In 2002, coming off an annual meeting where it lost $700,000, the brain trust at the Employee Relocation Council made a move that probably seemed counterintuitive at the time but, in fact, was two steps ahead of their competition — they went global.

Some might think it's the wrong time to invest the money and resources on global meetings, but Cris Collie, executive vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based association, had a different perspective. “It was shortly after 9/11 and our competitors were retrenching, so we decided to make a bold move,” says Collie.

Seeing an opportunity to grow the association overseas at a time when the competition might be back on its heels, ERC set plans in motion to launch meetings in Europe and Asia. “We moved so quickly and aggressively that what would have been our competition decided not to compete,” says Collie. “We needed to plant a flag globally and take our meeting to our members overseas.”

Many associations are re-evaluating their place in the world and are using meetings to tap into new markets to survive and thrive in the 21st century. “In the last two years, there has been a growing interest by U.S.-based associations to be involved overseas by holding meetings, even opening offices,” says Greta Kotler, chief knowledge and strategy officer at the American Society of Association Executives, which sponsored a study mission to China last year for association executives and is planning one in 2008 to India. In the last two years, according to ASAE, 47 percent of associations held meetings outside the United States. A reader survey conducted by The Meetings Group (publisher of Association Meetings), which was published in the Beyond Borders supplement, found that 48 percent of respondents will hold more meetings outside the U.S. in 2007 than they did in 2006. In the future, experts expect the numbers to be even higher as associations find a new world of potential meetings opportunities.

Growth in a Flattening World

In the best-selling book, The World Is Flat, author Thomas Friedman discusses globalization in the 21st century and how technology and other factors have connected economies and people. That reality is beginning to hit associations. “The globalization of associations mirrors what's happening in the business world,” says Terrance Barkan, chief executive officer at Association Global Services, a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy. As the business world goes global, associations need to be there for their global membership, he says.

It's what prompted the Financial Management Association to expand into Europe and Asia in recent years. “The financial markets have been globalizing pretty rapidly,” says Jack Rader, executive director at FMA, Tampa. “We have a mission of serving the global finance community and that was the impetus for taking our meetings outside of North America.”

The globalization of associations is really a two-way street, says Claire Smith, president, Claire Smith Solutions, Vancouver, British Columbia, an association consultant. “Most of it is driven by members, who want exposure to global education, research, and networking,” she says, while associations want to expand their reach and attract new members.

While many associations have come to the realization that the world is flat — that is, interconnected — some are realizing that the U.S. is flat in a different sense: future growth potential. “How much more incremental growth can mature associations achieve in the U.S. versus going to a new market where there's a high desire for their products and services?” asks Barkan.

Smith also sees the growth dilemma for associations. “The fact that North America may be saturated for some associations from a membership standpoint is definitely a factor,” she says.

For the Photo Marketing Association International it certainly was. The Jackson, Mich.-based association expanded internationally in the 1990s because they expected membership to “level off,” explains Bruce Aldrich, senior operations officer at PMAI. Now, the association has 11 offices around the world, hosts seven international meetings annually, and has seen membership grow by more than 30 percent, with most, if not all of that growth, coming from overseas. About 50 percent of members are from outside North America, up from about 15 percent prior to the expansion.

Stiff Competition

Another challenge that U.S.-based associations face is competition. There is more competition in the more mature North American market, not only from other associations but from for-profit organizations as well, states Carolyn Lugbill, president, Going Global Matters, a Fairfax, Va.-based consultant. There's competition for members and there's competition for products and services, such as certification programs.

In this global economy, associations that don't look to spread their influence overseas will fall behind because eventually your competitors will, says David Weil, senior director, convention and trade show services at SmithBucklin Corp., a Chicago-based association management company.

Which is why ERC acted when it did — and its “bold move” has been a turning point for the association. Since 2003, the first year of the Asia meeting, international membership has grown by about 50 percent. “Our membership is growing, principally with new members from international locations,” says Collie. The meetings themselves have also flourished. This year's Asia conference, held in Shanghai, China, attracted 400 people, twice as many as the first Asia conference in 2003.

