Between the demands of members and advances in database management, now is the time for associations to re-evaluate their information systems. With true integration of all association management functions — including meetings management — now emerging, meeting planners have an important stake in their organizations' decisions about association management system (AMS) strategy. Here is an in-depth look at the experiences of two associations, one that is taking the client-server path, the other the application server provider (ASP) option. There are many operational differences between the two, but the basic distinguishing characteristic of a client-server model is that the AMS software resides on a computer managed by the association; what distinguishes the ASP is that the software and database reside on a remote computer that is serviced by an outside vendor.
For Deborah Gaffney, director of conference planning for the Washington, D.C.-based Tax Executives Institute, the path to a truly integrated association management system led to the client-server model, and her association is nearing the final phase of implementing this solution.
TEI has about 5,000 members who are responsible for taxation matters at large businesses. The group runs about 14 meetings a year, the largest drawing 700 to 800 attendees. There are 13 staff members, including Gaffney and another meeting planner.
Gaffney says TEI started on the right foot. “Our board committed the funds in the capital budget for a system that will allow us to continue being a first-class association,” she says. The next thing the organization did was hire an independent consultant. “That was absolutely the smartest move we made, bar none,” Gaffney says. The consultant was Loretta DeLuca, president of DelCor Technology Solutions, based in nearby Silver Spring, Md. DelCor specializes in assisting associations with the software selection. “The other smart thing was appointing an in-house project manager, Jeff Rasmussen,” Gaffney adds. While working at his regular job as TEI's tax counsel, Rasmussen also kept the project on track, making sure the vendors involved met their obligations.
TEI's objective was full integration of all association functions, with the foundation being integration of membership management, meetings management, and general ledger functions. Gaffney says critical system requirements were that tax executives could apply for membership and pay dues online; association products could be sold from the TEI Web site; attendees would be able to register for any TEI meeting or seminar; credit-card purchases could be approved online, real-time; many formats for member interaction were available, including online forums and group e-mail; and members — “up to a point,” she cautions — could update their own records.
But that wasn't all. TEI also wanted to automate some of the services offered to the volunteers who head TEI's 53 state and local chapters. TEI had even more specific desires regarding information about members who attend conferences. “All our member records will include a complete activity log — kind of membership, dues paid, committees served on, and meetings attended,” she says. “That way, we can target-market our meetings based on people's areas of interest.”
Registration in particular is an important issue to TEI, because typically more nonmembers than members attend its meetings. Membership requires five years of experience, so many attendees are people who work for TEI members. “Somebody could be a nonmember and attend 20 meetings over the course of four years,” says Gaffney. “We don't want to lose those people.”
The selection process began in June 2000, when DelCor presented four options to replace TEI's seven-year-old software made by Magic Software Enterprises. The winning bid came from Advanced Solutions International Inc., of Alexandria, Va., makers of the iMIS family of AMS products.
“The software offered the largest variety of services we needed, and it was relatively user-friendly,” says Gaffney, adding that another big selling point was the software's ability to work with Crystal Reports, a report-writing utility with which several TEI administrators were already familiar. It probably also helped that iMIS was able to integrate TEI's Great Plains accounting software.
The main back-office functions began operating in February. “We're still struggling a little,” Gaffney admits. “But there should be no more need for reconciliation between the administrative/financial side and the meetings side. It's all one thing now. It's…wonderful.” In April, TEI began work on the system's Web interface. “We're designing what our members will be able to access,” she says. “When we're done, everyone will be able to register for everything online, directly, and have their credit card approved immediately.”
Despite vendor pitches to customize software to match the practices of the organization, TEI declined to seek more than a minimum amount of customization on the advice of DelCor, the consultant. “Like anything, the less you customize, the better off you are in terms of problems down the road,” Gaffney says.
If the client/server technology still seems old hat, there is always the ASP model. Brian McDonald, Webdirector for the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA), headquartered in Research Triangle Park, N.C., inherited a decision to use an application service provider, or ASP. “I came on board a week after they decided [on an ASP solution],” McDonald says.
“There should be no more need to reconcile the administrative/financial side and the meetings side. It's all one thing now. It's wonderful.”
— Deborah Gaffney
When MEMA went shopping for a new integrated AMS for its 700-member organization and 17 affiliate organizations, the main goals were consolidation of databases (there are 12 at the moment) and flexibility. MEMA was predisposed to favor an ASP solution and eventually selected gomembers.com.
“An ASP is important to us because we have four foreign offices that under our old system couldn't get access to our LAN [local area network],” McDonald says. “With the browser interface, it's easy for them to add new member information. The great thing about a real browser-based ASP is flexibility — for our foreign partners and for our own people, who can work from home if they need to.”
The database consolidation effort was as much a political matter as a technical one. “The biggest challenge was to get 17 organizations on the same page,” he says. Along with the benefits of a single database came some problems that never existed before — like having to decide who had first dibs on the record of a member who belonged to more than one of the organizations.
“Since we knew two organizations might try to access the same record at the same time, we had to create a pecking order for who got first access,” McDonald says.
He was able to walk down the hall for knowledgeable help. A for-profit division of MEMA has for two decades supplied EDI (electronic data interchange) solutions to the automotive parts industry, and it also builds e-commerce systems. “It's a big advantage, having an IT guy down the hall,” McDonald says. “They were especially great when it was time to look at security and connectivity issues.”
