PCMA 2011: The new generation of (learning) lounge lizards

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I was beyond excited when I learned that the Professional Convention Management Association had set the Velvet Chainsaw Consulting boys, Jeff Hurt and Dave Lutz, loose to design a "learning lounge" for its annual meeting last week in Las Vegas. Having been a big fan of both those guys -- and knowing that they "get" the whole concept of making information available in ways that make it easy for adults to learn -- I was pretty sure they'd pull off something cool. And boy, did they. Check out Sam Smith's video clip to get a sense of the way it looked and felt. At 7 in the morning, no less!

Running for an hour before the general session on the first two days, plus a 4-5 pm slot on Tuesday, and located backstage to the general session space, the Learning Lounge wasn't very lounge-y. It was more a high-energy 10-ring circus, with master TV host/facilitator Glenn Thayer interviewing speakers and other movers in one area, a parade of really good speakers at the various Big Ideas Pavilions (including social media guru Chris Brogan, who I hope I didn't gush all over -- I'm a huge fan!), a social media experts bar where people could get personalized attention and solutions to whatever their challenges might be, to a supplier showdown theater, where tech solution providers went head-to-head in what I hear was a really useful way to do some comparison shopping. There were a lot of quick-hit, TED-style presentations on everything from F&B trends to career advice to AV to marketing to meeting ROI ... pretty much every meetings-related topic you could imagine.

It was, hands-down, the best part of the conference for me, and for most of the people I asked about it who had gone to it. OK, maybe it was a tie with keynotes by Zappos' Tony Hsieh and Daniel Pink, but still, it was amazing.

The only part that I was disappointed in was the roundtable discussions, which I had been really looking forward to. Designed to be facilitated peer-to-peer discussion groups, they ended up for the most part being facilitators sitting at empty tables in a cold, uninviting room down the hall from the rest of the Learning Lounge action. I think this portion of the program deserves as much promotion and attention as the flashy part where the action was. As one commenter on Sam's post says, it would make sense to have the room be inviting toward actual, real conversations (think, comfortable seating, normal lighting, you know, a space that would be conducive to diving a little deeper into topics than we usually do at a typical roundtable discussion).

Although, serendipity being what it is, on the second day when basically no one showed up for the roundtables, the facilitators got together and started their own conversation. I didn't arrive until toward the end, but it looked like they were well on the way to fomenting a roundtable rebellion that will change the way those types of sessions are run forever. Will the momentum that spun out of a failed piece of programming lead to real change? I'm thinking that it just might.

So, even without bells and whistles, comfy chairs, or even a nearby coffee pot, people found a way to make learning happen. So, while I loved everything that happened at the Learning Lounge, it makes me wonder if all we really need to do is provide a space and good, smart company and get out of the way?

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