How to build a successful hands-on learning event

Editor’s note: Welcome to our SME Stories! Whether you’re new to hands-on learning, virtual training labs or looking for ways to optimize skill development, our experts share their personal stories, experiences and insights to help you improve performance and job readiness across your employees, customers and partners.

Insights from Skillable’s Technical Program Manager, Events Damon Fout—a problem-solver extraordinaire and an event director’s secret weapon/best friend.

“If it’s important to you, then it’s important to me!”

That’s my motto and why I love my role executing our customers’ high-stakes training events. I began my career installing VoIP systems. Since then, I’ve been drawn to opportunities that require me to think on my feet, do what needs to be done and use “creative cookery” to source the simplest, most effective solution.

That brings me to my current role with Skillable—helping organizations like yours create impactful events where attendees accelerate their understanding and adoption of your software, product or technology. When distilled to its purest form, I turn our customers’ ideas and dreams into exceptional experiences that deliver on their training goals. It’s a tremendous thing building a conference from soup to nuts. Every day we fit another puzzle piece which ultimately creates a grand mosaic that everyone enjoys and benefits from.

Damon Fout - He's one of Team Skillable's event experts you want supporting YOUR events.

No favorites. Every event is special.

When asked about my favorite conference, I like to answer the way a parent would: “I love them equally.” They all demand unique solutions; and getting to create them, with the best people in the industry, for some of the most influential companies in the world, is very exciting.

For example, recently I got to help a customer turn their new software into a virtual environment for both sales team training and customer demonstration purposes. With audience-specific adjustments of the lab manual, each audience was able to test drive the software without worrying about breaking anything—right from the conference floor.

It was such a hit that next year this customer is going to offer on-site performance testing (PBT) for certifications too. So we’ll do three unique experiences using the same training platform and virtual environment with only a few small tweaks.

Build better insights and deeper relationships.

Why should you do hands-on experiences at in-person training events? They give your customers and attendees direct access to developers, trainers, thought leaders and peers—and vice versa:

Live conferences and boot camps also build deeper relationships between attendees and host companies. The more hands-on people get, especially earlier on in a software’s development, the more they feel a part of the process. An important avenue to creating die-hard fans and power users.

Events with hands-on experiences benefit both customers and hosts.

In-person events are as much for the attendees to learn through experience as they are for the hosts to learn from their users.

It’s truly fantastic to watch how the relationships develop and the unexpected innovations some products make after a town hall or Q&A session. A small beta test group can’t provide that scale!

6 tips for delivering an outstanding hands-on learning event.

1. Give plenty of access to your software, product or tech.

Hands-on experiences are always popular, so plan accordingly. Customers and prospects spend a lot of time and money to come to these events. They may not come back if they can’t get into their desired sessions.

If you’re newer to hosting labs at events, there’s going to be more trial and error on gauging demand. Other factors include how well the labs are marketed before and during the event (such as good signage!) and popularity of the topics. Post-session or event surveys are critical tools in capturing feedback and forecasting demand for future events.

From my experience, which includes hundreds of events around the world and overseeing hundreds of thousands of lab instances, the more technical your audience is, the more hands-on they’re going to want to be.

2. Provide valuable, doable content.

Labs should be meaningful to your target audiences and easily completed in the allotted time. People want to learn by doing. But if they can’t get through the lab your subject matter expert builds, they may feel it’s too difficult—which can hurt feature or tech adoption.

Pro tip: Don’t create a 60-minute lab when people only have 30-45 minutes.

3. Test. Test. Test.

Once you’ve built your labs, you must test them as close to their true scale as possible. Find the weak links and fix them before an event goes live. Some common issues we test for include:


4. Invest in quality delivery and support.

Your session speakers and room proctors are vital components of the overall experience. Participants should feel they’re getting a return on their investment. And one great conversation with a quality subject matter expert can land a customer for life.

5. Don’t skimp on food and swag.

Snacks and freebies are always a hit! Trust me, people will turn to social media if you run out of goodies.

6. Performance is everything.

When building labs for an event, performance is key. If your learning labs are slow, it will negatively affect the attendee experience. That’s why we work with our customers’ developers to ensure their needs are met and tweak, optimize and test lab performance based on product needs. Pre-instancing labs is a method to help provide a great user experience. We recently pre-instanced 36,000 labs for a customer event—that’s a lot of labs.

How we help our customers continually improve.

Every time we have an issue or a surprise, we create a new process or add a checkbox to our list—which means we (and our customers) get better with every event. The trick is to not overcomplicate your process while ensuring everything is covered.

For example, when we onboard development teams, we progressively teach them what they need to know in small, actionable bites. Then, we set very clear and specific deadlines for achieving these activities. This eliminates “decision paralysis” by not overwhelming developers with options and makes their tasks much faster to complete. Overloading teams in a stressful time is a recipe for disaster.

Why hands-on experiences are force multipliers at events.

The rise of dedicated rooms for hands-on access to technology via virtual labs is growing exponentially in demand.

Our customers have high expectations and goals for their events. Whether they’re teaching a new feature to accelerate adoption, providing certification testing or selling education subscriptions, they can point to their events as tipping points. That’s why hands-on experiences are force multipliers.

Serious growth and still cool under pressure.

Damon and his team helped a customer scale from three self-paced labs for a few hundred people to over 50 labs—plus multi-day Instructor-led classes—totaling 10,000 launches in one event.

Final words of advice.

Every event has its surprises, so assemble a team with the skills and experience to whip up creative solutions amidst the chaos. As one of my colleagues perfectly put it, “We don’t afford ourselves the privilege of failure. We find success in each other.”

Want to hear stories we can’t share here … or talk about beards🧔?

Connect with Damon.

And if you’re interested in hosting a hands-on learning event or want more tips for lab success, please reach out to Damon on LinkedIn, visit Skillable’s event services page or request a demo.

Look how fast his beard grew between the top of the page and here.

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