Associations Expanding Globally

How associations are going abroad to increase membership and grow their brand

Like most segments of American business, that niche of nonprofit entities known as associations continues to suffer the effects of a sluggish economy. According to a survey of association executives conducted earlier this year by ASAE (formerly known as ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership), more than a third of respondents anticipated their organizations' total revenues would decrease in 2010; more than half thought the economy would lead to a decrease in membership revenues, and 44 percent expected a drop in attendance at their largest meeting.

In lieu of such dire projections, what's an association to do?

"The real area for growth for mature U.S.-based associations is overseas," says Terrance Barkan, CAE, founder & CEO of GlobalStrat, an Alexandria, Va.-based firm that develops international strategic plans for groups. "Some economies, like those of Brazil and India, continued to grow throughout the recession in North America and can offer a huge amount of opportunity."
While the benefits are tantalizing, extending a group's reach over long distances and multiple time zones is a complex process involving a thoughtful strategy, a lot of patience and challenging logistics. Following, industry pros offer tips and insights on going global.

Plotting a strategy Expanding internationally is "an intricate process that will be different for every organization," notes Kevin Baliozian, a director at Chicago-based association management firm Smith Bucklin. But proceeding carefully and making sure growth will fit the association's mission and strategic plan are musts for any group.

There are many compelling reasons for organizations to consider reaching beyond U.S. borders, the most obvious being financial: By increasing members, associations can collect more dues. But global expansion can provide other ways to boost the bottom line. "It's about seeing value, not just in members, but in other nondues revenue sources that may be tapped out domestically -- ads, meeting registration and trade shows," says Carolyn Lugbill, CAE, president of Going Global Matters, a Fairfax, Va.-based consulting firm for international associations.

International expansion also can increase a professional society's prestige and brand, notes John Graham, CAE, president and CEO of ASAE. Associations, typically in the fields of medicine, science and engineering, publish scholarly journals and seek input from top professionals from around the globe. For example, fully 70 percent of the members of the Chicago-based International Bone and Mineral Society are from outside the United States.

Another lure for expansion: Many organizations offer industry-specific training and certification programs that demonstrate proficiency in a field and are recognized internationally. These credentials have a natural market overseas, particularly in developing countries, says Graham. The Newtown Square, Pa.-based Project Management Institute, for example, offers five certifications, including the PMP (Project Management Professional), which have been earned by PMI members from 185 countries. Similarly, Site, the Chicago-based association for incentive travel professionals, offers the CITE (Certified Incentive Travel Executive), which has been achieved by members as widespread as Kenya, Portugal, Germany and Guatemala.

An InternationAl Success story
Charles Bray
One group that has successfully expanded its global scope is the Alexandria, Va.-based International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. Founded in 1918, IAAPA represents theme parks (e.g., Disneyland, Six Flags), water parks, zoos, aquariums, resorts and family entertainment centers (which feature games and sports).

Though it started out primarily serving U.S. members, nearly a third of IAAPA's current membership of 4,000 is outside the States, representing 90 countries. The organization also owns and operates two large trade shows, the Asian Attractions Expo and the Euro Attractions Show, in addition to its original annual event, the IAAPA Attractions Expo, the largest show for the amusements industry, which is always held in the United States.

To reach this stage in its evolution, the association took a multipronged approach. Following, IAAPA president and CEO Charles Bray details the steps taken in order to give members around the world the "not-so-subtle message that we are an international association that happens to be headquartered in the U.S."

Late 1980s and early '90s: IAAPA established international reps -- first in Europe, then in Asia. "These were industry people who worked on our behalf to promote awareness of our association and establish our brand abroad," says Bray.

1995: "We became a co-owner of the Asian Amusement Expo, which was based in Bangkok, Thailand," Bray says. "It gave us an understanding of the Asia market."

2003: "We bought out our partners and renamed it the Asian Attractions Expo." Last month, the show was held in Kuala Lumpur.

