Rocked by the recession and faced with changing demographics, competition, globalization, and other challenges, associations—and association meetings—have had to adapt and innovate to survive. And the major meetings industry associations have not been exempt.

We spoke to four chief executives of associations you’re most likely a member of—Deborah Sexton, Professional Convention Management Association; Steven Hacker, International Association of Exhibitions and Events; John Graham, ASAE (American Society of Association Executives); and Cindy D’Aoust, Meeting Professionals International—to get their perspectives on the future of meetings, and their best ideas for how meetings can succeed in 2013 and beyond.

Click through to see what we asked them.

What trends have had an impact on your association's meetings and how have you adapted?

Deborah Sexton:

Deborah SextonPeople are spending fewer days at meetings. They don’t want to be out of their offices for long periods of time so you have to market the benefits to them specifically. We have developed a blended communication strategyto push out information in a variety of ways—social media, e-mail, direct mail, or whatever.

For Convening Leaders, our annual meeting, we’re highlighting things that would be of interest to each of the different segments—independents, corporate planners, exhibition managers, suppliers, association executives, etc. We’re not leaving it up to our members to ferret through everything to find what they need.

We no longer have just lectures or panels for an hour and decide that five minutes of Q&A is interactive. In our Learning Lounge we have 10- to 15-minute presentations. In our sessions, programmingis anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on the topic, with more interactivitybuilt in. We’re also creating conversation areas where people come together spontaneouslyand discuss certain topics. Our members have encouraged us to take risks, be innovative. Even if the risks don’t pay off, this allows members to observe new ideas and craft them to fit their environments. 

We also have a more sophisticated digital hybrid event, providing education to a broader audience. We have found that the hybrid event drives attendees back to the meeting because it exposes them to what they are missing.

Steven Hacker:

Steven HackerOne of the unexpected issues is the depression of government-related meetings. That’s pretty serious for a lot of reasons—not just the revenue curtailment to our membership, but also the isolation it creates for government employees. How do you know what’s going on if you are imprisoned in an eight-by-eight cubicle?

Another issue is the crawling U.S. economy. For seven consecutive quarters the exhibition industry has outperformed the nation’s growth. If the economy were fully engaged and cranking out at 3 percent to 4 percent, this industry, based on all the pent-up demand, could probably exceed that by a factor of two.

Another ongoing trend is the demand for quality content.   That content may be housed on a Web site, social media, or it may wind up in our online or face-to-face learningofferings.  In response, we have doubled the number of program offerings, and we’re expanding the sectors and topics in which we invest. For example, we launched our new Marketing Academy, which is the latest of several of these kinds of learning programs. And to accommodate people’s frenetic schedules we have substantially increased the number of online programs.

A lot of the learning will be mined from the live content of events. That’s why a lot of us think that this bxb Online [BobTV] proposition is the wave of the future. I think it’s one of the few advanced-thinking ideas in my time. It is a concept that could change the face of the industry.

John Graham:

John GrahamDemographic shifts are impacting associations as a whole as well as association meetings. The real challenge we face is addressing the needs of three and sometimes four generations that can be in the workplace at the same time.

We have incorporated new learning formats into our major meetings that will appeal to variouslearning stylesas well as age demographics. They range from deep-dive sessions that are designed to dig down into a specific topic over a three-hour time frame to Ignite sessions, which incorporate bite-sized learning delivered in five-minute presentations by fellow attendees on a wide range of topics. There are many other formats that we have tried and continue to encourage speakers to use. We have actually incorporated our various “Learn Differently” formats into the call for presentations so we can ensure that programming will be delivered in these formats. The response has been great because it allows attendees to select a learning
format that caters to their learning style.

One of the most critical things that associations have to do continually is make sure their meetings are delivering content and networking opportunitiesthat are relevant to their audience. Most organizations are quick to add products and services but have a hard time “sunsetting” those of less value. However, this is critical in order to make space for new and different [offerings].

Cindy D’Aoust:

Cindy D’AoustWe’re all being impacted by the speed of change that technology drives. Additionally, we typically have five generations in the work force, and quite often, in a meeting audience. Different generations learn differently, access information differently, and want different experiences. Combine that with the fact that people are becoming more demanding in their expectations regarding a return on their time. Audiences don’t have the ability or desire to attend everything, so they are being very selective. To be successful as meeting sponsors, we need to deliver the greatest value to our members and in a way they want to consume it.  

We are adapting by getting back to the basics. By that I mean, we are becoming better listeners; understanding our target audience—their challenges, opportunities, and business needs—and then delivering meaningful content.

We have a very large membership, but they don’t want to feel like they are just a number. They need to feel like we know who they are and what they’re interested in. They want the ability to plan their own itinerary at a meeting. They want to be able to create their own networks. They want a personalized experience. It all comes back to personalization. How do we help attendees experience something that they feel is unique to them—that’s one of the driving priorities for us. 

Our members want us to take risks. They want us to help them experience the most forward-thinking ideas and meeting-design formats. We are going to bring ideas that are very fresh and different so they can experience it and decide whether it’s something they’re interested in pursuing or not.

