Covid-19 has slammed the brakes on many associations’ global development plans. Up until 2020, international conferences played the most significant role in delivering international objectives: growing membership worldwide, expanding the reach of accreditation and certification programmes, offering members effective global business platforms, and boosting market share of attention and intellectual impact. That option is no longer available.
With the timing of the full-scale return of international gatherings facing massive uncertainty, the temptation is to focus on the most local markets, on protecting home territory. Global initiatives are put on hold, ambitions are being scaled back, investments hacked back, and day-to-day survival is taking up all the intellectual air in the room.
The problem is, competition is about to get significantly tougher. The cancellation of face-to-face international meetings has not resulted in less choice for members’ educational or business opportunities, but dramatically more. Rival associations (global, regional, national – not necessarily even in your precise specialisation), ad-hoc networks of experts in your profession or discipline, opportunistic entrepreneurs, for-profit event organisers, even your previously-sponsoring companies: all of these are now significant potential threats, with reduced barriers and cost of entry into every traditional association sphere of interest, intellectual and business alike, and not just related to events and education. To compete successfully against this much larger set of rivals, effective local impact in key markets is going to be just as important as digital reinvention.
It’s impractical to have a presence in every country or major city, of course, but without a regional presence covering your key current and potential growth markets, it’s going to become increasingly difficult to stand out in an ever-more crowded marketplace. Such a presence can take many forms, from a formal regional office to a local representative or agency, an empowered Chapter or member company, or AMC-delivered bespoke services. But absolutely critical is to locate this regional presence in a destination with an association-friendly eco-system.
So, what are the components of such an eco-system?
There are some obvious “hygiene factors” that should disqualify cities that don’t possess them: great transport and communications infrastructure, to facilitate digital and physical connectivity throughout the target region; economic and political stability (relative to other regional candidates), and legal protection for the status of associations. Opening the Dubai Association Centre and changing local laws to allow associations to register there was a game-changer for any association wanting to establish itself in the high-potential Middle East and South Asian markets: before this change, no city in the region was legally welcoming to associations.
If advocacy for favourable international standards or trade policies is a strategic priority, then Washington DC for North America and Brussels for Europe are no-brainer selections. Not just because of the legislative institutions and decision-makers to be found nearby, but also because of the lobbying, legal and technical advisory companies that are concentrated in these cities, and the breadth of fellow associations, organisations and companies that share the same regulatory concerns – teamwork, consensus positions, and weight of collective impact are critical factors for influencing policy.
For associations that aim to lead the way in their technological, scientific or healthcare fields, it’s vital to select a city with top qualify research universities and institutes, and ideally a vibrant start-up culture. Young, skilled people gravitate to such cities, providing the association with a skilled workforce, as well as a ready local supply of young members working in local companies and institutions. Where national or local governments are supporting these sectors as top long-term economic development priorities, this creates an environment for high-tech and cutting-edge science associations to thrive and grow. A great example is Singapore, which actively collaborates with such associations to develop programmes and events aimed at young professionals.
A bit of a check-list
When drawing up a check-list for potential locations, here are a few other items to look out for:
+ Are there strong AMCs located here (great if you are planning to start off with programme delivery and ad-hoc events, and will move to representation only later, since they have highly flexible service models)?
+ Is there a local government or public/private agency that specialises in the association sector: not just a DMO that bids for international meetings, but one that can advise on local expertise, potential representatives, setting up an office, etc.?
+ Is there already an active association community in the city, with clubs, meetings, social events, advisory services, educational programmes (and of course, a rich pool of association-savvy, experienced talent!).
+ Just how international is this city: are expats welcomed and catered for, is multiculturalism encouraged and celebrated? The strongest international association hubs are inevitably cities that are outward looking, places where fresh ideas and innovations evolve and are exchanged, and not only because of their strong diary of international meetings.
The more of these components are found in a city, the more strongly they interact and reinforce one another, making this association eco-system a complex, living and breathing environment. In such a location, it’s easy to find experts and business partners, simple to build audiences and engagement, to recruit staff, learn new ways to work or to re-engineer your business model. It’s also the mark of a city where an international association executive feels less alone.
Delivering regional services from multiple hubs is a smart differentiator in a world that has been forced to go totally digital by Covid-19, and where a hundred competitive voices are shouting for attention in every intellectual and business marketplace. Members value the knowledge that a real person is available in their time-zone, that their association is taking the trouble to invest in their part of the world, that their local needs and culture are respected, and that they are part of a real community rather than being a target for a sales drive.
Building a presence on the ground need not be an expensive undertaking, and as long as there is a strong association-supportive eco-system available, nor does it need to be difficult to set up and run. But what it does need is the confidence to continue thinking globally!