Four years ago, Cheryl Ronk, president of the Michigan Society of Association Executives (MSAE), received a call that changed the course of her association's convention. "A member of MMPI [Michigan chapter of Meeting Professionals International] called to find out what our room rates were for the convention the following summer. She wanted to beat our rates," recalls Ronk.

Ronk hadn't thought about the handful of planners who were members of both associations and were often forced to choose one over the other because MSAE's convention was in July and MMPI's in August. Not to mention the suppliers who were members of both associations and who had to attend two conventions within weeks--or decide which one would be more valuable to attend.

Following that phone call, "I sat down with our chairman and we strategized," Ronk says. "Then I met with the president of MMPI." By the end of that meeting, the associations agreed that they would jointly hold a test convention the following summer. "At that point, MMPI had not picked a location for their convention, but we had," says Ronk, "so we went with MSAE's meeting site and date."

Things did not go perfectly that first year. "The problem was that it had been our conference to begin with," Ronk explains, "so we had more people at the podium." Small things cropped up that no one had thought about. MSAE, for example, always had put ribbons on the badges of its board members. "But we never thought to make sure MMPI board members had ribbons on their badges," Ronk explains, "and they wanted to know why they didn't have them. The truth is I didn't even know who was on the board of MMPI at the time."

Three's Company The two groups have smoothed out a lot of kinks since that 1995 convention. By the 1998 meeting, the partnership between the two organizations was so strong that they decided to add a third association to the mix: the Professional Speakers Association of Michigan (PSAM). Like MMPI, PSAM is run by volunteers, while MSAE has paid staff members. Earlier this year, the three groups held a joint annual meeting that attracted 350 participants to the Grand Traverse Resort.

"Partnering with other meeting associations is an idea that we've had for some time," says Leslie Krauz Stambaugh, immediate past president of PSAM. Actually, 1998 was the second year the three organizations worked together, but Stambaugh says the 1997 convention was "in name only. We were a part of it and did a little of the planning, and got a little of the recognition, but this year we were involved much more." PSAM did not hold its own annual meeting in 1998, and only about 20 people from PSAM attended the 1998 meeting--about 60 fewer than PSAM's solo 1997 annual event.

Stambaugh says fewer members attended because the meeting site was a three-hour drive from where most members live--a longer distance than for past meetings. PSAM members also needed time to adjust to the change in having a joint event, she says, adding that a higher PSAM attendance is expected at the 1999 annual meeting.

Stambaugh notes that the joint meeting was positioned as an opportunity for members to get a broader view of the meetings industry, "and to form relationships but not make direct sales. We really de-emphasized that."

Julie Edwards, the current president of MMPI, remembers that the board of directors of her association also had to outline the benefits to members of the PSAM alliance. "It was pretty black-and-white: We could pool our resources in terms of speakers and put a higher focus on the educational track--and have an all-around better meeting."

With the addition of PSAM, Edwards says, "Our members have gotten to know their members better--and can call on them for guidance and use more of their speakers for our own meetings."

Ronk adds that the PSAM partnership resulted in top-notch speakers at the 1998 meeting of all three groups.

Economies of Scale Another benefit for all three groups is better cost control through "economy of scale," says Ronk. "That's what we're all working toward. Now we pay one time instead of three for registration staffing, AV expenses, and the other associated costs."

MSAE, which underwrites the greater share of the convention, has not seen any increase in revenue from the joint meeting, even though overall attendance has increased. This year, for example, the 350 attendees represented a 33 percent increase over attendance figures when MSAE held its own convention. Of the 350 attendees, the majority are still MSAE members, accounting for about 75 percent of attendees, while 20 percent are MMPI members, and five percent belong to PSAM.

Although all three associations count the increased resources as a prime benefit for members, they all remain acutely aware of continuing to ensure that the needs of all the associations' members are met, especially as the numbers increase and more diverse members attend. Edwards, for example, says the biggest challenge is finding the right mix of speakers, programs, and educational sessions that addresses the needs of all attendees.

General sessions and keynote speakers have been geared to members of all three associations, focusing on such ideas as technology, leadership, and trends. Some of the 12 breakouts are designed for all attendees, while others are more specific to a certain group's needs, although so far they've avoided dividing into clear-cut association exec versus speaker versus corporate meeting planner tracks. "It can be a delicate balance," Edwards notes, "and we have to choose carefully. People are taking time away from their business and we must provide valuable content."

Another area that took some fine-tuning was the distribution of the workload, especially as the groups first started to work with each other. Given that it is the only one of the three organizations with a full-time staff, MSAE took on the responsibility of handling the mailing lists and registration management, the signing of contracts, and the financial management of the joint event, including reimbursement to the other associations based on a per-head rate for each group's attendees.

When it comes to committees for other responsibilities, however, all three groups are represented. "They bring to the table things that we couldn't," says Ronk, noting that the corporate planners, for example, are especially strong in areas such as site selection, AV, and seating arrangements, while the speakers, naturally, are pros at speaking arrangements.

All attendees pay the same registration fees regardless of which association they belong to, and convention brochures and materials have all three logos on them, as does all signage, with one exception: "The cover letter has only the logo of that particular attendee's association," Ronk notes.

There are still goofs. This year, for example, some materials were mailed without the PSAM logo. Along the same lines, Stambaugh says that not all the members of PSAM understood what the convention brochure was for. "It wasn't as targeted to our membership, so we ended up doing some marketing separately."

Even with the glitches, "all of our members have a better conference because we're partnering," Ronk sums up. "There is still a need for each one of our associations to exist--but together we have created a better convention than any of us could have done on our own."*

Partnering Primer Here are some guidelines on holding joint meetings from members of the Michigan chapters of Meeting Professionals International, the American Society of Association Executives, and the Professional Speakers Association:

* Choose carefully and make sure that both associations--and all attendees--will benefit from the alliance.

* Consider crossing industries on occasion. "We just did a one-day finance seminar with the Accounting Aid Society," says MMPI's Cheryl Ronk. "Together we had more people, more questions, more money, and better speakers, which benefited both groups."

* Make sure each association is equally represented, sharing the work and decisions, logos, speakers who benefit both associations, and so on.

* Take advantage of each association's strengths. The PSA chapter, for example, is able to bring in better speakers to the convention, while MPI is better qualified in site selection, and MSAE is the only one with a full-time staff so it is better equipped to handle mailings and the financial aspects.

* Make no assumptions. Listen to the other associations' needs--and don't be afraid to say what your needs are. Like anything else, partnering is a process of trial and error. "It takes a lot of work," says MPI's Julie Edwards, "but it's worth the time to get together and clarify what each group expects. We need to know what each segment wants to make the whole successful."