That kind of membership growth would probably not have been possible if ERC didn't host international events. “You need to meet your international members there,” says Collie. “Until you're there, getting them talking about what their issues are, it's difficult to be the ultimate problem-solvers for them.” It also shows international members that “you are truly global,” says Collie — not international in name only.

The American Anaplastology Association is just the opposite, an international association in scope, but not in name — for now, anyway. Of its membership, 30 percent is international, which is why the association is considering changing its name to reflect its international nature, explains MaryAnne Bobrow, executive director at AAA and president of association management company, Bobrow and Associates, Citrus Heights, Calif. It's also why the association is considering launching an international meeting. The question that AAA and other organizations that are inclined to go global must answer is: How?

Act Globally, Think Locally

While meetings are a major part of a global initiative, experts say that you need to do your homework first. Analyze your membership to see where high concentrations of members are, but also, do market research to see which regions are key markets for the industry. For example, PMAI's first international event was in Australia because that country was on the cutting edge of photo industry research and manufacturing. Also, look at your competition and other events in the industry to see if they are filling a void, says Aldrich. Finally, he says, check with your local suppliers. “Do the suppliers even want us there? If the suppliers don't want us there, why are we even thinking about it?”

The recent global expansion of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society was driven in part by input from exhibitors and members from both Asia and Europe, who were coming to the U.S. meeting in growing numbers. Enough of them said HIMSS would be filling a void if it launched meetings overseas, so the association decided to act globally, says Stephen Lieber, president and chief executive officer at the Chicago-based association.

But HIMSS did not try to replicate its very successful — and growing — U.S.-based annual meeting, which attracts about 25,000 people. It took a fresh look at both launches — Europe in 2006 and Asia this year. “Nobody should go into this believing that they can take their experience in the U.S. and just transplant it,” says Lieber. “If you go in with that attitude, you're going to run into resistance with your partners in the other countries and you're going to make some serious missteps.”

Collie agrees. “Going global requires you to not just take what you're doing here and give it a foreign address,” he says, because the needs of members in a given region or country can be vastly different from the needs of U.S. members. In short, associations that act globally need to think locally.

Going Native

HIMSS' European meeting, which debuted last October in Geneva, required a very European “look and feel,” both in content and presentation, says Lieber. European members prefer local speakers and want to discuss their own issues and best practices rather than having American speakers talk about U.S trends. So, HIMSS established a European headquarters in Brussels, where the marketing is handled and much of the content is planned with an expectation that over time, all content will be handled out of Brussels, says Lieber.

Also, to ensure the local flavor, HIMSS partnered with several European information technology and healthcare organizations as co-sponsors and even branded “The World of IT,” intentionally leaving HIMSS out of the name.

It was an immediate success, attracting 1,800 to become the largest IT conference in Europe. But Lieber knows that true success in Europe is long-term. “We don't have any (short-term) goals and we didn't set any on purpose because our belief is that the first year is more about building infrastructure and programs. If you don't have good programs and services, it doesn't matter what you set as your membership metric, it's just not going to happen.”

Also, experts say, Europeans are generally less inclined than Americans to join associations, so success can't always be measured by membership. “We here in the U.S. are a nation of joiners, we like to belong, whereas in other cultures joining is not as [much] of a cultural custom or need,” says Lugbill. “So sometimes you have to use the platform of a meeting to allow them to see the value of becoming a member.”

Or, says Smith, the driver could be to generate awareness of the association; sell products or services; get exhibitors or sponsors; and promote training, certification programs, and education. “Every organization may have different goals,” adds Smith. “There may be products that an association can offer in regions that are financially rewarding.”

Seek Local Help

In Asia, where HIMSS launched its inaugural conference in Singapore this past May, it's a different story. The market is less mature, so members are looking for more outside feedback and information about U.S.-based standards and practices. Consequently, the event, called HIMSS AsiaPac, carries the HIMSS name. Educational content was planned out of the Chicago office of HIMSS, while its event management partner, MCI Group, handled the logistics out of its Singapore office. Having local planners, convention and visitors bureaus, and destination management companies who understand the customs, cultural differences, and the vendors is essential, experts say.

