Excellence, Especially When Managing an Association

15th June 2022

Associations are a very particular type of organization. They are member driven and focus on serving the interest of their community in the best possible way. The way this is done can take many shapes and forms – from advocacy to professional education. Discussions at the recent Brussels International Associations Forum showed the bar for delivering excellence is set higher. But how to do it? How to add value to make associations relevant and ever-competitive? This is what Sven Bossu, CEO of AIPC, wonders in this special contribution for Boardroom.

There are about 2,300 associations based in Brussels, most of them with a European or a global membership and it was great to reengage with old friends and colleagues during the Brussels International Associations Forum a couple of weeks ago (at the time of writing). Common challenges, like talent management, diversity and leadership were brought to the table and discussed both during the sessions and the coffee breaks. It became rapidly clear that the association community went through a thorough transformation process over the last two years. 

Research done by PCMA at the start of the pandemic found that given the focus of the COVID-19 impact on face-to-face/in-person meetings, any association without reserves equal to or greater than anticipated meetings income could be designated as at-risk. So, a lot of associations needed to move fast and navigate through uncharted territories. 

What & How

This also provided an opportunity to have a good look at the activities portfolio of the associations and evaluate whether the “what” and the “how” still made sense.  At AIPC, the change process was already initiated in 2019 but obviously needed to accelerate as from the first quarter of 2020. The good news was that AIPC was not dependent on revenues from the events organized. However, these events were the platform for the key value proposition of AIPC: to bring the community together in order to exchange knowledge and to drive excellence. Without these events taking place, there was a clear risk that members might abandon the association, especially in times of crises, when tough budget decisions need to be made.

Therefore, AIPC developed a six-pillar platform, designed for maximum value creation on the one hand and a clear focus on the other. These six pillars were: membership, business model, business partners, community outreach & advocacy, research & education and talent management. Each pilar stood for a goal to be achieved. The talent management pillar for instance was about supporting our community in preparing the next generation of convention centre leadership by providing a tailor-made elevated management program to a small group of upcoming leaders. 

Looking back, we were able to accomplish most of the things we had in mind, but not necessarily in the way we planned it. Two years ago, we did not imagine the talent program to be a fully-digital one, with 14 participants from across the globe working together on projects without ever having seen each other face-to-face. But they are doing a great job and will finally meet at the AIPC Annual Conference in July, where they will present the results of their hard work. The program also provided an opportunity to “use” these 14 upcoming leaders as ambassadors for our industry, hopefully convincing other to join the exciting world of events – especially important in a period where a lot of people are reconsidering their professional aspirations.

Lessons learned

With the successes (and the non-successes) also came a number of lessons learned when it comes to delivering excellence and which are now part of our way of working. It was interesting to learn at the Association Forum mentioned earlier that there is a lot of communality with other associations.

One of the things we have got a lot better at, is asking ourselves hard questions about the activities we do. Why do we do this? What value does it bring? Can we measure it? Is the effort in line with the value it brings? When all is going well, it is something we sometimes forget to do but it provides opportunities to free up resources if we cannot articulate a clear answer to these questions – in which case we might want to re-think or abandon the activity. 

AIPC represents a global network of over 190 leading centres in 64 countries with the active involvement of more than 1000 management-level professionals worldwide. www.aipc.org

A second key area of improvement is “thinking outside the box” and to reach out to “not the usual suspects” to inspire us. One of our research papers on hybrid has an interesting quote from Oscar Cerezales, Chief Strategy Officer at MCI: “If you want to learn what successful hybrid events look like, check out the gaming industry”. By looking at other industries, we can learn how to create new types of value which we might never have thought about and at AIPC. We do so by inviting persons from other industries to our event and learn from them. For example: at this year’s annual conference, we will have a wine maker talk about successful open innovation in his industry. But we need to do a lot more on this front. 

A third key area of improvement are partnerships. A great example is the relationship between AIPC and its business partners, which really transformed from a “sponsorship” relationship into a partnership, exploring different ways of providing value to both the AIPC community and the business partners. For a long time, we did not actively leverage the knowledge our business partners have and put it to use of our members. This has now completely changed, resulting in a true win-win.

These are just three of the elements which will allow us at AIPC to continue to set the bar higher when it comes to delivering excellence to our community. To paraphrase the baseline of a famous French company: because they are worth it. 

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