – 9:35 am: First educational session
9:45 – 10:20 am: Second session
10:35 – 11:10 am: Third session
11:20 – 11:55 am: Fourth session
Noon – 1:00 pm: Lunch
1:00 – 2:30 pm: Closing speaker/session

You’ve fit 11 educational slots (times the number of concurrent streams you’ll be offering) into the schedule, allowed 3.5 hours for the trade show, and provided for an opening and closing general session.

You’ve provided a schedule that shouldn’t deprive anyone of sleep who wants it, thereby building in ample downtime for reflection, discussion, self-directed research, networking, and other activities.

At most, your members would have four nights in the hotel or they could stay just two nights without missing any content.

Oh… your conference includes thousands and this won’t work for a crowd that size? You’re probably right.

If that’s the case, then you’re more interested in numbers than education anyway, aren’t you? Just admit it, cry “uncle,” and stop trying to make sure your members will actually learn something. Because you’ve just seen why that’s a wrestling match you’re not likely to win.

6 Responses to “Why Conference Education Sucks”

  1. Hi Ellen,

    Where to begin? First of all, we’re on the same side. I got sick of traditional conferences long ago, and finally wrote a book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, published in 2009, based on what I learned over the last thirty years and the experiments in conference design I started conducting in 1992. I agree with much that you say, though I would generalize that “most conferences suck”, rather than “most conference education sucks”.

    I think your description of why members attend is accurate. These days (and this is a recent trend) it’s mainly about the networking, simply because so much traditional broadcast content (“industry experts”) is available online via the comfort, convenience, and greatly reduced expense of an office computer.

    Where I disagree is your implication that effective learning can only be provided by effective trainers. I’m not sure if that’s what you meant to imply, but that’s what I read. You’re returning to a broadcast model of learning: preselected experts teach/train students. In my experience, learning that’s personally important to conference attendees can occur in the context of a much more fluid networking model, one that does not make presuppositions about who knows and who doesn’t.

    My conference designs are participant-driven: the event turns into what the attendees want it to be. Most people have a hard time understanding how well this works—until they experience one. When the first thing you do at a conference is safely and enjoyably uncover the expertise and experience in the room, it makes it possible to transform attendees into much more than a passive audience.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think making sessions shorter in the way you described will solve the problem of conferences that suck. In my experience, good sessions contain frequent interactive segments where attendees, in small groups, are discussing an issue, solving a problem together or sharing experiences, etc. These kinds of messy activities take time and, according to current neurological research, should be happening every twenty minutes or so for optimum learning.

    A thirty-five minute session is a little too short for significant attendee interaction, and will likely turn into a one-to-many teaching/training mode. If you’re doing significant interactive work, you need more time, and I’ve found that 50-60 minutes provides more opportunities (though if you’re doing a big simulation or several case studies you’ll need even more time).

    When your sessions are optimized by your attendees for your attendees, in my experience they’ll be happy to stay involved & learn for an hour or more.

    As an aside, I’ve found that it’s quite possible to control the pernicious influence of vendors on event programs, and I cover this in my book.

    Finally, don’t get me started on room sets. Everyone who’s planning an event should read and implement the ideas in Paul Radde’s book Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements.

    Ellen, I share your frustrations. Perhaps, based on my experience, I’m more optimistic than you about the ability of most adults—-when given a conference design that discovers, supplies, supports, and encourages the specific learning they want–to become actively involved in their own conference learning. I’d love to hear what you think.


  2. Dave Lutz said

    Ellen, great post! I like your idea of forcing more focused education by scaling back the time. So much of what is lacking in associations is presenter training. I think it’s a good idea to offer educational offerings with various lengths. Some topics just need to take a deeper dive. But more important than the time, is to raise the bar on the facilitation and presenter skills. Without that, learning will still be ho-hum.

    I enjoy UnConferences too, but the big challenge with them is getting the advance approval off of a fuzzy agenda.

    Keep pushing the envelope for change Ellen! Love your stuff!

  3. Heck Yes…

    Terrific bit to peruse….

  4. Ellen said

    Thank you both for stopping through the aLearning Blog — great to hear from you both again!

    Adrian — We’re actually closer on this issue than you might think. I probably wasn’t very clear, but I don’t want to suggest that peer-to-peer training is never as effective as [non-peer-trainer]-to-learner. On the contrary, I do believe that the best learning can happen when peers learn from others in their field rather than “expert trainers.” Where we go wrong is putting those industry experts in a room and tell them to “lead” or “facilitate” this session, when they haven’t had any training in being an effective learning event leader or trainer. *That’s* when we get poor sessions and frustrated learners who end up unengaged and uninvolved.

    I remember a colleague telling me she was going to mandate a “train the trainer” program for her volunteer educational leaders. I said, “Good luck with that and let me know how it goes.” When I followed up a year or so later, she said she’d abandoned the idea — too controversial, too much time, too, too, too. You know what I’m saying, I know you do 🙂

    So the point is — how do we get our experts comfortable with just the type of unconference session you mention? Yes, it can be done, but I have yet to hear from an organization that has a method they consistently use to develop those skills — they tend to happen more by accident or by virtue of a few members who happen to be adept at leading such sessions.

    And then, there’s the question — as Dave suggests — of how to provide enough detail around those sessions that the bosses who sign the travel and conference expense requests will get the answers they need to justify those expenses.

    You are truly right that the more interactive the session (*truly* interactive, that is), the more time you generally need. For people to *do* things, they need to attempt and (usually) fail first, which is why we call this segment of the session “practice.” That all takes time.

    So maybe the compromise is this: if you want to deliver information (facts, data, industry updates, trends, etc.) — do it fast in a 20-30 minute session (10 minutes of talk and the rest for Q&A), while learning outcomes that involve trained skills, identifying concepts or applying principles should be covered in longer sessions.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this! As always, I come away from your comments with even more clarity than I thought I had when I started the post 🙂

    Dave — We agree! Do you know of any non-profit org or association that requires (or highly rewards in such a way that it’s generally mandatory) facilitation training before a session is accepted at a conference?

    And to everyone — Would love to hear your successes if you’ve accomplished the implementation of a training program or orientation for session leaders. What did you do? How is it working? What changes have you made in your program since you started it? Etc. Etc!!

    Thank you all!

  5. Dave Lutz said

    Ellen, we’re starting to see more associations make presenter training a priority, but not a requirement. More associations are scheduling advance conference calls with presenters to help ensure that they are putting in the advance effort and designing for learning.

    PCMA conducts facilitator and moderator training. In a project we helped them for last year, we used those graduates to facilitate peer to peer round tables. That’s a good example of what more associations should consider.

    • Ellen said

      Dave — Happy to hear that training session leaders is coming into vogue 🙂 Forgive me for being pessimistic, but I can’t help but wonder if those advance conference calls are very effective… I still say we’re trying to force a square peg (good training) into a round hole (conference format). Shaving the corners off those pegs might help them squeeze into some of those holes, but it’s not the ideal fit and we have to be mindful of that. But education leaders will persevere — that’s what we do 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: