Two years after the Society of& Travel Executives handed over its management to association management company SmithBucklin Associates, membership is on the upswing, and the organization's finances have stabilized. But some members — especially old-timers — feel that the organization still has a long way to go when it comes to responsiveness.
After years of losing members and bleeding money, SITE hired SBA in summer 2002 to run its day-to-day operations. Membership had been declining steadily, dropping to about 1,800 in 2002 from a high of about 2,000 in 1995.
“It was a financially motivated decision,” says Roger Tondeur, SITE president and chief executive officer at MCI Group S.A., Geneva. “It was too difficult to continue to operate as a stand-alone organization and provide value to our members. We had to make some drastic decisions, and one was to move to an association management company.” The society laid off 13 full-time staffers in New York and moved to SBA headquarters in 2002.
Under the new leadership, membership has grown somewhat (20 new members have signed on since the beginning of the year), and the budget broke even for the first time in three years, says Tondeur. One reason is that SITE saves money on personnel with only one full-time employee, CEO Brenda Anderson, and 11 to 13 part-time staffers who work as needed.
Peggy Whitman, a past SITE president and western regional sales manager at Marriott Fulfillment Services, Chandler, Ariz., believes that the switch has been positive because of SBA's infrastructure. “The technology is so much better,” says Whitman. “Changes can be instant on the Web site, so we can get news and information to our members.”
One of the biggest issues tackled by SITE's board in the past year was the decision to cancel SITE University. The conference was cut based on member feedback that said there was too much overlap between it and the annual conference. In its place, SITE will offer a series of regional educational sessions, called the European SITE Networking and Educational Program. There have already been three ESNEP sessions, the most recent in Zagreb, Croatia, in April. There are plans to offer similar programs around the world.
Not All Smooth Sailing
Despite improvements, one of Tondeur's greatest challenges has been dealing with members' continuing concerns about the new management. “We spend a lot of time firefighting,” he says.
One concerned member is 22-year SITE veteran James Feldman, president of Incentive Travelers Cheque International, Chicago, who says the new leadership has been less responsive to members. “I think they have forgotten to harmonize their mission with the needs of the members. They forgot the elements of service that generate a particular experience for the members,” which he defines as networking opportunities and educational sessions, particularly those that bring buyers and sellers together.
David Spain, president, Travel TradeUSA, Frisco, Texas, a SITE member since 1982, is leaving after 22 years with the society, although his decision is not based on any particular problem with the association management company. “To be honest with you, there isn't much action,” he says. “When you're questioning what it's actually doing for you, it's one of those things you have to let go.”
Lynne Thomsen, regional manager, Leading Hotels of the World Ltd., Chicago, says that the new management group has done a good job of running SITE but hasn't yet “connected” with the members as a whole.
She would also like to see SITE differentiate itself from meeting-related organizations by focusing on its strengths — its international membership — and reaching beyond the meeting industry to tourism and hospitality to attract new members. “For the organization to be strong, it's got to have a varied membership,” she says.
Anderson, who worked for an international customer service association before coming to SITE, is mindful of these and other objections from members. “We want members to feel the value of why they're part of SITE, and we want them feeling that they're just treated exceptionally well,” she says. “What makes SITE so unique is that it has this truly intimate, family-like culture. We are absolutely committed to maintaining that.”
For example, when SBA came aboard, it conducted a member-needs assessment and found networking to be members' top priority. So creating networking and business opportunities will be “front and center,” says Anderson, with more networking time at the annual conference this November in Merida, Mexico.