What must the industry do to better promote the value of meetings? 


On this issue we have been effective with one thing and one thing only—the Convention Industry Council’s economic impact study. That’s only 50 percent of what we need to do—the other 50 percent, which is just as important, is the messaging on what face-to-face meetings mean, and not just economically: what happens when people get together, how they solve problems, how research is conducted, how education is shared.

The value of meetings above and beyond economics is not as clear as it should be. We must come together as an industry and not have one organization that is talking about the value of face-to-face as it relates to exhibits and another with a different message as it relates to associations or corporations; it’s confusing. We need a united message.

We must create simple, clear bullets on the value of face-to-face meetings. When we do that and tie it back to the economic impact, now we’ve got a story. I think all of the industry organizations, domestically and internationally, should come together and begin to craft this message that every organization could put on their communications.


It was a combination of circumstances that helped propel the shift in mindset among associations as well as the arrival of a rainmaker in Roger Dow, [CEO, U.S. Travel Association]. From the moment he hit the ground, that organization radically changed from a spectator to a catalyst. Roger knew going in that we cannot only react to threats, we have to proactively prevent those threats.

There isn’t a candidate for political office who would knowingly take a position that would cause discomfort to the National Rifle Association or the milk producers. We’re not there. We’re getting closer, but we have years to go before we can climb into that small circle of organizations. It’s a matter of building the system and right now we are looking to build 40 friends in the Senate and the House. That’s what you need for any industry—30 to 40 champions who will serve as firefighters for us.

It’s important to stay buckled together with U.S. Travel because in the aggregate it’s enormously powerful. When you start peeling away the sectors, the numbers start to dwindle. It’s all about clout. You have to have clout in order to earn leverage.


ASAE and many other associations quickly recognized the potential consequences of the proposed legislation earlier this year that would have severely restricted government employees’ attendance at private sector meetings. Thanks to a quick industry response, we were able to educate Congress about the probable outcomes of that proposal and keep the most onerous provisions from being enacted. ASAE and other organizations that host educational meetings will need to stay on top of this issue and continue to emphasize the value of face-to-face meetings between government employees and the private sector. Budgetary pressures and the emergence of various virtual meeting technologies will probably continue to tempt policymakers into thinking that government agencies can get by without as many opportunities to meet in person, so this is an ongoing advocacy concern.


I think we could all agree that we could do more. Our industry has had many starts and stops in our efforts to have a single, consistent voice. It’s important that we come together for the benefit of our community. MPI has certainly led initiatives and is providing tools to our members to support advocacy efforts, but by partnering with others, we’ll have far more power.

As an example, I don’t believe there is one consistent industry-wide message that has been developed that demonstrates the value meetings deliver to driving economic growth and growth within corporations. We are partnering with industry associations such as U.S. Travel and the CIC that can help us get our message out. We all have to collectively define that story and we all have to tell it in the same way.


How has competition affected the way you do business?


Years ago, the main place people got adult education was through their associations, but now a lot of education can be found online. So associations have to continue to demonstrate the value they are bringing to their members to keep them connected to the organization.

We have been doing lots of collaboration. Any time there’s an opportunity for industry organizations to come together to benefit their members, it should happen.

People aren’t leaving their offices as often as they used to. They are picking and choosing—going to two or three events a year when they used to go to six. If two organizations can come together and benefit their respective members and add extra value, isn’t that a good thing? Collaboration is absolutely critical, but only if it benefits the members. I think you’re going to see more of it because, frankly, it’s going to be demanded. If you don’t, you may see some organizations go away.


The meetings and events industry has gained a level of sophistication in its life cycle—we’re in ascendancy nowand any time that happens it attracts competitors. It’s healthy and it makes all of the other events in the space have to be better or else they are going to go out of business.

As a general statement, associations are having a much more difficult time today doing well on just dues incomeand the other traditional sources of non-dues revenue. So, if they can’t get along just on their dues, they have to be creative about collaborations that will generate valid content and value. That’s why you are seeing a lot of associations partnering—and you’ll see more of it. You’ll also see some associations that can’t compete go away. We’ve seen that this year with the collapse of the Trade Show Exhibitors Association. Associations are terrific organisms but they are by no means immune to the forces of economics and competition. Down the road, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some mergers, failures, and new organizationsformed.


Competition has increased based on how easily information and content is shared through electronic tools. That’s why it’s important to provide content and networking opportunities that are relevant to your audiencein the delivery formats they want. We are continually reviewing and evaluating the products and services we have and are having more strategy conversations about how to reach markets that are not fully participating with ASAE. We have actually gone out and interviewed organization CEOs as to what we are doing well, what we should change, and what are their needs.

We have to evaluate the needs of our members. We have to look to see if someone else is already providing a solution and if there is an opportunity to add value to another organization’s work and provide a resource to our members. Being smart about how we use staff time and resourcesto provide the greatest value to members often leads us to seeking mutually beneficial partnerships.


