For many associations planning their annual meetings, events, shows, or conferences, cost-cutting and related quick fixes may seem like the most prudent responses to the current economy. But in the end, such actions may end up doing more harm than good if they impair an association's ability to serve its members and other core constituents. In addition, such short-term fixes can create even greater long-term problems.
Instead, pause for a moment and take a step back. Ask yourself, your staff, and yourleaders a powerful, perspective-changing question: If you were to hold your event for the first time ever in 2009, what would you want it to look like?
When we pose this question to our clients, the truly productive thinking begins. The prospect of letting go of what you know and starting anew is sometimes a little intimidating, but exciting and particularly constructive. It's also a great approach to ensuring your organization is successful in the future, because it frees you to discover new opportunities that can help your association not only survive, but revitalize and strengthen for the long term.
One very helpful first step toward answering this question is research. Associations typically survey their members on issues every three to five years, if at all. As executive leaders, we frequently need to be very careful about making too many decisions in a vacuum. Unfortunately, any research conducted in the past couple of years is largely irrelevant in today's economy. Now, more than ever, it is critical to reach out to your core constituents-including members, exhibitors, sponsors, and others-and ask them what they really need from their meetings and conferences, and what elements would encourage them to attend. Research options are plentiful and can range from extremely cost-effective online surveys to focus groups.
It's also important to ask your staff members what they think. For them, this is an opportunity to think strategically about how an event should be restructured, as well as how to allocate resources most effectively.
The power of the question is most clear when you see its real-world impact. We recently posed it to a volunteer board of a technology organization that has been in existence for decades, and whose annual event has changed very little over the years. The question immediately altered the dynamic of the meeting and fostered an environment conducive to positive change. The overall discussion shifted from where to make cuts to why cuts were being considered in the first place. This ultimately led the organization to develop a new strategic approach to targeting a demographic that had not been considered in the past.
We also posed the question to board members of a medical organization who felt that it caused them to be "freer" in their thinking. Ultimately, the new direction that they set for their organization helped them to avoid dwelling on the ideas and strategies of the past, and enabled them to move forward. It also helped the organization engage new members, retain current members, and shift demographics to propel future growth.
Several years back, I was involved in an industry think tank, and I posed a different question to association executives and the supplier community: What keeps you up at night? The tremendous feedback during this meeting became the cornerstone for significant thought leadership dialogue, both written and in person. The feedback that results from posing such a question puts everyone on the same playing field and helps to encourage solution-driven dialogue in a myriad of settings. Similarly, quizzing members, staff, and volunteer leaders about what their show or event would look like if it were presented for the first time ever can offer invaluable new perspectives when our instinct is to cut now and ask the questions later.
In challenging times, looking at things from the same perspective as we have during good times is a clear prescription for poor results. However, if you examine issues from a fresh point of view that is unencumbered by the past, your event-and your association overall-will be more relevant and successful both this year and in the future. So what are you waiting for? Make this question the key item on your next agenda.