I’ve spent the majority of my professional career working for companies located in and around Washington, D.C. I live there as well. You could aptly describe this area as “Association Central.” Associations, in the aggregate, are the secondlargest employer in the area. Only the government employs more people.
Associations flock to this area for its proximity to the lawmakers whose influence is needed to lobby for and create legislation favorable to each association. Many of my neighbors and business colleagues are actively engaged in association activities as lobbyists, organization executives, and, of course, members.
Many years ago, as a newly hired “sales guy,” I vividly recollect the day my boss called me into his office and informed me that attending association-sponsored trade shows was part of my job responsibilities. He believed that our largest and most valued customers attended these shows. It was our best opportunity to meet our customers and see new prospects. In addition to listening to customer needs, showing them our latest and greatest, and on occasion entertaining them, we also supported the association that supported our customers. He believed that a strong association benefits both members and companies.
During my 35-year career, I continued his legacy by supporting these associations with trade show attendance and financial support during fundraising drives. For many years, it was a mutually advantageous relationship.
VIABILITY OF PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS
Recent events in the library and information science (LIS) community have led me to wonder how viable its professional associations really are. The 2015 Midwinter meeting of the American Library Association (ALA; ala.org) experienced a significant drop in attendance from the previous year. The attendance numbers were 7,171 attendees in 2015 (Chicago) compared with 8,091 in 2014 (Philadelphia). These numbers exclude vendors, press, and other nonpaying attendees. ALA’s annual meeting is held in the summer and always draws a significantly large crowd to its chosen venues. In looking at ALA’s attendee numbers for its annual meeting, no clear pattern emerges: There were 13,019 in 2014 (Las Vegas); 20,237 in 2013 (Chicago); 17,642 in 2012 (Anaheim); and 20,186 in 2011 (New Orleans).
Perhaps the variation can be chalked up to location, which plays a crucial role in the decision-making process for attendees and vendors. For example, it can be difficult for U.S.-based members to attend an industry trade show in another country. The Special Libraries Association (SLA; sla.org) held its 2014 annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada, and experienced a significant drop in attendance from the previous years’ conferences. Chicago in 2012 saw 3,472 attendees; San Diego in 2013 had 2,808; and Vancouver in 2014 was able to attract only 2,402. Although SLA is an international association, the bulk of its membership is in the U.S. SLA’s 2015 annual conference is scheduled for Boston. It expects attendance to surpass previous years’ totals.
SLA’s Leadership Summit, held in January, as is ALA Midwinter, experienced no decline in attendance. However SLA holds Leadership Summit to train its chapter and division volunteer leaders. It’s not a trade show. Likewise, NFAIS (National Federation of Advanced Information Services; nfais. org) moved its February 2015 conference from Philadelphia to the Washington, D.C., area with about the same number of attendees as it had in years past. The NFAIS conference has no exhibit hall, although it does have sponsors, and is an informational event rather than a trade show.
When an association’s conference is poorly attended by its membership, vendors rethink plans to continue sponsoring upcoming shows. Too great a delta between costs to attend and revenue obtained causes ROI to rear its ugly head. If things are not working correctly for both the vendor and the association, a fatal domino effect will unfortunately be achieved. It works like this:
Last year’s trade show saw a decline in attendance, causing vendors to cut back their support of the current meeting. Thus, the association gets less revenue from the vendors. Sensing a decline in monetary support and lower vendor and member attendance, the association makes cuts in its spending. Those cuts can come anywhere from cutting back on educational programs for membership, reducing staff size, selling real estate, cutting salaries of office staff, or even jettisoning a senior executive or two. Any one or more of these tactics to save money by the association will send a signal to vendors that the organization may or may not be viable anymore.
A downside of the austerity measures is that members become dissatisfied with outdated and repetitive programs. The stability of the organization is perceived as questionable. Furthermore, if members realize that some of their favorite vendors will not be at the current year’s annual meeting, they may choose not to attend or, even worse, find a similar industry association conference that their vendors and colleagues are more likely to attend that will fulfill the promise of education, job assistance, and colleague networking.
Whatever the reason(s), the end result is that the vendor spends money elsewhere, and the association comes up short financially. It’s a lose-lose-lose result because neither the vendor, association, nor the association membership comes out with a win.
Moreover, if the vendor community and the membership sense that the association is having difficulty in charting a future direction by not having an experienced executive director firmly in place, the association risks a loss in membership and vendor support. Both losses will seriously impact the financial viability of the organization.