Learnfest: A leadership conference with a twist

Jo Cook, an L&D Specialist at Lightbulb Moment​, writes about her experience at Learnfest and what she gained from it. 


The Lake District in the UK is one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever been too in all of my travels. Boarding the train at Oxenholme for the last leg to arrive at Windermere was instantly relaxing and certainly put me in the mood for a different type of conference – my first attendance to Learnfest.

This festival experience based around learning and development and leadership is hosted by Impact International, a global development company whose headquarters are in Windermere. Their annual conference has developed over the years into Learnfest, where sessions and topics are discussed that are pertinent to the current L&D landscape, but in a picturesque and relaxed environment. I delivered a session about live online delivery, in a vest top and no shoes, while in a beautiful stone building that dates from 1910. There were also tents and yurts as well as the stunning grounds and a gorgeous view of the lake.

Learnfest run what they call the ‘fringe events’ on all of the three days. You have time to make the most of the lake to go kayaking, wild swimming, stand up paddle boarding, running, walking and much more. There’s also street dancing to learn, putting together your own reggae track or learning to DJ and scratch records like, well maybe not a pro – but lots of fun! These fringe events, along with early morning yoga and meditation on offer provide an experience in and of themselves as well as bonding all those that attended and learning more about yourself, expanding comfort zones and lessons to take away.

Throughout each day there were ‘headline acts’ of keynote speakers in a large tent known in festival speak as the ‘main stage.’ These inspirational speakers included Emma Cerrone from Freeformers, who told a compelling story about the background of the Barclay’s Digital Eagles. Fraser Doherty’s session titled ‘the adventures of jam boy’ highlighted his journey from being a young boy making jam with his nan to selling healthy jam worldwide and much more.

Leo Houlding, who may be remembered from his rock climbing in a race against Jeremy Clarkson driving on Top Gear, recalled what he had learnt from scaling a never-climbed mountain face in Antarctica. I didn’t think it could get more inspirational than Leo, but Hamish Wilson managed it in a pre-dinner session where he talked about leadership while managing teams in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone. This was emphasised in a tweet later from Leo Houlding saying “Holy moly I thought I’d experienced leadership in extreme situations, nothing on you mate.”

There were lots of other sessions to attend throughout the three days on a variety of L&D and leadership topics, including digital mindset for leaders, how to fail and be happy, staff development through doing good – but not just the standard two CSR days!

In addition to this, were demystification of coding workshops where people could grasp the basics of HTML in an hour, building community action learning programmes, the responsibility of leadership rather than the power, exploring the VUCA model with a chance to debrief personal VUCA questionnaires, risk taking and so, so much more.

The speakers at all these sessions were down to earth and engaging, partly through their own professionalism, but also the atmosphere created at the Learnfest event was about being energetic and relaxed in equal and appropriate proportions – about doing good and being adventurous as well as taking this back into workplaces and changing them for the better.

There was fabulous catering throughout with evening meals to be enjoyed together, beer tokens being shared for the bar in a tent, sat on straw bales, and a champagne lake cruise one evening with much jollity and conversation. Out in the garden areas overlooking the lake there were large blocks of wood chain sawed and set fire to with the name ‘Swedish candle’ hotly debated!

It was easy to make instant friends with like-minded people at the festival. The combination of a great atmosphere and surroundings with quality L&D thinking and discussions around these topics made it an experience I’m still reflecting on and implementing elements not only to my work, but to my personal life and behaviours too. 


Watch more about Learnfest


About the author

Jo Cook is Deputy Editor of TJ and an independent L&D specialist focusing on blended programme design and live online virtual classrooms. She can be contacted through her blog at www.lightbulbmoment.info and via Twitter: @LightbulbJo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *