How Transforming Conference Education Can Increase Value
By Carol McGury, Executive Vice President, Event and Education Services, SmithBucklin

If your association provides in-person education, the board of directors should regularly review and refresh its strategy for delivering content to attendees. By identifying key issues and topics, taking advantage of new technology and offering a variety of learning experiences, an association can create new on-site learning experiences and enhance its overall value to members.

Here are 10 strategic suggestions for transforming a traditional conference education program:

1. Think quality, not quantity. Traditionally, associations try to fit as many sessions as possible into a multi-day program, assuming this will provide the greatest educational value to attendees. However, attendees today are generally looking for a more tightly focused educational program with fewer but more relevant sessions. It is also important to keep up with research on adult learning, including how to present key concepts so they can be retained and retrieved by the brain.

2. Know the audience. It is important to make sure staff talks with or surveys members regularly in order to understand their current education-related challenges and needs. For instance, certification programs can be an attractive conference offering for some professionals but not others. Members of technology associations might enjoy using smartphones, tablets or in-room devices to interact with presenters in real time. However, non-technology oriented professionals might consider this a distraction from the presentation.

3. Engage attendees prior to the conference. Email, mobile apps and social media can help solicit attendees' questions or comments in advance of the conference. For example, send a message about a keynote speaker's topic and invite attendees to respond with their most relevant issues. That can sharpen a speaker's presentation while turning attendees into partners in creating the on-site learning experience.

4. Filter content. Traditionally, associations will issue a call for presenters and select the most relevant content offered by volunteers, as well as sponsors, exhibitors or vendors. However, that may result in duplicative sessions where two presenters cover similar content. Even worse, this reactive approach may leave holes in the conference program if no one volunteers to speak on certain topics. An alternative is to be proactive and seek out presenters who can deliver the most relevant content to attendees.

5. Offer to train presenters. Many subject-matter experts often rely on the traditional PowerPoint approach, showing dozens of slides and commenting on each one. That is usually not the best way to get attendees excited about the content. Instead, it is appropriate for an association to provide resources for training presenters in more effective content-delivery methods, such as facilitating a dialogue with attendees while minimizing the use of slides. Additionally, valued subject-matter experts who are not comfortable with public speaking could be more willing to commit if they had a means to improve their presentation skills.

6. Offer a "learning lounge." Remember that the education programs do not have to be limited to classroom settings. A learning lounge on the exhibit floor or other location will help provide shorter and more tightly focused learning experiences. This can be an excellent strategy for 15- to 30-minute video presentations, product/service updates or question-and-answer sessions. These brief sessions can easily be promoted through a conference mobile app and may provide the additional benefit of increasing traffic on the show floor.

7. Add a virtual component. Consider webcasting the most highly anticipated educational sessions for members who are unable to attend the conference. In terms of technology, it is relatively easy to add an interactive virtual component for non-attendees that provides important content and encourages them to stay involved with the association and perhaps attend next year's conference.

8. Mix it up. Offering a variety of educational sessions can spark attendee interest. Rather than have one keynote speaker each morning, consider changing one session to a panel discussion with plenty of time for attendee questions. For an afternoon session, consider a variation on that theme by having four or five presenters make five-minute presentations and then take questions from the audience or the facilitator.

9. Encourage interaction. Message boards, mobile apps and/or social media can encourage attendee interaction about educational content. That could include a daily “what-do-you-want-to-know?” post asking for advance questions about upcoming sessions. Attendees can also post updates about “what I have learned” or “my best educational session so far.” To help start the virtual dialogue, board members should actively participate and encourage their networks to do the same.

10. Extend the conference content into a year-round education program. This strategy can be a significant, value-creating initiative. Rather than look at the conference program as a stand-alone educational offering to members, find ways to extend that learning experience throughout the year. This can be done through webcasts, mobile apps, eLearning modules, social media and by providing tailored programming for local chapter meetings. Integrating the conference sessions into a year-round curriculum allows an association to deliver highly relevant, ongoing content to members, which will keep them actively involved. It also serves as a powerful tool for attracting new members.

A well-planned conference education program provides timely and relevant content that specifically addresses the challenges and opportunities facing attendees, while also advancing an association's mission and reinforcing its value to the membership. By using the latest attendee-interaction and content-delivery strategies, associations can maximize the value of the conference experience and meet members’ evolving educational needs.

  As executive vice president, Event and Education Services at SmithBucklin, Carol McGury oversees the Event Services team and all of the company’s convention, trade show and event management service offerings, and the Education & Learning Services team responsible for new product/program development, education strategy and planning, content management and delivery, and program evaluation. McGury, who has more than 20 years of association management experience, also oversees SmithBucklin’s Sales Services unit.

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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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