by Jonathan Vatner | April 01, 2005

John Touchette

Reinventing ICPA:
President John Touchette, CMP,
hopes a broader
focus will bolster
the organization’s
sliding membership.

Membership is down at ICPA, at one time an acronym for the Insurance Conference Planners Association. The numbers haven’t dipped dramatically (from 493 in 2002 to 452 in early 2005), but despite sustained efforts, they’re not improving. Similar dips persist in membership counts industrywide, a problem some blame on the modern economy. “Companies are cutting back, and employees have to choose one association over another,” says John Touchette, CMP, president of ICPA, newly based in Chicago. “Other people just don’t have the time.”
    Silver linings are on the horizon, however. By implementing massive perestroika, the bravest associations are working to stanch their losses, reconnect with members and pave the way for future growth. Here are some of the ways they hope to achieve those goals.

Expanding the membership base
ICPA’s struggle began a few years ago, when insurance companies began offering financial-services products. As one result of this synergy, many meeting planners moved from the insurance industry to the financial services sector, organizing essentially the same types of conferences they had before; however, because of ICPA’s bylaws, they could no longer be members of that association.
    In 2002, the board agreed to open its doors to financial meeting planners, and the name was changed to ICPA, An Association of Insurance and Financial Services Conference Planners. This allowed the group to keep the 50-year-old ICPA name while becoming more inclusive. But the name hasn’t stuck.
    “We tried not to change the name but just to add the tagline,” says Touchette, “but people don’t want to say that because it’s too long.”
    ICPA isn’t the only association with an unwieldy tagline. The Washington, D.C.-based International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus, already a bundle of words, has proposed a change (amid heated debate) to “Destination Marketing Association International: Representing CVBs and Tourist Boards Worldwide,” practically impossible to utter in one breath.
ICPA is evaluating its brand to see whether tweaking the name yet again will help; depending on the results, another name change might occur within a year. Planners are hopeful for something within a one-breath limit.
    “No matter how much word-of-mouth does, if they want to open it to financial services, they need to change their identity,” says Margaret Moynihan, the Wilton, Conn.-based director of the Global Conference Group at Deloitte & Touche, who didn’t realize she could become a member until a year ago.
    To add substance to the name change, ICPA is retooling its education to benefit financial services planners and ensuring that its supplier partners cater to that market. The annual meeting this year will be in New York City, a hub of the financial world, and Touchette hopes local planners will stop by at least for a day.
    Meanwhile, the Washington, D.C.-based American Society of Association Executives might be fine-tuning its name as well. ASAE needs a new brand after completing a massive merger last year, as the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives became part of ASAE, and the ASAE Foundation became part of the Center for Association Leadership.
    Given that membership now hovers around 23,000, down from a pre-9/11 high of 25,000, the association is working on positioning the two newly expanded organizations to be more attractive to members. Management enlisted the help of The Brand Consultancy, headquartered in Washington, D.C., to find out how to market the two entities; the mergers resulted in the need for a clear “brand promise,” as ASAE president and CEO John Graham, CAE, puts it.
    “In examining the two remaining organizations, they don’t seem compatible,” says Graham. “We’re looking at what should be the brand promise going forward.” A new brand should be announced this month, he adds.
    Loyal members of GWSAE hope a rebranding doesn’t wash away all traces of their old standby. “Before the merger, GWSAE was more innovative from a marketing standpoint than ASAE,” says Melanie Penoyar, director of marketing and business development for the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Marketing Professional Services. “It had a younger spirit, and I hope that will continue.”
    Laura Weaver, manager of meetings and conventions at the Society of American Florists, also in Alexandria, is cautiously optimistic. “GWSAE was really strong in education,” she notes. “So far, I don’t see that they’ve lost that.”