The theme of the event was pretty straightforward: just as the name says, the program and speakers recognized and showcased new and disruptive technologies, innovative shifts for association business models (!!), and all of the speakers and attendees participated in really frank conversations from the stage but also at our tables about how association professionals must continue to push and redefine the space that we work in.
Here are some of the highlights:
The Future of Associations Is Disruption
Abe Eshkenazi, the current CEO of APICS and APICS Supply Chain Council, shared “10 Signs You Will Survive the Future“. I loved that he was one of the first speakers because he really set the stage for how challenging and rewarding working in and with associations can be. He was also very direct about how resistant to change associations can be. He made two very statements that have stuck with me.
On staffing: “I can hire a business person because association management can be taught. I find we have a more challenging time hiring an association person and having them understand or learn agile business methods.”
On succession planning: “I was out unexpectedly for a health issue for nearly three months. Never in that time did I worry about the organization. We had taken care of that when we updated the succession plan shortly after I had been hired. All of our departments ensure they have succession plans. Why wouldn’t we? And yet so many associations and decisive roles inside associations don’t plan for emergencies or the unexpected.”
The reasons these statements have stuck with me is that they are troubling. I worked with an association CEO who used to say that nonprofit is just a tax status. Another nonprofit VP colleague reminds her staff that the mission is the margin and the margin is the mission.
Revenue and business continuity matters.
At the end of the day, on paper as least, associations exist to make money for the mission the association supports. If we aren’t helping to support that goal through our day to day business decisions, why do we work there?
For event professionals, this is especially relevant because events make the most money but also tend to cost the most money. We must be especially vigilant in our approach to choose the right supplier partners and thinking strategically about how we ensure the event(s) thrive in the long-term.
This doesn’t mean that by focusing on revenue lines and profit and loss ratios we are losing sight of building community, connecting members, or driving professional development. It only means we are practical and mature in our approach that we must be able to afford the experiences we want to create, or the experiences will start to suffer.
Simulated Reality and Hybrid Technology for Association Learning and Events
Another presentation we loved was Elizabeth Lepkowski’s overview of how the American Society of Anesthesiologists transformed a face to face learning experience into hybrid and 3D screen-based training simulations. ASA wanted to stay ahead of the curve as well as meet their members where they were, rather than demanding they come to ASA’s events only for professional development. I particularly loved how she shared the timelines for not only formulating how they came up with the plan, but also detailed the in-depth amount of time it took to adapt their leadership, their membership, and the larger group of stakeholders to the new technology. It was an excellent demonstration of change management in an association setting.
At our table, the presentation sparked a lot of conversation about how augmented reality, simulated reality, virtual reality, and technology, in general, is really changing the way that events and tradeshows do business. Nearly every event professional at our table and those we spoke to afterward said that this type of tech (AR, VR, SR) was cool, but their organizations just weren’t ready yet or couldn’t afford it.
Most of them were still concentrating on ways to improve how they managed the shows logistically through “basic” technology, like the small medication association event manager at our table who was trying to convince her boss that going from nearly 90% printed materials to a digital solution like a conference app was necessary to help attendees with logistics as well as be better engaged with the event, and not just an indulgence for their attendees.
Another interesting insight came from event planner who worked with small business owners in her association actually said “Our attendees are older and even though they’re passing the business on to younger generations, this type of technology isn’t as relevant to us because their businesses don’t demand it. It’s cool for the big shows or medical associations but falls shorts so far as to why I would need to use it.”
Disruption in Event Technology for Associations isn’t Done Yet
One of the best highlights of the day was the “Skinny on the Community Brands Consolidation” with Teri Carden of ReviewMyAMS and Ben Martin, CAE, of Online Community Results. This session was important and fascinating to me because as event professionals everywhere continue to search for the one platform that can do it all (from strategic planning through execution and assessment), there is always the hope for association event managers that an AMS system will get the event management module completely right.
Alas, we are not there yet. And with Aptify, YourMembership, Abila, and NimbleUser all consolidating together, there has been a significant shift in the association technology space. With the newness of this consolidation, all of the associations (and the AMS companies themselves) don’t know exactly yet how everything is going to shake out. Coupled with the moves that other event technology providers have been making, it definitely raises questions about what the path forward looks like for #eventprofs.
The big takeaways for now:
—The association technology landscape should expect to see increased amounts of change, including more consolidations, acquisitions, and mergers over the next 18 months. What does this mean for you, the event manager or director? Disruption will likely extend past the AMS space and leach into where any of your event technology providers can be affected. This means your events management tools, your registration management, your event app platform, etc.
Though we know you already read every contract religiously before you sign them, pay close attention to your cancellation clauses and talk through with your IT team (if you have one) or with the AMS account person (if you’re the one in charge) about what happens if the AMS or technology supplier partner experiences changes or is absorbed. What about your meeting history, your meeting revenues, your post-event metrics and history,
—Put a plan in place to weather the change. There is good news due to the fact that association technology tools are so fragmented. It means that you, as an event manager, are already likely using a lot of duct tape and baling wire to accomplish the way you do things. While this can be seen as a negative, it can also mean your event may not be as strongly affected initially as changes come. It doesn’t mean though that you shouldn’t take the time (now!) to do an audit and see where your weaknesses might be and how you’ll bridge the gaps, if and when disruption happens.
Change Is A’Coming but It’s Welcome
On the final panel of the day, one of the speakers mentioned that there were more than 70,000 associations now.
That’s a pretty incredible number for a lot of reasons. Foremost in my mind is that there are at least 140,000 people who decided to pair off to create a professional association to get better at their field, collaborate around their hobbies, or simply band together to connect and learn from one another.
And the odds are low that there are only 140,000 people out there in associations, which is heartening! In a time and space when it seems like our world is very fractured and divided, associations and professional societies still exist to bring together and celebrate communities of practice. To help connect an older generation with a younger one. To mentor. To laugh. To network. To ask, “Why do we do it that way!?” and “Can we do it better?!”
To exist together as a tribe.
And events are at the heart of that. As conference managers, we have the unique pleasure to create a time and space to bring communities together and help them continue to thrive.
Yes, change is coming but it’s welcome. We’re excited to see what waits around the corner and ready to help you on the journey.
—Abe Eshkenazi, AMS, association management system, associations, Ben Martin, CAE, Community Brands, conferences, Elizabeth Lepkowski, event apps, event management, event technology, OrgCommunity, Terri Carden, tradeshow app