“The most important thing is to find good partners to help guide you through those cultural differences,” says Smith. “Find a good DMC or PCO that is based in that country, because that can make a huge difference,” she says. For example, a local PCO (professional convention organizer) will let you know not to schedule a breakfast meeting in Spain at 7:30 a.m., because no one will show up. For help with programming and educational content, consult local members or establish a local advisory committee.

Input from the local members is critical, says Aldrich. “Meet local needs,” he says. For its meeting in Brazil, the members were more interested in networking than in market research and presentations. “So, why are we trying to cram all this stuff down their throats when they don't want it.”

Unlike in Europe, HIMSS won't be opening an office in Asia, at least not now. “We're trying to establish the organization's name recognition around that annual event” and then create the business model from there, says Lieber. “Will it be that we create events in various places across Asia or will we create HIMSS organizations in individual countries?” he asks. “We're anxious to see what the reaction is to the educational conference in Asia.”

Meetings are a good “test balloon” to see if a region has long-term potential for an association. “The first thing to do is to have an event there to see what kind of excitement it generates,” says Aldrich. If it is well-received, then the next question might be: “Does it warrant our having an office there?”

Questions, questions, questions — there's more than one way to go global.

To Go or Not to Go

The American Anaplastology Association is mulling several options for going global. One idea is to rotate regional meetings in regions where there is a high concentration of international members, like Europe, South Africa, and Asia.

Another idea is to hold the annual meeting overseas every other year, but with 70 percent of the membership from the U.S., that could be a financial risk. If it's going to adversely affect attendance — and revenues — then that's a problem, says Bobrow. But for associations where the membership split is closer to 50/50, it might be a solution.

Forming partnerships with sister associations in other countries is another option. Most regions have associations for any given field, but for the most part they are not as sophisticated as U.S.-based associations — and many embrace the idea of partnering with U.S. associations.

Associations can partner in a variety of ways, says Barkan. They can do a 50/50 joint venture; get the local endorsement of the association, but run it themselves; or do the reverse and play a small role, maybe host a reception or lend some speakers, and still get visibility. A co-located meeting is another possibility, particularly if it's with an association in a slightly different field that might have members who are interested in checking out your event.

PMAI has joint meetings with associations in Australia, Brazil, and Europe where they promote their annual event back in the U.S. while building membership abroad. They also have international pavilions at their U.S. meeting to market their partners' meetings overseas.

The Financial Management Association got into Asia by co-sponsoring a meeting with the Asian Finance Association with which it has overlapping membership. For FMA, it was an opportunity to serve Asian members and get more exposure, while the Asian association was able to tap into the superior education and networking potential that FMA offers, explains Rader.

In the future, FMA hopes to host its own conference in Asia and launch meetings in developing regions like India and Latin America. “The future of many associations is going to be more and more tied to face-to-face contact, so we will continue to evolve our meetings portfolio,” says Rader. In this age, where digital communications and technology has made the world “flat,” association meetings are more important than ever, he says. From his perspective, the globalization of associations is not about technology — it's about meetings.

“What associations really can offer that digitalization cannot is face-to-face contact,” Rader adds. “If we can offer that in interesting places, perhaps instead of sitting in your office by yourself and getting the information, you'll go to Barcelona to meet with your peers and get even more out of it.”

MPI Makes a Splash Overseas

Meeting Professionals International announced the formation of a new conference in Dubai, and it plans to open an office in Singapore later this year. Soon, MPI will launch a conference in Asia.

Dallas-based MPI has long been on the leading edge of the globalization trend, expanding into Europe in the early 1990s with PEC-Europe. This latest push puts the association at the forefront of the next wave of globalization — to Asia.

“The key driver behind the global strategy is the desire to meet the needs of our current membership,” says Didier Scaillet, vice president of global development at MPI. In recent years, many members have said they have meeting responsibilities in emerging destinations, like India, China, the Middle East, and need guidance. “Obviously, we do hope that a spinoff is that we'll be able to recruit more members and create chapters in other parts of the world,” he says.