2005: "We became a joint partner of the Euro Attractions Show, which is three to four times the size of the Asia show." This year, the European show will be held Oct. 6-8 in Rome.

2008: "We hired an executive director for Europe and opened an office in Brussels, with four full-time staffers, all Europeans. Since then, our membership has grown by 17 percent in a market that, like in the U.S., is relatively mature."

2009: "We opened an office for Latin America in Mexico City," Bray says. "Mexico is the biggest market for amusements.

2010: "We hope to open an office in Asia by the end of this year, most likely in Hong Kong
or Singapore."

Global outreach also enables IAAPA to promote safety standards for amusements and attractions in countries where such standards are weak or absent altogether, Bray notes. "We've conducted safety education via road shows in Latin America, India, China and Abu Dhabi. It's a mission we undertake for safety's sake, but these also are opportunities to attract new members and to build name and brand recognition."

Getting started Following are key steps in the process.

• Gauge buy-in here. Association executives must make sure they have the full support of the board and CEO, says Carolyn Lugbill, as some funds and staff time likely will be diverted from other initiatives. 

• Consider potential markets. Once the decision to go international is made, Lugbill suggests forming a task force or advisory council to determine the most viable countries or regions ripe for expansion. Associations should first consider areas where individuals have expressed interest in the organization and/or membership, says Terrance Barkan. For example, DScoop, a Chicago-based association of Hewlett-Packard graphic-printer users, will hold it first international meeting in Seoul this fall, since the largest group of international attendees at DScoop's most recent annual conference hailed from South Korea.

Some groups expand in destinations where the industry they represent is booming, e.g., manufacturers in China, while others go where there is major growth in fields the association represents. For example, the Middle East and Asia both have a dire need for project managers, according to the Project Management Institute.

Experts also advocate looking at countries with relatively strong economies, based on data from sources such as the World Bank and the global unemployment and gross domestic product figures published weekly in The Economist. Besides Brazil and India, Barkan sees Malaysia and Indonesia as rising stars, given current market data.

When it comes to China, however, association experts say to proceed with caution. It's a difficult place for outsiders to conduct business, says ASAE's Graham, and as associations in China typically are funded and overseen by the government, it's hard for citizens there to join independent organizations of any kind. Graham and others advocate working with an experienced third party when attempting to open an office, set up chapters or launch an expo in China.

• Gauge buy-in there. As potential markets are identified, Lugbill suggests holding a meeting, workshop or educational program in these locations to feel out and generate interest in the association.

Another way to gauge and attract interest outside U.S. borders  -- and at the same time build the association's brand internationally -- is via social media tools such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

Andy Steggles, COO of Washington, D.C.-based communications firm Higher Logic, recommends setting up micro sites (from the association's main website) for potential members from regions being targeted.

In instances where a related association already exists in a region, there still might be opportunities to grow the brand there by organizing a joint meeting or show. For example, the European Calcified Tissue Society essentially covers the same issues and has the same membership base as the U.S.-based Inter­national Bone & Mineral Society; the two groups are holding a joint meeting next May in Athens, Greece.

• Consider costs. Management, board and staff will need to travel to the areas targeted in order to lay the groundwork and build relationships. Other financial considerations include renting, staffing and outfitting an overseas office, translating educational materials, enhancing the group's website to include different languages, or establishing micro sites for countries or regions.

• Structure pricing. Determine whether the annual dues for U.S. members is appropriate for potential members from targeted developing countries. Consider offering reduced fees in those regions or even offering a separate international member category, where all overseas members pay a lesser annual fee.

• Governance/voting issues. Determine if and how international members will be represented. "Every time a group increases its international membership above a certain critical mass, the members in that part of the world start wanting more services, more autonomy and more say in the organization," notes Terrance Barkan. "Associations, by their nature, are democratic institutions, so one has to consider what rights and responsibilities those members have as their ranks increase."