Healthy competitionis just that—it keeps us sharp and focused on bringing value. However there comes a point of saturation where it turns from a blue ocean into a red ocean. When you look at the number of associations and events that are targeted at the same audience and supported by the same supplier partners—if we’re not at a red ocean, we’re pretty close. The “opportunity pie” is only so big and the more people that you invite to the dinner table, the smaller the piece of pie becomes.

For us, developing partnerships is a conscious strategy. As leaders, it is our responsibility to bring the industry together on behalf of our members. It doesn’t mean that members need to leave their home community, but we can collaborate to enhance the value we deliver—best-in-class experiences without building it ourselves. Recently, we announced a partnership with Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International, and this fall you will see another partnership announcement. At MPI, we will look for partnerships that help us deliver on our mission—making members more successful by building human connections through knowledge, relationships, and marketplace.

How has globalization affected your business and growth?


Over 60 percent of our members are involved with meetings outside of the U.S., so we are going to continue to provide education so our members can be better at what they do as it relates to global meetings. Everything we do goes back to education, and because of that, our global community is growing. It’s growing on the supplier side because they know more of our members are involved in global meetings and because they’re benefiting from the education.

We’ll continue to do some of the smaller international meet ings, like the recent corporate global summit in Glasgow. We’re going to do a medical meetings global summitin London next July. We’ve done smaller events in Canada, Mexico, South America, but our goal is not to go around the world and try to create chapters and build membership that we maybe can’t support. Our goal is to continue to build and expand on the education that benefits the global community.


It’s a mixed bag, but maybe a little less mixed than it was 20 years ago when we decided to go global. At that time we were hearing people say, “I do business in St. Louis or Tampa or Albuquerque. What are you going overseas for? Why do I have to pay for that adventure as part of my dues?” You don’t hear that anymore. You hear “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to expand my event with international exhibitors.” But [U.S. organizations] are latecomers in most new markets. The Germans, French, and Italians are decades ahead of us in developing exhibitions in places like China and India.


Associations are eyeing global expansion as a viable option to increase their market shareand deepen their positive impact on their international constituencies. Many of the industries represented by U.S. associations, like healthcare, financial services, and technology, are global industries. Just like many other associations in the U.S., global activities are one of the top priorities for ASAE. ASAE’s International Section Council is working to provide resources and education for association practitioners operating in the global realm. In addition,

ASAE has launched a new group for U.S.-based association leaders from associations that have a robust global engagement. The Key Global Associations Committee aims to provide a networking and education platform to advance the U.S. association sector globally.


We’re proud to be a global meeting professional community. We don’t intend to change that, but we are taking a very measured approach to expansion. As one of the most experienced global communities, we have learned that our current chapter model needs to be looked at and re-imagined in some markets. Rather than focus on a multitude of new global markets, we will focus on a very specific few markets. For us, that’s Europe, China, and Brazil.

How has membership evolved?


We have grown membership, but that isn’t one of our major goals. We are not about size; we are about delivering senior-level education. Everything we do is geared toward that segment. We have grown 68 percent among corporate meeting planners. The corporate community is starting to realize that a lot of our education has to do with business acumen, leadership, and strategic thinking. 


The demographics have shifted substantially in the 21 years I’ve been here. The pendulum has swung from 65 percent male to 65 percent femaleand the average age is now in the 30s and 40s. It’s more rare to see gray hair in a session and more common to see tattoos.


ASAE has explored ways to tailor membership and program offerings to meet the varied needs of the association community. We have introduced a young professionals membership for individuals under 30, a consultant membership, group memberships through international partnerships and delegations, and an offering for small staff associations. All of these have brought in additional revenue, but more important, they have focused on specific constituencies, rather than just a “one size fits all” approach. 


We’ve seen membership fluctuate over the last 10 years, but our community is still 21,000-plus members, so our numbers haven’t really varied that much. We continue to attract a broad representation of meeting professionals in the industry. While we are delighted and never want this to change, it is a challenge to anticipate and meet the needs of so many. Our primary customer is still the corporate planner, but over the last several years we’ve seen significant increases in independent planners, government planners, and association planners. 

Given all the changes, is the meetings industry at a turning point?


I have never been more optimistic for the industry. I find these times energizing because they make peo-
ple more strategic; they make people think differently. They make people say, how do we change this to be more beneficial to our members? It’s very exciting.


It’s normal, natural, healthy evolution. It’s just incremental and non-disruptive change, and that’s the important thing. We’re not trying to dig ourselves out of some crisis that has been brought about by a change in the environment.


There are always turning points—or, said a different way, change happens regularly. Nearly a decade ago when online learning was developed, the concern was that face-to-face meetings would go away. It didn’t happen. But what did happen was that online was added to face-to-face. We had the GSA uproar and previously TARP/AIG. There will always be issues to address. Through it all, human beings still want to connect in-person. I don’t see that changing.


I think we’re past the concept of a turning point. I don’t know that we’ll ever be in a position to stop and determine what a new turning point is! The new normal is that the speed of change is only going to increase. For me, this is what drew me to MPI, the opportunity to be part of a forward-looking, dynamic environment. ♦