MPI has experienced strong international growth since it started its first European chapter in 1992. At the time, 3 percent of members were from outside North America. Now, international membership is 10 percent, growing by an average of 20 percent annually for the last 10 years. By 2010, MPI is hoping to double its international membership from outside of North America to 20 percent.

PEC Middle East is targeted at members who want to learn more about the region as a meetings destination and planners in the Middle East. “There is a huge amount of infrastructure development taking place in that part of the world, and they are starting to attract fairly significant meetings,” says Scaillet. The motivation for launching PEC Asia is similar, he adds, but MPI decided to open an office in Singapore first to better understand the diverse marketplace.

MPI has set an attendance goal of 150 for Dubai, but based on interest it has generated, Scaillet wouldn't be surprised if it were twice that. The biggest challenge is going to be overcoming the perception of the region, particularly in the U.S.

The International Face of U.S.-Based Meetings

For Photo Marketing Association International, expanding its meetings globally has helped to draw international delegates to its annual meeting in the U.S., which attracts about 25,000 people. While U.S. attendance has been relatively flat over the years, international attendance has grown by about 30 percent.

But most associations have not experienced the same success in attracting international attendees to U.S.-based meetings.

While 45 percent of U.S.-based associations have international members, about 51 percent attract less than 5 percent of their attendees from international markets and just 14 percent have international attendance of more than 25 percent, according to a survey conducted by the Professional Convention Management Association. Only 29 percent report an increase since 2000.

“The ability of associations to grow their North American meeting may be limited because it is getting more difficult to gain access to the U.S. from some parts of the world ” says Claire Smith, president, Claire Smith Solutions, Vancouver, British Columbia.

There are two reasons why, says Terrance Barkan, CEO at Association Global Services, a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy. “There are people who physically have a harder time getting into the States because there are more visa requirements.” Also, he says, it's a hassle. “You have to get half naked in the airport to get through security; you can't take any liquids. We make all these barriers for entry so a lot of people that would otherwise go, don't.”

China: The Waking Giant

With some 200 convention centers being built throughout the country, China is rapidly gaining the infrastructure to become a major player in the meetings industry. Western associations have taken notice, but few have actually taken the plunge and held meetings there — so far.

“There is huge interest right now in China because it is such an untapped market [that is] hungry for knowledge and contact with North American associations,” says Claire Smith, president, Claire Smith Solutions, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based consultant. “But the majority of meeting activity is still being held in Asian cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur, which are more experienced hosting international meetings.”

While the infrastructure in China is coming, it's not at the level that many western groups are used to, she says. Accessibility is also a factor. It can still be difficult to get flights in and out of the country as well as move people around to different sites.

But infrastructure and access is improving, says Smith, and she suspects that the diplomatic hoops will be easier to navigate once the infrastructure is in place and interest grows. “People are starting to do it — looking at major cities like Beijing and Shanghai that they wouldn't have looked at before.”

Last October, ASAE sponsored a study mission to China for about 30 association executives. During the 10-day trip, the delegation traveled the country and met with business leaders to exchange ideas and learn about China as a meetings destination.

This past March, the Employee Relocation Council, a Washington, D.C.-based association, held its annual Asia-Pacific Summit in Shanghai for the first time. ERC had record attendance there, attracting 400 attendees, including about 140 Chinese, says Cris Collie, ERC's executive vice president.

The meeting was a great success, but not without careful planning, says Collie. “You need a partnership with the government. You need some sort of governmental endorsement,” he says. The fact that ERC opened an office in Shanghai last year and that its management company, Association Global Services, has an office there helped. “You really need a local partner.” The deputy mayor of Shanghai welcomed the delegation at the opening session and a delegation from a sister association in Shanghai was also in attendance.

There were some challenges, such as getting some of the exhibitors through customs and respecting local protocol and cultural norms. While the meeting was held in English, there were simultaneous translations for some sessions. They also exchanged gifts with the deputy mayor. The city was very welcoming and the conference was well-received, says Collie. The educational focus of the conference, work force mobility, is a topic of great interest in China's growing economy. The host hotel, the Shangri-La, “was a wonderful partner,” adds Collie. “The meeting was so successful, I think we're going to go back to Shanghai again next year.”

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