along. You can start with a hot-topic question or let people
submit their own. It’s about letting attendees drive the
Planners can also help attendees create their own person-
al learning agenda long before the meeting begins, Hamilton
adds. This includes offering a search engine on the conference
website that enables users to type in key words to ;ind the rel-
evant products and services available at the event. Also useful
are continually updated conference details and a survey that
enables users to assess which sessions are actually best suited
to their own goals and experience levels.
“If you can guide people to the sessions that are right for
their competency levels, it’s a big help, especially at big conferences which can be dif;icult to navigate,” she says.
Another tactic Hamilton recommends is to enlist veteran
members to act as “learning coaches” who can sit down with
new members and help them form a plan for getting the most
bene;it from the conference, including what sessions to choose
and how to approach the trade show and networking events.
Offering a webinar in advance of the conference that provides
an orientation of what will be available is also helpful.
“Anything that you can do to encourage people to think
about their goals—why are you going to the conference and
what do you hope to get out of it—is bene;icial,” Hamilton says.
Terrence Donnelly, CMP, vice president of sales for Experi-ent, is also an advocate for helping attendees chart a course
through the maze of education sessions, networking sessions
and trade show booths.
“During the registration process we ask people questions
about what they want from the conference, encouraging them
to be as precise as possible,” he says. “We can also make recommendations based on what sessions they’re down for. We
can also look at what they did last year and ask if that still applies. From this information, we can make recommendations
and build an individual itinerary for each attendee.”
Dana Freker Doody, vice president of communications for The
Expo Group, is an advocate of “white space” at meetings and
trade shows, which she de;ines as allowing plenty of time for
participants to process and synthesize information as well as
creating uncluttered spaces for relaxation and conversation.
“I need time to be able to chew on things that I learned
during a session that day,” she says. “It’s important to not over-
schedule things—even during the session, you should build in
time for people to interact with their neighbors. Design layout
counts as well. For example, at the TED conference there are
quiet rooms where people can go and relax.”
“The word ‘attendee’ no longer applies—people want to be
participants,” says meeting tech consultant Corbin Ball, CMP,
CSP (MPI Washington State Chapter). “It’s all about personal-
izing the experience and engaging people as never before.”
Carol Hamilton, who is a senior associate for the Institute
for Conservation Leadership and has a long history of devel-
oping learning programs for associations, also acknowledges
these changing expectations and says organizations are under
increased pressure to move away from the traditional educa-
tion model tied to a set agenda.
“People’s time has become very pre-
cious—it’s harder to take time away
from the of;ice,” she says. “Plus, there are
so many more ways now to get informa-
tion. So when someone does go to a con-
ference, how are they leveraging their
time to the best advantage? The way conferences were de-
signed 50 years ago does not answer this.”
Hamilton also acknowledges that the challenges associa-
tions face in keeping up with changing preferences are huge.
“Making learning more customized at conferences is really
key, but it’s also really hard,” she says. “You’ve still got the session slots with a certain amount of seats in the room. Hotel
setups still favor 10-person tables where conversation is dif;icult. Another challenge is that different people want different
While few associations have the resources that media and tech
giants have for delivering what individuals want when they
want it, there are still low-tech, low-investment ways to give
attendees a sense of being in control of their conference experience. One basic method Hamilton recommends is to not
overschedule a program, but to allow “open space” for pop-up
sessions where attendees can put the topics forward that are
important to them.
“These last-minute sessions don’t have to be planned in
advance or be super complicated,” she says. “All you need is a
room, a circle of chairs and a facilitator who can guide things
“The word ‘attendee’ no longer applies—
people want to be participants.”