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.