Innovative Meetings

5 Innovations From the Annual Convention & World Languages Expo

This planning team is given freer rein to create interactive environments where attendees can drive content.

sign language

When she was hired as director of conventions and marketing for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) 10 years ago, Julia Richardson saw that ACTFL’s Annual Convention & World Languages Expo had a traditional program. Like many conventions with a half-century history, there was a standard exhibit floor and lots of breakout sessions.

Over the past five years, Richardson has made it her mission to reimagine the show. Fortunately for her — and the 6,000-plus educators and foreign-language professionals who attend the Annual Convention & World Languages Expo — ACTFL Executive Director Marty Abbott and the association’s board of directors have her back. “They are all about staying on the cutting edge and making changes that work,” Richardson said. “They understand the language of meetings.”

For Richardson, that translates into engagement. She and her team have been given freer rein to create interactive environments where attendees can drive content, to develop opportunities for them to learn on the show floor, to launch new presentation formats, and to keep fresh ideas flowing. None of the initiatives they have launched, Richardson said, have been expensive or complicated to produce.

Here are highlights of how ACTFL remade its 2015 Annual Convention & World Languages Expo in San Diego last Nov. 20–22 — and what’s on tap for this year’s program in Boston on Nov. 18–20.


Introduced in San Diego, the Collab Zone provided a new learning experience on the World Languages Expo show floor. It was an informal space, outfitted with chairs, tables, sofas, and highboys, Richardson said, “where people could stand if they wanted to.” The relaxed vibe was deliberately unintimidating, to encourage attendees to do more than observe. “I think that what happens in a lot of theater-seating situations is that people don’t want to participate,” Richardson said. “It’s off-putting.”

In the Collab Zone, participants heard presentations from ACTFL staff and representatives of Language Testing International about the various assessment tools that teachers can use with their students. “It was a collaborative event,” Richardson said, in that “our staff was also learning what they can do to better meet the needs of language educators, while the teachers were learning how to make these assessment tools more effective for their students.”

Even with 50 other sessions going on at the same time — ACTFL offered more than 700 education sessions throughout the 2015 convention — the Collab Zone was so popular that it was often filled to capacity. This year, exhibitors will purchase booths around two separate Collab Zones on the show floor at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC).


The expo hall in San Diego also featured a revamped, more hands-on version of the Career Café that was featured at the 2014 convention. Experienced language educator Paula Patrick gave short sessions on career-search topics, including resume writing and interview skills. What attendees particularly liked, Richardson said, was the opportunity to sit down and talk one-on-one with Patrick.


ACTFL’s Social Media Lounge made a return engagement on the 2015 show floor after a popular debut in 2014. In addition to being able to recharge their devices and relax on sofas and comfortable seating, attendees could listen to a tech-savvy presenter give “mini-byte” sessions on topics such as how to use iPhones and Twitter in the language classroom. Because it was so packed last year, the lounge will take up an even larger space at the BCEC.


Every year, ACTFL recognizes a Language Teacher of the Year (TOY) in five U.S. regions, all of whom then compete to be named National Language Teacher of the Year. In 2015, recent National Teacher of the Year honorees were given the opportunity to present a TOY Talk, patterned after TED Talks. One general-session room was devoted to the short presentations, which ran throughout the day. “Freeman set the stage like TED,” Richardson said. “It was fabulous.”


ACTFL will be building on these successful informal learning formats and environments — while simultaneously making the exhibit hall “even more of an educational venue,” Richardson said — with the introduction of a brand-new unconference format called a “Confer-sation Corner” in Boston. “We are very excited about this,” Richardson said, “since this is geared toward Millennials and their need to discuss issues within groups.” Because ACTFL has to be mindful of the fact that school districts don’t want to pay for teachers to attend events that lack structure, a facilitator will keep conversations on track and ensure that they have outcomes.

No doubt Richardson is already mulling over new ideas for ACTFL’s 2017 Annual Convention. “Change is happening so quickly now that I have to think further ahead,” she said. “But that’s what I love — tapping into my creativity. That’s the way I approach my job. It should be exciting. If it’s not fun anymore, then it’s time to go.”

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.