The NAA is in the midst of a strategic planning process that has its Manchester, N.H.-based staff exploring sweeping changes, including the launch of new meetings targeting specific member niches. The 64-year-old association already has a successful 130,000-gross-square-foot annual trade show, which last year, unlike many other shows, saw no decline in attendance even though it was held just a few weeks after September 11.

NAA's other annual event, the Winter Management Conference, has not grown much, even as membership has. The 250-person resort meeting is popular with the same core group of larger companies and industry leaders year after year. “We tried over the years to attract additional members by changing the type of location and by making it shorter,” Crossland says. Although the meeting continued to be successful with the core group, it hasn't attracted new member niches.

Following a membership survey, the association realized that what it needed was to keep its successful events as they were and explore creating new experiences for different member niches. One possibility is a new meeting, targeting the needs of a younger audience that wants a more affordable, shorter meeting with more professional education. Crossland is also exploring the possibility of more niche-specific trade shows.

“We're out to brand ourselves among green industry organizations,” she adds, “and with strategic moves like this — and with an integrated marketing campaign — we can make it work.”

EVERYBODY'S DOING IT

NAA's enviable expansive mode is not typical of many associations these days — though its focus on strategic change is. Reports from the field paint an industry hit hard. Just ask Michael Olson, CAE, president and CEO, the American Society of Association Executives, Washington, D.C.

“The current marketplace environment is less than stable for most associations, and budgets for the next fiscal year have never been harder to construct,” Olson explains. “We hear daily of associations that have reduced their staffs and programs, experienced budget deficits for the first time, or even confronted closure.” The reason is primarily economic: Revenues from meetings, memberships, advertising, and sponsorships in many cases have taken a nosedive.

Recently Olson announced a reorganization of ASAE, reducing staff by 18 people to 127, and chopping its divisions to four from seven. He estimates that ASAE's year-end change in net assets from operations will be a “substantial loss,” although audited figures won't be available until September. The association is revisiting its strategic plan and is revising its budget process for 2003. Business as usual “is an antiquated operating concept,” Olson says. “We must be fast and fluid in responding to a changing environment and emerging member needs.”

That said, ASAE is not on the ropes, by any means. The association has huge assets, and its annual meeting, set for this month in Denver, has the highest advance registration ever. “Part of the reason is that people really want to network with each other after September 11,” Olson believes. At press time, the show had 810 exhibit booths, down just slightly from the 825 projected for the Denver annual meeting, Olson notes.

The association is also rebranding its winter meeting, the Management and Technology Conferences and Exposition, as well as launching two new smaller “signature events” in 2003.

Strategic changes Olson sees in association meetings in general: more focus on education, shorter meetings, and meetings with fewer frills. A major concern for many associations is attrition fees, he says, particularly in light of the surge of attendees booking outside the room block. (See related article, “Online Booking Blues,” page 49.) “Groups are negotiating with hotels to revise their blocks; they're taking a very hard look at attrition clauses, and insisting on going over the hotel manifest to get credit for their room pickup. There's a changed approach to the whole issue of penalties,” he says.

TWO-CITY ROTATION

With changes like this, it's clear that the ability to revise long-range planning quickly has never been more vital — as Michael Bandy can attest. Bandy is president of the Trade Show Exhibitors Association in Chicago. His group may well have experienced more change in the last year than it has in decades. In the middle of formulating a new strategic plan, TSEA leadership moved the group's headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Chicago's McCormick Place (the move had been under consideration for several years). That was in October 2001.

Then in early 2002, with a new strategic plan unfolding, TSEA revamped its membership structure to allow individual as well as corporate memberships. “That was a big change,” Bandy says with a laugh. “But we had to do it because our membership structure was an artifact from the '70s.”

Recently the TSEA announced that it is going to lock its annual Trade Show About Trade Shows into a two-city rotation between Chicago and Washington, D.C., instead of rotating the event around the country. The meeting and exposition draws about 4,200 total attendees and uses 50,000 to 60,000 net square feet of exhibit space.

“Washington and Chicago are always very successful for us,” Bandy says. “We have great drive-in audience in both locations, and more than 40 to 45 percent of our attendance is walk-in,” he says. He adds that the two-city rotation also allows exhibitors to plan their budgets better and gives TSEA better negotiating clout with its service contractors and other vendors, savings that can be passed on to exhibitors.

“There's been a 15 to 20 percent decline in net square footage at many shows this year, and we're not out of line with that,” Bandy acknowledges. “All associations need to be looking at the future. The Internet and the economy have had a dramatic impact, and going with the status quo is a just dangerous thing to do.”

NO FIRE BUT A LOT OF SMOKE

The status quo is, in fact, especially not healthy for the exposition industry. For decades the industry has enjoyed steady growth — until this year when total net square feet booked by expositions is declining. Strategic reassessment is suddenly a hot topic for the show industry.