If the biggest challenge to implementing an ASP was getting all the member organizations on the same page, the next biggest was adjusting to the gomembers.com file system. The vendor has separate file configurations for organizations and individuals. MEMA had used a single file that combined both kinds of information.
“We thought it would be very easy to go in and create new separate files and then link them back up again,” says McDonald. “If I'd known how much work it would take, I probably would have cleaned it up ahead of time. People think because you have a new system that it will clean up poor data-entry practices from 10 years ago. Not so!”
Like Gaffney, McDonald stresses the importance of setting goals and planning. “It takes a lot more than a couple organizational meetings and listening to a couple of sales pitches to make fundamental change.” He says the gomembers.com membership module took about nine months from initial design to conversion. Part of planning a successful implementation of an ASP, McDonald adds, is adjusting the expectations of the administrative staff who will be using the software.
“Uptime hasn't been of an issue. We've been down for two or three hours a couple times, but it's no catastrophe. We can keep doing business.”
— Brian McDonald
“It's a huge change for people who are used to running Excel or Access from a LAN,” he says. “We tell them that the ASP is going to be a little slower, because it's coming over the Web, even though we use a T1 line to connect. Also, you can't run as many reports at the same time.” He says that the functionality of the ASP is basically the same as it was under the old LAN client-server system, but it does take more time to learn.
As for reliability, McDonald is well-satisfied with the ASP model. “Uptime hasn't been much of an issue,” he observes. “I think we've been down for two or three hours a couple times, but it's no catastrophe. We can keep doing business.”
Rapid change is under way in the Application Service Provider market. For gomembers.com, based in Lombard, Ill., growth has come in part by absorption of several client-server-based companies, including Aztech, Smith Abbott and Company, and MEI/Phoenix Solutions. All these products either are integrated or will soon be integrated with the company's central application, DMG4, a database management system that is entirely browser-based and therefore, presumably, able to work on any computing platform that will support a browser.
Salt Lake City, Utah-based BlueStep Inc. (formerly myassociation.com) is pursuing a different strategy. Rather than modify client-server systems to work with browsers, the company has “created a platform called BlueStep to take iMIS and everyone else's applications, integrate all of them, and make them Web-based,” says Jacy Hansen, vice president of industry relations. She says this integrative approach — adapting the Web browser interface to the software, rather than adapting individual software solutions to the Web browser — is less costly, especially since BlueStep isn't in the position of supporting the hundreds of older client-server systems already in place.
While BlueStep is an iMIS reseller, it doesn't have a formal relationship with the company, and Marianne Cook, BlueStep's vice president of marketing, assures planners that her company's product will work with other software as well. BlueStep's services go beyond Web interface to include such real-world services as event management through partnerships with Cvent, Conferon, and ConferenceDirect. In fact, a point of differentiation for BlueStep is its emphasis on a suite of collaborative products: sophisticated contact managers for members and donors; webcasting services; and team management services.
Another new player in this market is San Diego-based SeminarSource. Like BlueStep, SeminarSource's strategy involves extending existing association management software with common Internet applications. Its main product is a new suite of applications called Evance, which are designed to Web-enable such association conference-related functions as calls for papers; meeting registration and marketing (through a partnership with seeuthere.com); and post-conference educational materials re-purposed for the Web.
Unlike BlueStep, SeminarSource is concentrating on what Tom Toperczer, the company's vice president of marketing, calls “bread-and-butter services — abstract management, registration, membership management, and post-meeting online education and testing.”
Application service providers (ASPs) promote their product by citing cost savings and greater convenience. Loretta DeLuca, president of DelCor, a Silver Spring, Md., consultancy that specializes in helping associations choose association management system (AMS) software, is not yet convinced. Reggie Henry, recently named chief technology officer for the District of Columbia-based Greater Washington Society of Association Executives, is an ASP fan. Here are some of their contrasting views:
COSTS: “We've done three-to-five year comparative projections, and even when we assume that a full-time person will be hired to oversee an in-house person, the ASP model nearly always ends up being more expensive,” says DeLuca. “Don't go for an ASP if you think you'll save money.”
“Can you save money?” asks Henry. “I think so. It depends in part on what you're spending now — there's such a wide range in AMS prices. But I don't think people always realize that the savings may come at the hardware end, not the software. If you're using a browser-based system, you may not have to make big hardware upgrades. You can certainly save on having to upgrade in-house redundant systems. It's one thing if you just have Microsoft Office on your server; it's something else when its your association's database.”
RELIABILITY: “Once you get an ASP, you complicate things because there are more fingers to point when things break down,” DeLuca says. “Not just who's responsible when things break down, but where things broke down in the first place. If I have an ASP, I don't know whether the problem is with my computer, my Internet connection, the ASP server, or the software itself.”
“The big deal with ASPs is having reasonable access to your data all the time,” according to Henry. “Going with an ASP, you are giving up a certain amount of control. On the other hand, most ASPs have far more computing horsepower and redundant systems than most of us ever have on our in-house networks.” He adds that one of the best ways to judge the reliability of a potential ASP vendor is to visit them. “You can learn a lot about their professionalism when you see what their work environment is like,” he says.
: “Some of the hosting contracts that are coming to us are horrible.” DeLuca asserts. “So many things are missing — like how security is going to be handled, availability, what kind of guaranteed uptime, what happens if the system goes down for more than a specified amount of time. What about redundant lines to the Internet? What about backups? How often do backups happen?”
Henry agrees thatlanguage is important, especially maintenance of service if a server goes down or an ISP goes down. “But it's really no different than negotiating any other contract for online services,” he says.