Five More Fresh Innovative Game Changer Conference Ideas


The best conference organizers are proactively looking for fresh, new ideas to implement at their next annual meeting.

They work hard at coming up with the next big idea.

Shattering Status Quo

The most innovative conference organizers are not satisfied with creating ordinary, mundane conference experiences. They have no patience for the status quo. As a matter of fact, they seek to shatter the status quo.

Conference organizer game changers create unique ah-ha moments for attendees. They create transformational conference experiences that are like magic.

High-Quality Conference Learning Experiences

Providing high-quality conference learning experiences has become a game changer for attendees.

Unfortunately, our existing structure for most conference education is not adequate for today’s current understanding of learning. We have to transition to conference education that is experiential, participatory and socially constructed not passive and static.

If conference organizers continue to assume that learning is confined to education sessions, meeting rooms and lectures, then valuable opportunities are lost. The current traditional conference experience leads to high-inferior faux-learning experiences at best.

Five Innovative Ideas

Traditional conference education sessions are nothing more than tools to manage time, schedules, topics and attendees. They have become the building blocks of conference discipline.

The traditional, contained conference course can no longer be the central unit of the experience. Why? Because in most cases it is not the place where most of the significant learning takes place.

In today’s post-conference-course era, learning, inquiry, participation, social connections, reflection and the true experience often happens outside the schedule. Just ask Joan Eisenstodt who often travels to conferences to connect with interesting people in the hallways. She’s creating her own pro-am experience (see below).

Here are five innovative features that leverage high-quality learning that today’s conference game changers need:

1. Pro-Am

This model embodies a professional-amateur (pro-am) approach to learning. It’s also known as cognitive apprenticeship. Participants interact with others in pairs, triads or small groups who are more experienced and expert. This is all about peer sharing and learning. Roundtable discussions and hallway expertise-sharing sessions can provide pro-am opportunities.

2. Hard-Fun

Our conferences need more learning experiences that are intellectually and instructionally challenging as well as engaging. Then they become hard-fun. Puzzlement, awe, surprise and other forms of emotional engagement increases the participant’s effort and attention. Simulations, immersive environments and games are other types of hard-fun. Who said learning has to be hard and boring?

3. Real-World

Bottom-line, conference attendees are motivated by engaging in real-world problems that are from their own corner of the universe. The more the conference content focuses on current real-world problems the more meaningful and successful they are.

4. Feed-Forward

All conference learning opportunities should provide some type of feedback to each attendee. Without feedback learners have no idea if their thoughts are on target or not. They need to discuss it with others to get feedback. Similarly, the more that education can engage them into wanting to know more as well as how to know more, the better. Conference organizers need online and offline Amazon-like recommendation systems that suggest the next feed-forward course or experience.

5. Structured Autonomy

Many conference attendees will drive their own learning as long as they have structure and support. One of the best game changers is to provide suggested pathways, guides and road maps to help attendees solve their current problems. Conference websites and mobile apps that let attendees search education sessions according to their problems are a must for success today.

Hat Tips to Educase’s Game Changers: Education and Information Technologies.

What are some practical ways for conferences to provide more pro-am learning experiences? What must conference games have to be instructionally and intellectually sound that lead to learning versus games for just fun?

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  1. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    Chuckling at what you wrote to what I wrote on the other blog – and my mixing metaphors. Ah dear Jeff, it’s how I read it!

    I’m going back there to comment again.

    Then back here.

  2. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    Can “structured autonomy” be providing the place only? What else plays into that?

    Thinking ..thinking ….

  3. Hmm. If these are indeed thought of as innovative game-changers, we’ve been missing the boat for a very long time as I think of these five as part of the core framework for good learning experiences.

    When I find I am in a session with a fairly equal mix of pro-am folks, I often split the room in half and have the amateurs identify 5 questions they’d love to hear thoughts on from the pros and have the pros identify five things they know now but wish they had known then to share with the amateurs. The conversation can then occur as a whole or in smaller configurations based on time and interests.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I don’t think structured autonomy is providing a place only. Then it’s totally left up to being an organic process without a true focus. Just my opinion though.

