Event Planning: Why the Learning Experience Matters

Well-known keynoters, high attendee numbers, and hundreds of education sessions are nice, but they don’t guarantee a successful meeting. What does? Designing a learning experience your members can’t re-create or find elsewhere. Take a cue from two associations that have been there, done that—and ended up with more engaged attendees.

Here’s a question that boggles the minds of most meeting planners and professional development staff: How do you convince members to attend your association’s in-person conferences and other events when both education and networking are available for free online?

For some, the answer may be to create buzz around a well-known general session speaker. For others, it may be offering the opportunity to network with industry leaders in a one-on-one setting. But for the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Society of Pharmaceutical and Biotech Trainers, it came down to creating a learning experience for attendees that they’d be unable to find at any other industry conference.

Dive Deeper With Learning Experiences

Beverly J. Hutton, Ed.D., is only a year into her role as NASSP’s director of professional development, but she already has one successful national conference under her belt. And she credits that success to asking one simple question: How can we get people more engaged?

With that question in mind and with feedback from members saying they were looking for more participatory learning elements, Hutton and her team, along with a learning consultant brought in before she was hired, made a fundamental shift in how knowledge was acquired and delivered at the NASSP Ignite 2013 Conference.

The backbone of the strategy was the Connected Learning Center, located in the middle of the exhibit hall. The center featured a technology showcase to demonstrate new tools and included a place for speakers to hold mini-sessions to dive deeper into concepts and topics they presented on during their larger, 75- to 90-minute learning sessions held earlier the same day.

“These mini-sessions lasted about 20 to 30 minutes and allowed speakers to create some more interactive, smaller-group learning experiences,” Hutton says. “We wanted to give attendees an opportunity to reflect and think about and discuss what they learned earlier with their peers and speakers.”

To further encourage this dialogue, presenters also were able to hold “office hours” in the center. These open-door meetings gave speakers and attendees the opportunity to discuss the work they are doing. “Again it was all about extending the learning and connectivity of the attendees,” she says.

Social-networking lounges were an additional element of the Connected Learning Center. The lounges encouraged members who may have only met online to meet in person and offered sessions like “tweet-torials” to social media newbies. Even exhibitors were big proponents of the center, as it drew traffic to the expo floor.

But NASSP didn’t only add new elements to its meeting; it also eliminated some old ones. One was a meeting-planning standard: the call for session proposals. To develop content for the conference, NASSP instead looked at what “our members and research had reported as issues that keep principals up at night, such as Common Core [State Standards] implementation, new teacher-­evaluation models, dropout prevention, and graduation rates.” After narrowing down the issues, the professional development team identified authorities in those areas and professionals doing work in the field and invited them to be speakers, says Hutton.

“Overall member feedback from this more participatory meeting and learning format has been overwhelmingly positive,” she says. “They didn’t feel like they were being barraged with content. They liked the ability to dive deep into topic areas and the fact that we gave them plenty of time to tap into what in the past had been a massive untapped reserve of knowledge and experience—their fellow attendees.”

The only way to get people to spend money and take time out of the office is to give them a life experience that they cannot get if they just choose to participate remotely.


It Takes a Learning Village

For the Society of Pharmaceutical and Biotech Trainers (SPBT), basic metrics painted a rosy picture: Its membership has doubled to 1,450 in the past three years, as has its staff size, from four to eight. And 40 percent to 50 percent of members attend its annual meeting.

But a closer look at the meeting’s Net Promoter Score—a metric used to gauge the loyalty of a customer to a brand, company, or organization—showed something more worrisome. On a scale that runs from -100 to +100 (+50 is considered excellent), exhibitors rated the meeting -52 in 2012, while attendees gave it +30—a significant jump from +4 in 2011 but not a number that Executive Director Kevin Kruse was comfortable with.

“The traditional expo floor and learning models just don’t work anymore,” he says. “People have other ways to gain this same knowledge, and they don’t necessarily need an association to associate these days. The only way to get people to spend money and take time out of the office is to give them a life experience that they cannot get if they just choose to participate remotely.”

To accomplish this, SPBT transformed its expo hall into a learning village. The reinvention comprised four things: a new show-floor layout, the addition of four learning stations, a vendor-attendee speed-networking session, and a team-building charity event.

“Like pretty much every other conference, we have learning workshops where attendees sit in a room and learn from the person in the front, so what we wanted to do in this learning village was not only drive more traffic to the show floor but also create a place where people could experientially learn and get that high-value experience they could take back home with them and implement immediately,” he says.

To accomplish this, SPBT placed a learning station at each corner of the expo hall. Each station was built around the topics that surveyed members said they were most interested in, including leadership, career advancement, and emotional intelligence.

For example, at the emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) station, attendees completed a short online survey. They then sat down one-on-one with an EQ consultant to review the results and receive tips on how to leverage strengths and weaknesses. “We wanted to give our attendees that one-on-one, personalized content experience,” Kruse says.

At another station, an expert in neuroscience, who also happened to be a magician, taught SPBT’s corporate-trainer members ice breakers and magic tricks they could use in their future workshops. “Again this is real-world, practical knowledge they can apply as soon as they get home,” says Kruse.

To build in more time for attendees and exhibitors to engage with and learn from each other, SPBT held its first team-building exercise, iGive Back. Participants broke into teams and built teddy bears for the local children’s hospital. “It gave them the opportunity to connect in a more casual environment, exchange business cards and session takeaways, and give back to a larger cause at the same time,” he says.

The meeting’s Net Promoter Scores show that the changes paid off: The exhibitor score jumped from -52 in 2012 to +26 this year, and the attendee score went from +30 to +44. Another promising number: 97 percent of attendees want the learning stations back in 2014.

While Hutton and Kruse are thrilled with the results of these new learning opportunities, both are eager to top them at their 2014 meetings. “We want to continue to ignite this desire our members have for more relevant, more contemporary learning and learning styles,” says Hutton.

“We know this is the answer—we have a read of what people want now—but how do we keep the momentum going?” Kruse says. “Yes, we need great content. Yes, we need great keynotes. Yes, we need networking parties, but how do we create unique learning experiences? If we stay focused on the latter, we’ll continue to succeed.”


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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