More Creative Conference Formats

(Meetings and Conventions/PCMA) 
The Solution Room

Oftentimes, groups sit and listen to a keynote presenter offer projections, expound on marketplace challenges, or address other issues of concern. Then the session ends and the attendees disperse without discussing it further or creating action plans. The purpose of a solution room is to optimize takeaways from the presentation.

Directly following the keynote, attendees are split into separate rooms or spaces. Groups can be assigned deliberately or at random, depending on the goal of the session. Sitting in rounds of eight, each attendee writes down one takeaway and how it could be used to improve his or her work or life. Doing so in their own words "demonstrates the truest form of learning," says Aaron Wolowiec, founder and president of Event Garde, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based, professional development consulting company. "We're asking them to bridge the gap between the conference site and their work place, and that's how you create knowledge acquisition." Each takeaways is then passed on to the person on the right.

Once the papers have been passed, each participant in turn reads aloud what's on their paper, and the rest of the group provides feedback while the reader takes notes. Everyone gets a chance to talk, and everyone gets some feedback on their takeaway. By the end of the session, attendees should walk away with a greater understanding of how the keynote applies to them, as well as at least one goal they can aim for, based on the feedback they received.

"As passive observers, we sometimes let the information gloss over us," says Wolowiec, "but a solution room allows attendees to process what they just heard and commit to act on it."

Wisdom while you walk

Why not gives attendee a chance to discuss a topic of their choosing while stretching their legs, grabbing a cup of coffee or taking a breath of fresh air? Attendees can convene in an empty room, where they might be paired up by interest, title or current problems they are facing, and they are given 45 minutes to go for a walk and chat.

Jeff Hurt, executive vice president of education and engagement with meeting and education-improvement company Velvet Chainsaw, says such discussions resonate with attendees who want to direct their own learning outside of the conference room. Plus, "the more you're moving your body, the more information you retain," claims Hurt. After the allotted time, the pairs return and share what they discussed with the rest of the group.

The Learning Lounge

In January, at its annual meeting in the San Diego Convention Center, the Professional Convention Management Association created a 55,000-square-foot Learning Lounge in the exhibit hall. The area offered five different learning zones that fit 20 to 30 people each and featured different setups and education styles. For example, attendees could wander over to the "Social Media Expert Bar," which served as a personalized help desk, or they could sit down in the theater area and watch a video of an expert talking about emerging trends in the meetings industry.

This format resonated with attendees because they could drive their own experience and decide how they wanted to receive information. And the proximity of the different education pods and length of the sessions (most lasted just 15 minutes) meant attendees didn't risk much by exploring a new topic. If upon arrival they realized a speaker wasn't relevant, they could easily walk the 40 feet or so to another session.

"The Learning Lounge gave our attendees the opportunity to get a little information here and a little information there. They liked it because they didn't have to invest a lot of time and could move from topic to topic," says Kelly Peacy, senior vice president of education and meetings at PCMA. In addition, the short sessions and a condensed conference space meant more opportunities for ad-hoc discussions between attendees. "We wanted to give our attendees every opportunity to have those casual conversations, because that's where some of the best education happens," notes Peacy.
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