Editor’s Note: Following ASAE’s 2017 Annual Meeting & Exposition in August, we asked ASAE President and CEO John H. Graham IV, FASAE, CAE, to reflect on critical association industry issues, from meeting design and risk management to travel bans, technology and other challenges meeting planners should be ready to deal with in the coming year.
Q What are the most timely and relevant issues association meeting planners are most concerned about? Safety and security? Technology? New attendee engagement techniques? Meeting design? How is ASAE helping planners deal with these challenges?
A All the concerns you have listed are certainly top of mind. The topics of technology, engagement, meeting design, and to add a few more, learning formats, experience design, were all discussed and showcased at ASAE’s new event, the Xperience Design Project (XDP), which was launched in May 2017.
XDP showcased new opportunities and helped planners experience firsthand how they can apply new learning formats, design and engagement elements, technology and operational innovations into their future meetings. On day one, zone captains — who were the thought leaders in each of the five zones — led an immersive and collaborative learning experience to help participants think outside the mold of conventional meetings. Day two created one-on-one conversations between industry partners and association executives. ASAE innovated and took a risk on behalf of our members to help those involved in the planning, design, implementation and hosting of events, create new and better meeting experiences to engage their members and stakeholders.
Q How is the approach to risk management in the association meetings industry changing in the face of increasing meeting disruptors, such as terror threats, major weather events, cyber threats and active shooters?
A There is still work to be done in this area, and one of ASAE’s volunteer groups, The Meetings & Expositions Section Council, is focusing on this topic in the fall. The most critical aspect in any risk management situation is to have a clear and widely distributed crisis communications plan. This is pivotal to success in managing any meeting disruptor, regardless of what the specific incident is. The M&E Council will be working with an industry crisis management expert to review several organizations’ crisis communications plans with a goal of developing one overall plan that combines the best elements of those reviewed. The group will then consider how to work with the facility and venue to define key responsibilities when a crisis occurs. The council has already looked at three potential meeting disruptors and has drafted action plans to be reviewed and eventually shared with the association community in summer 2018.
Q How do you think the divided political landscape and travel ban efforts are affecting the association meetings industry? Which White House policies are affecting our industry for better or worse?
A Certainly, the partisanship and political animosity we are witnessing in Washington make it difficult to see progress on a legislative agenda — whether it’s a Republican agenda, a Democratic agenda, the White House’s agenda or the association community’s agenda. We are not seeing a lot being accomplished without difficulty. Even legislative tasks that were relatively routine a decade ago — such as passing a budget resolution — present significant challenges. Different factions within the same political party even sometimes have trouble agreeing on common priorities and legislative solutions.
In terms of the travel ban and so-called “extreme vetting” of visa applicants, we think there’s a better balance that needs to be struck to ensure safety and security without discouraging inbound travel to the U.S. We understand and support the proper review and establishment of standards to prevent national security risks posed from our visa and immigration system, but the travel ban — coupled with the administration’s more stringent vetting of visa applicants — has given international visitors reasons not to bother to come to the U.S. if they don’t have to. Travel search engines are reporting a sharp decline in international travelers looking for flights to America. Professional and trade associations also report markedly fewer registrations from international attendees at their meetings and conventions here in the U.S. The economic losses also do not account for the missed opportunities for foreign scientists, medical professionals, researchers and others who share knowledge and trends about their industries and professions with their U.S. counterparts at association-sponsored conferences.
Q Are association meeting budgets keeping pace with costs? Do you see any swing away from the seller’s market?
A It is still very much a seller’s market, and the costs for major meeting commodities are going up. Key costs that add to a meeting’s experience, such as food and beverage, technology, labor and travel, are all on the rise. Attendees at association events are expecting more for less. So many times, increasing registration fees are met with potential lower attendance or meeting satisfaction. It takes discipline, annual review and keen negotiations and partnerships to help manage costs within fairly stagnant budgets in associations. Meeting teams have to constantly review the value of specific offerings as well as meeting venues and destinations, to ensure they are spending money on variables their attendees value.
Q Do you see association meeting planner salaries remaining stagnant or rising? What are the contributing factors? What gives a planner the best chance at achieving top salary and position?
A Based on recent industry studies, planner salaries are increasing by 5 percent or less for most planner positions within associations. However, the role of meeting professionals has shifted from being a superior logistical manager to an event strategist and producer. Planners who are pushing the boundaries of their events and looking at their organizations’ products and services as a whole and making sure that face-to-face meetings are delivering on the organization brand, certainly elevates the position and the role within associations.
