Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

July 14 2015

How To Make Your Education Better Than The Standard Convention Center Experience

By David McMillin



Meeting professionals spend plenty of time searching for off-site venues to host networking receptions. However, getting attendees out of traditional convention center ballrooms and hotel meeting spaces doesn’t have to wait until the evening cocktail hour.

“In many conference settings, attendees go to the convention center all day. They might go to one networking event at night, and then, they head back to the hotel,” Janice Pauline, Director, Center for Conferences and Meetings, National League of Cities, says. “This doesn’t leave any time to see and truly experience the destination.”

Rather than adhering to the traditional programming approach, the NLC meetings team helps attendees see more of the host destination at its Conference of Cities each year with two days of free mobile workshops for paying attendees. Instead of putting presenters in front attendees, these mobile workshops take those attendees directly where the action is happening. These aren’t just hands-on learning opportunities. These are those hands (and feet) traveling to places around the host destination for immersive educational experiences.

“If you’re riding on a shuttle bus to somewhere in the community and meeting with business owners, you can see a lot,” Pauline says. “The mobile workshops present a way to use conference time to explore more than the four walls of a breakout room.”

At the 2014 Congress of Cities in Austin, attendees chose from 16 mobile workshops ranging from a tour of the sustainable technology at IBM’s SmartCities Operations Center to a tasting made from local produce at an Austin Urban Farm to the exploration of a 380-acre solar plant.

The NLC audience is well-suited for seeing the ins and outs of a city’s management plans. These attendees are local leaders in their respective communities, including mayors and City Council members. However, the mobile workshop format can make a perfect match for a wide range of groups.

“This is something that could work for a number of different audiences,” Pauline says.

From taking medical professionals to a new hospital to giving teachers a tour of award-winning schools to introducing IT conference attendees to the leaders at a talked-about tech start-up, every destination has a local business community that will resonate with visitors.

Easier Than You Might Expect

Wait, some meeting professionals, might say. Won’t adding shuttle busses and managing hundreds of attendees at dozens of locations add headaches to the already complex process of organizing a successful conference? Not necessarily.

Pauline says an advanced registration system helps NLC manage the mobile workshop initiative, avoiding unfilled busses and gauging interest level for each session. Before the workshops begin, the meetings team also evaluates which sessions are the most popular. If there’s a waiting list and an opportunity to repeat the session, the team works to add another chance for attendees to participate.

Offering A Value-Add For Attendees — Before The Conference Really Kicks Off

“We arrange our mobile workshops as pre-conference learning opportunities,” Pauline says. “That way, people can come in a bit earlier, and we won’t compete with content and speakers from the main program.”

While some planners might worry about the challenges of asking attendees to take additional days from their busy schedules, Pauline says attendees at Congress of Cities have no trouble marking their calendars even earlier.

“These have provided a huge motivation for people not just to come early, but to attend in general,” Pauline says.

Pauline says that many attendees use mobile workshops as a primary reason for justifying the registration and travel expenses. In fact, the organization highlights the importance of experiential learning in its justification letter template.

“It’s been proven that adults can learn better with an experiential learning environment instead of sitting in a classroom,” Pauline says. “In many cases, the mobile workshops help elected officials make the case to come to the conference. They can say, ‘I’m going to be able to see all this work in action.’”

Could mobile workshops work for your audience? What other ways are you working to deliver experiential learning rather than a traditional formal presentation? Share your thoughts on reinventing the educational experience at conferences in the comments below.

This educational article is sponsored by Austin, Texas, a destination where meeting planners from all types of organizations can leverage local business leaders and academic scholars to enhance their programs. From Fortune 500 companies like Dell and Whole Foods to sustainability pioneers at Green Mountain Energy to medical experts at the soon-to-be-opened Dell Medical School at UT-Austin, some of the most progressive names in business call Austin home. Click here to check out a complete list of some of the major employers in Austin, and contact the Austin CVB to find out how your meeting can benefit from Austin’s community of innovators.

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