      Good point. You’ve always used good adult learning strategies in your sessions and you were innovative before innovative was something people sought. 😉

      I think we need to make a distinction between you as a presenter/facilitator/educator and the conference organizer. Rarely do meeting professionals and conference organizers intentionally seek out the type of education session that you describe. While pro-am is a common practice for your sessions, it is not a common practice for conferences.

  4. thom singer says:

    A disconnect is that many attendees say they want to break they mold….. but then they gravitate to the old-school. I was at a conference recently that had an alternative learning area (sort of a “Learning Lounge” with facilitated “hallway conversations”). One attendee came to see what was going on… stood in the door way and announced “I am more comfortable with a traditional breakout where the speaker lectures”… and she walked out.

    If organizers are going to do new things they need to educate attendees and not expect them to fall right into the new-style programs.

    1. Amber Khan says:

      good point!

  5. Stuart Ruff says:

    ‘@Jeff – I agree whole heartedly with everyting you said. As an association planner that is part of a team producing a conference that is more than 130 years old, changing up the conference soup-du-jour isn’t easy. I struggle with being a catalyst for change, especially in the area of content delivery. Any advice on changing the ways of an old-school regime?

    @Thom – I think that disconnect may be generational? Was it perhaps a boomer or silent that preferred a more traditional approach? Conference organizers and program planners continue to struggle with delivering education that is cross-generational. At least the conference you were at did give her the ability to find a session/format that was more to her liking and didn’t force her into a learning zone with which she was uncomfortable.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Great point that education about conference changes, especially the whys and how it will benefit attendees, is critical to any success. While I doubt anything would have changed that one attendees’ mind, it would have helped others. Lets face it, the women you described was not there to learn, nor did she have an open mind to new experiences.

      Here’s what I often tell clients: We have to remember that change is a process, not a one-time event. People will not automatically change based on a single explanation of a new process or practice. Nor will they change because of a consultant’s report or new scientific research. Everyone needs time and repetition to transition from old habits and start cultivating new ones.
      Leadership should remember that complaining and threats are part of the process. It doesn’t mean that the change has failed. They are frequently an unavoidable part of even successful changes. In due course the new habits and practices will take hold and people will look back and be grateful for the change. Keep on keeping on my friend!

      Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion.

      Advice for changing the ways of an old-school regime? Start by asking leadership questions. Ask the content folks what the goal of their education programming is. Ask them how they know if they met that goal? Ask them if they could wave a magic wand and change anything about their content/education programming, what would they change? Then spin off of their answers with more questions. Ultimately, ask them if what they are doing now is the best of the best for the paying customer. Once you start asking questions, you can discover if they are even open to doing thing differently. If they appear to be closed-minded, tell them that you’ve been thinking a lot about how to change the conference experience so the attendee has the best experience possible. here’s to your success.

  6. EllisLP says:

    It depends on the audience, naturally. Kinaesthetic personalities would prefer to learn in an experiential environment where the conference is creative, upstanding and participatory but those who are not, would prefer the lecture approach. Learning experiences are best when “unexpected”. The dread that comes with the title “conference” can lead to attendants trying to think of distractions before they have even appeared.

    Good food and incentives are winners as conferences aren’t just about education. They also encompass brand awareness, brand reputation and creativity. They have either attended to suss you out, have been sent or have found you through research for actual learning purposes (bonus) and so conferences layouts should take on work shop approaches that are human in interaction whilst sustaining knowledge in creative and influential ways-thus encompassing all of the above.

    Great post 

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading and adding your opinions!

      Today’s neuroscience and cognitive psychology shows that everyone is a visual and kinesthetic learner. The learning styles made famous in the 1980s is nothing more than myth. The evidence shows that a lecture does not provide the ROI that we once thought it did. Sure there are those that think they learn better from a lecture so I just don’t try to convince them differently. Regardless, we all had to study after listening to our college professors…more evidence that we didn’t learn from the lecture. I suggest reading the book What’s The Use Of Lectures from Professor Donald Bligh. It has tons of evidence about what a lecture does and does not do.

  7. Lane says:

    Just a quick thank you for thinking you have made available on this site! I am planning a small education conference on a cruise ship January 2014 and am determined to do it differently – the focus is on idea generation and solution finding rather than more of ‘this is what we should be doing; this is how we should be doing it; 21C learning for the 21C…etc. I found this feedback inspiring and I am more excited than ever to continue down this track. Thanks!

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