Q How has technology most changed the association meetings industry and how challenging has it been for you to keep pace?
A I think the most visible and most obvious change has been the proliferation of meeting-specific mobile apps that manage the logistics and engagement at meetings. Every major meetings software company has a companion app for their systems, and there are a slew of third-party mobile meetings apps as well. These apps help attendees locate and select sessions, navigate the exhibit hall, find colleagues to connect with, etc. The latest trend in these apps is to provide Facebook-like activity feeds where attendees share the meeting experience with each other in real time.
Not new anymore, but not widespread either, is the use of beacon technology (and other location-aware technologies) that allow real-time information to show where people are/have been throughout the meeting venue. Having this information allows you to make real-time adjustments to the meeting experience before things become a problem. For example, if you have a room set for 50 people, and the real-time heat map generated though the beacon technology tells you that the room is already full five minutes before the session starts, then you take action (get more seats, adjust the room temperature, etc.) before attendees are adversely affected.
It really hasn’t been a huge challenge keeping up because meetings is what we do. The real challenge is making sure we don’t outpace our members’ tolerance for change as all of these changes hit the market. As always, there is walking the line between leading and serving.
Q What encouraging signs do you see ahead for the U.S. and the global association meetings industry?
A The need for bringing communities together to solve problems that impact their industries and members is not going away. The trend of design thinking, bringing people from different backgrounds and disciplines together to focus on solutions is needed more than ever. U.S. and global associations see that their work has more depth and value when working together, and organizations are more open to this today than ever before. Associations are abundant globally, and the eagerness to learn from industry counterparts across the globe is becoming more the norm than not. There is tremendous energy and opportunity to discover the best solutions for the future.
Q How is ASAE advocating for diversity and inclusion and events accessibility?
A More than a year ago, ASAE created a diversity and inclusion decision tree that we use to make decisions and respond to emerging social justice issues that have implications for associations, such as the proliferation of state laws that permit discriminatory practices against the LGBTQ community. We have made that decision-making model available to anyone in the association community. The ASAE Board also approved an anti-discrimination clause for future convention center and hotel contracts that is consistent with ASAE’s policy on diversity and inclusion. The purpose of the clause is to protect ASAE against discriminatory laws that threaten the success of a planned meeting or convention. ASAE’s intent is not to tell other associations where they should hold their own meetings and events. But in our case, what we have said is that we can’t bring our meetings and our events to a state that is going to discriminate or deny public accommodations to segments of our membership.
This year, ASAE devoted considerable time and resources to combat controversial anti-LGBTQ legislation in Texas. Versions of the so-called “bathroom bill” in Texas drew widespread opposition throughout the Texas legislative session from the business community and hospitality industry. ASAE and the Keep Texas Open for Business coalition opposed several versions of this bill that would preempt existing anti-discrimination ordinances put in place by cities such as Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio to protect the LGBTQ community. We were gratified to see the special session end in Texas (August 15) without passage of any bathroom bill, but we know we will have to stay vigilant on the issue.
Q Where do you envision ASAE in the next 10 years?
A Ten years is a long time horizon for any organization given the rapid pace of change and the evolving technology landscape. That being said, ASAE does have a multiyear strategy to move from a traditional membership model to an engagement model. With our hybrid membership model, we are able to engage a much larger portion of the association professionals working in associations. Our strategy is to engage them in career development activities as well as learning opportunities through our new learning platform, ASAE Learning Online. We recognize that these new members may not be able to participate/engage the same way more traditional members have. Therefore, by focusing on career and online learning, we believe we can get them involved in ASAE in areas where younger professionals are going to be most interested and at price points they can afford. It is an evolving strategy but we are confident we are on the right track.
Q What in your opinion are the biggest areas of change association meeting planners and the meetings industry will face in the coming year?
A Staying nimble and always looking to be one step ahead of where your members’ needs are. This is a challenge in all areas of an organization and not just in the area of meetings. Being able to remain relevant as an organization, providing information and resources to members in a “just in time” environment in a delivery format preferred by members.
Specific to meetings, the ability to deliver relevant content in various learning formats that appeal to multigenerational audiences is crucial to success. And in line with content delivery, we also must create experiences that capture the hearts and minds of those participating. Planners have to start thinking about their meetings and events as live media experiences and create the conditions throughout the various touch points of the event that will help deliver experiences unique to the individuals who are participating. AC&F