“We're not an industry on fire,” clarifies Steven Hacker, CAE, president of the International Association for Exposition Management in Dallas. Some industries, such as construction and health care, have growing expositions; others, like telecommunications and technology, are in trouble, he says. “You can't make generalizations about expositions. They're too niche-specific.”

Hacker does concede that show organizers have to find ways to “create value” for exhibitors and visitors, given the fact that companies are much more cautious about how they spend their marketing and travel dollars these days. There are only two ways to create value, says Hacker. “Either you lower the cost for participants, or you increase the return on investment by making it more worth their while to exhibit or attend.”

(“Creating Value” for exhibitors and visitors was the subject of an industry-wide summit sponsored by IAEM that took place as we went to press. Look for a follow-up report in our October issue.)

Hacker also says he sees a “huge” movement toward regional shows. “Why should show organizers put all their eggs in one basket?” he asks. IAEM isn't. Next year it will introduce its Professional Development Conference, to be held two times a year in two of four locations: New York City, Southern California, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. In 2004 these two conferences will replace the IAEM Mid-Year Meeting, which has seen registration fall off in the last two years.

The Professional Development Conferences will be held in locations that compliment the annual meeting site — if the annual meeting is in Atlanta the conferences could be in Southern California and Chicago, for instance, in order to provide opportunities for more members to attend. “In the end, we think we will retrieve more revenue from the regional meetings setup,” says Hacker, even though the registration fees will be lower than the Mid-Year meeting fee.

Finally, with all the new exposition facilities opening and expanding, Hacker sees there being an excess of exposition space for the foreseeable future, which will create a very competitive environment in some cities. In Las Vegas alone, Hacker notes, there are three major venues, any one of which would be considered a major venue in any other city.

Strangely, show organizers are gaining clout with facilities while many are also losing leverage with their exhibitors and visitors. Now there's a strategic challenge.

BETTER HAVE DOUBLE VISION

What it all adds up to is this: Planners as a species are by nature focused on details. But these days a planner who can't see the forest for the trees isn't an asset.

“You absolutely can't be focused on just the logistics,” Crossland says. “To be a viable person within the association, planners have to do more than plan a meeting. They have to make it work.”

Who Is TINA?

And what does she have to do with strategic planning? Plenty, according to the article “There is No Alternative To…,” which appeared in the July 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine. The article described a strategy-developing technique called There Is No Alternative, or TINA for short. Pioneered by the Royal Dutch/Shell company 30 years ago, it's a way of creating scenarios about the future, one that might work particularly well in times as uncertain as the present.

“How do you frame choices when everything is up for grabs?,” asks author Ian Wylie. By figuring out what's inevitable and building scenarios about the future based on these deductions. Here is an excerpt from a sidebar in the article as it appeared in FastCompany.com:

T: Tackle it Yourself. Draw inspiration from the outside world but don't ask someone to give you the answers. “The more of the scenario work you do yourself, the more benefits you will get back,” says Ged Davis, the vice president of Global Business Environment (GBE), Shell's scenario unit.

I: Isolate Certainties. Form a team to determine the critical issues facing your business, says Davis. “What are the uncertainties? What are the predetermined elements? Then rank them from predetermined to least certain.”

N. Name It. “If you have genuine insight, something that you think is very powerful, give it a name, an acronym, or an image,” says Davis. “Find the simplest most powerful way to communicate it.”

A: Act on It. “The whole point of the scenarios is to trigger a debate about strategy,” says Roger Rainbow, the now semi-retired head of GBE. “Scenarios make new sense of a specific strategic problem.”

Not Business as Usual

Another association poised on the brink of a major strategic shift is the 7,500-member Tennessee Bar Association, Nashville, Tenn. Programs Administrator Betsy Hilt, CAE, says attendance has been declining at the group's annual meeting since 1999. The annual meeting includes TBA business sessions, continuing education, and some social programs.

One option that the group is looking at is to strip the annual meeting of everything but the TBA business sessions and rotate this shorter meeting around the state every year, then launch a longer meeting that can be held at a resort in or out of state. This meeting would be focused on continuing education and networking opportunities, but would also provide plenty of opportunity for family time.

Another possibility: focus on practice-specific continuing education meetings, such as the group's very successful Healthcare Law Forum, which draws 250 people regionally — a bigger draw than its annual meeting last year. “Maybe our traditional annual meeting is just not serving member needs,” Hilt admits. “We have to look at ways of doing things completely differently.”

That's what the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice did when it recently signed a 10-year agreement with Adam's Mark Hotels and Resorts to hold all the group's meetings at the chain's properties. The agreement encompasses more than 30,000 room nights through 2011.

NABCJ President Matthew B. Hamidullah says the fact that the chain owns and operates all of its hotels allowed the group to get the same guaranteed rate at any of its hotels. “It is a win-win situation for both organizations,” he says.