Are Conferences Flushing Education Dollars Down The Toilet?

Companies spent more than U.S. $125.88 billion in 2009 for training, including conference education. (ASTD 2010 State Of Industry Report)

And less than 10% of what employees are taught sticks. (Influencer: The Power To Change Anything, VitalSmarts)

That’s $113.29 billion dollars wasted, flushed down the toilet.

What Really Matters

The top two reasons people attend conferences are education and networking. They want to improve their professional lives and meet other likeminded individuals.

Ultimately, education is about changing attitudes, behaviors and skills. And networking is a form of informal education, learning from our peers.

But does conference education automatically lead to learning?

It’s been proven time and time again that lectures, those pesky Max Headroom talking heads, lead to the least amount of learning and retention possible. Yet the majority of most conference education is lecture-based. It’s nothing but hundreds of talking heads.

Lecture-based, didactic instruction is just information transfer. It’s passing information from one individual to another. It’s no different than distributing a report.

Information transfer is not education. Nor is it learning. And less than 10% of that information sticks anyways.

It’s not enough that people attend a conference to learn new information and skills. Just hearing information does not automatically translate into learning.

What really matters is that conference attendees apply the new information and skills on the job. Then performance improves the business benefit.

Conference’s Weakest Link

Conferences can have a lot of hiccups. They can go wrong in lots of way. But the most critical conference failures occur in the planning process.

Meeting professionals rarely focus on what happens in the workplace before and after the participant attends the conference. That lack of focus on designing appropriate education and learning opportunities ultimately leads to failures back in the workplace.

Learning and the transfer of learning on the job are the weakest links in most conferences. They are the most overlooked areas by conference organizers and meeting professionals.

Event professionals often leave the education and learning design up to another department–the education department. Or they depend upon the conference committee to select speakers and design education sessions.

Rarely does the education department or conference committee have formal training in how adults learn. Rarely have those people spent their college years in the study of pedagogy and andragogy. Rarely do they understand the science of learning so they can apply it to the conference agenda.

So conference learning is set up for failure from the beginning. It is the weakest link in conference planning.

The Conference Education Finish Line

The finish line for conference education is not when each session is ends. Or when the conference concludes.

It occurs much later. On the job, after the attendee applies what they’ve learned. If they apply it. If they learned anything.

The real question conference organizers should ask participants is “What will you do when you return to the office?”

The employer cares about new on-the-job attitudes, behaviors and skills. And ultimately results!

If nothing changes after attending the conference, it’s just a waste of money.

Why do conference organizers rarely focus on designing good adult learning opportunities? What do you expect from your conference education experience that will encourage you to return the next year?

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  1. Theresa says:

    It is frustrating to learn about so many meetings, events, conferences and conventions that don’t start with adequate objective planning. We recently learned that same fact in some of the initial findings of one of our research initiatives. Sometimes the simple art of clearly defining an objective seems to get in the way of education planning. It’s the idea of focusing on whether you’re looking at attendance numbers or actual the learning objectives that can be put into action.

    Hopefully we can move forward as professionals and start setting clear goals around Return on Objectives as much as Return on Investment.

  2. As a long-time speaker I’ve often wondered why more meeting planners don’t ask speakers for their insights about ways to make meeting more meaningful – as we have attended diverse kinds.

    From exhibitor/speaker content-centered partnerships to crowdsourcing topics, formats and speakers or ways to create continuous conversational/thematic threads throughout the conference there are many ideas we speakers have to enable attendees (and other stakeholders) to gain more value from participating.

    As a longtime admirer of Jeff and several of the superb bloggers who cover the conference industry I think we are overdue for a collaboration on enabling organizations to leverage the way they organize meetings.

    People in this industry work so hard and care so much – and we all have a vital need to keep attendees avidly engaged, touting their experience to others and coming back.

  3. Jim Louis says:

    This is a hasty generalization. It is not $113.29 billion that is wasted. It really depends on the goals and objectives of the training. Is the 10% they are retaining equaling a 50% increase in their sales volume? Or decreasing waste on the factory floor by 1%? or a programmer go to a conference and picks up a skill or a piece of software that will save his company hundreds of hours of programming time? All of these could translate into hundreds to thousands to millions of dollars of profit for the company. Multiply that by all the companies out there doing training and I do not believe that the true waste amount would be that large. Is there waste? Yes, I am sure there is, Vitalsmarts consults with 300 of the fortune 500 companies, so their client’s retention should be higher than 10%. They make up over $10.8 Trillion dollars in revenue ( May 5, 2011) of the global $74 Trillion GDP (Wikipedia).

    Actually, the weakest link in this is follow up back in the company after the training has been done. To change how someone does something you need to break them of their old habits and this requires competent management and continual support for the first few months after the training to achieve the impact needed. (, December 13, 2009). You can have the best training program, but if the follow through is not there it will fail.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      There’s great wisdom in what you wrote. Often conference organizers focus on the numnbers and revenue for success instead of whether changes have been made as a result of attendance. I like what you said, “Hopefully we can move forward as professionals and start setting clear goals around Return on Objectives as much as Return on Investment.”

      Thanks for reading and commenting too.

      It’s a shame that many meeting professionals don’t see some of their speakers as resources that can help them make meeting improvements. Yes, “We are overdue for a collaboration on enabling organizations to leverage the way they organize meetings.” That’s a great and honest statement.

      Thank you for reading and adding your insights!

      Thanks for providing your perspective. I’m with you that conference education depends on the goals and objectives of the training as well as the attendee. You raise an excellent point that follow-up back at the company after attending an education event is lacking. I think that the pre- and post-conference strategies are lacking. When I supervised employees, I would meet with them before they took education to discuss if the learning objectives of the training matched the needs of the employee. Then we would meet when they returned from the conferece. We would discuss if the education meet their needs and expectations and what they would apply. A couple weeks later, we’d meet again to discuss if it worked.

      Rarely do we find that happening today in most companies. This is even more reason why the meeting professionals need to work hard on the before and after event details.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. chris uschan says:

    Jeff — If only 10% of information shared is retained, why do we go to conferences? And continue to go?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      That’s a great rhetorical question. I think in the future we will see a decline in registrations from conferences that don’t provide education correctly where people retain more information.

      My point was that for education and learning to occur, we need to change the way information is shared at conferences. We need to increase learning and retention in conference education.

      Also, I am surprised at how many meeting professionals do not track repeat attendance at their conferences. I’ve seen numbers lately from several conferences that have fairly low repeat attendees every year or two years. Anything less than 60% repeat attendee rate is a sign that people are not returning to that conference and loyalty is low. So let’s not assume just because a conference continues to have registrants that its a sign of a healthy conference.

  5. Dave says:

    Too many companies do not do pre and post conference interviews to know if the attendee gained anything beneficial that should be shared with others. I, personally, worked for several companies that sent employees to conferences without ever checking to see if anything was gained.

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