One thing is certain in Cheryl Russell's mind: There are no experts in Web-based meeting planning. "Everything is changing so quickly," she says. "We all have to be continually learning."
As director of conventions and meetings for the Rockville, Md.-based American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Russell is a self-described cheerleader for technology-enabled meeting planning. She is among the fearless when it comes to marrying the Internet with bricks-and-mortar associations.
"It's true to a certain extent that associations don't think e-commerce is important," Russell says, "and it's because associations are not in the profit-mode mentality. But it is a huge source of future revenue. Associations have the captive audience."
From the Ground Up An early career experience gives a clue to Russell's interest in the nascent power of the Internet. "Too many years ago," she says, "I moved to Nashville in my early 20s and met someone who was building Opryland USA Theme Park; he hired me as the assistant to the man who ran it. It was literally building something, putting it together, opening it up. It was the ground floor."
Russell's life took a variety of turns--she married, moved to the Washington, D.C., area, worked on Capitol Hill, had children, and stayed home to care for them. Eventually she found work with the director of conventions for an association. It was living her Opryland days all over again, building something from the ground up. And she found something else: "I realized I loved the work," she says.
Answering a blind ad in the newspaper led her to ASHA in 1988. She began as promotion and exhibit sales manager and, in 1994, was promoted to director of conventions and meetings for the organization, overseeing a staff of seven and an annual meetings budget of $1.7 million. From her vantage point, Russell often thinks about the future and what it means to the industry: "Associations are the knowledge base for their members," she says, "and members will go someplace else on the Web for information [if they don't get it from us]."
So, with 97,000 members--which may hit 100,000 this year, ASHA's 75th anniversary--and annual conventions averaging 12,000 attendees, Russell doesn't plan to be left in the dot-com dust. She notes that with the support of the executive board and the CEO, ASHA held a legislative council meeting this spring to set policy and hear about why the association needs a good business plan for its Web efforts.
Crystal Ball "Technology will not take away from face-to-face meetings," Russell predicts. "In fact, it may even increase attendance because of the isolation factor and because there is so much information out there."
The Internet is a force to harness, and the following example of how ASHA did it may be prophetic. The annual November convention generates about 2,000 submissions in its call for papers. "It's usually an intense process taking about five weeks with 10 temp people doing data entry and making copies for 200 committee members," Russell says. "This year it's all being done online--no temps, no boxes, no paper involved," she explained. The upfront investment was a big one, Russell says, "but the savings in the long run are astronomical, and the staff can refocus their objectives and goals to provide better service to members."