Getting It Right

How Meetings Industry Associations Are Poised for Positive Change

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.”

M&C asked: “To which industry association do you belong and why?”

Kathy McCann“I have been a member of the Council of Protocol Executives for 10 years. COPE has been extremely valuable because it is designed specifically for people who work in executive-level management planning for a diverse range of corporations, governments and nonprofit institutions.”

Kathy McCann
Senior Manager,
Global Meetings and Events
Avon Products Inc.
New York City

“ICPA has brought tremendous value to me. I find the group well-educated and ethical, and the small size makes communication easy. I’m a member of the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, but the two that bring me the most value are Meeting Professionals International and ICPA.”

Cindy Hoddeson
Director, Convention/Incentive Sales
Monaco Government Tourist Office
New York City

“I belong to the Professional Convention Management Association. Others on my event staff belong variously to MPI, the American Society of Association Executives and the International Association for Exhibition Management. We participate in order to network and keep abreast of education, trends, etc. I chose PCMA because I find it the most relevant, and I feel it has the best educational programs.”

Bruce Sanders
Director, National Events
Washington, D.C.

“I used to be involved on many association boards, but not anymore, because it doesn’t afford me anything. None of the associations has a program where veteran planners can get together. Isn’t it a shame that these organizations do not offer anything to those of us in that position? Why would I pay to belong to an organization if it’s not giving me anything but a party?”

Leila M. MacFeeley
Leila M. MacFeeley & Associates
Greenland, N.H.

Under new management
ICPA also sought outside help to bolster its membership. The group turned to association management giant SmithBucklin in March 2004, dismissed its two employees in Vancouver and relocated to Chicago, where SmithBucklin is based.
    “Declining membership was certainly one of the reasons that we opted to hire an association management company,” says Touchette. “We felt we needed access to more marketing tools to create awareness and attract new members.”
    Touchette is pleased with the change, because it means all of the marketing, legal and management expertise such a large company commands is being applied to ICPA. Also, if something had gone wrong at the old two-person office if one of the two had quit, for example the operation would have run aground. “We don’t have to worry anymore if the copy machine breaks,” Touchette jokes.
    The Trade Show Exhibitors Association, based in Chicago, resorted to private management for its struggling annual meeting and trade show, TS2, which drew 2,787 attendees in 2000 but just 1,417 in 2004. TSEA sold the show in October to National Trade Productions, a private trade show management firm based in Alexandria. TSEA still will manage the conference’s content, but NTP will focus on marketing and logistics.
    “Partnerships between associations and for-profit companies are good things,” says Michael J. Bandy, outgoing president of TSEA (he steps down in July). “Now TSEA can focus on providing services to its members.”
    Mary Power, CAE, president and CEO of the Convention Industry Council, based in McLean, Va., agrees the sale was a smart move. “TSEA didn’t get out of the trade show business, they just got out of the trade show management business and focused on what they do really well, which is provide education.”
    This year, NTP and TSEA will work on revitalizing attendance. NTP doubled the marketing budget and slimmed the price to make registration a more enticing buy. In addition, the show producer is cramming the content into three days instead of four, staging fun evening parties and adding a new track on corporate event planning, which has snuck into many exhibitors’ job descriptions.
    “We’ve elevated the offerings,” says Steve Greenspan, executive director of TS2. “It’s a much better package of education for the folks just concerned with the logistics through those higher up in the marketing department, who are concerned with return on investment and branding experiences.”
     Though attendance figures for TS2 won’t be in until after the show takes place (in July in Washington, D.C.), the partnership seems to be working. TSEA has reached financial nirvana from the sale and is now considering private management for the entire organization. Who hopes to win the contract? One Michael Bandy, who is leaving the association to start a private management company.

Fresh leadership
The Professional Convention Management Association has seen more than its share of upheaval since its headquarters moved from Birmingham, Ala., to Chicago in 2000. Starting with the retirement of longtime president and CEO Roy Evans Jr., CAE, that year, the association has changed its leader three times. Most recently, David Kushner, CMP, CAE, parted ways with PCMA in March, and Deborah Sexton, former president of the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, took the helm, just in time to enact the group’s new strategic plan.
    “It was not a disagreeable parting by any stretch of the imagination,” says Leigh Wintz, CAE, chair-elect of PCMA and executive director of Soroptimist International of the Americas, based in Philadelphia. “Kushner didn’t do anything wrong, not at all.”
    Vicki Hawarden, director of meetings and programs for the Bethesda, Md.-based American Association of Blood Banks, suspects Kushner was ousted because he wasn’t widely known in the industry and didn’t have much meetings experience. And she’s very happy about the choice of Sexton to succeed him. “It’s about time we had a woman running one of these things,” she says. “I’m thrilled.”
    “Different boards have a different focus, and boards change,” says Jennifer Witherington, CMP, president of PCMA’s Northern California Chapter and account executive at Mana, Allison & Associates, a San Francisco destination management company. However, she adds, “I’d like to see the president stick around for a while. Usually you have a five-year strategic plan; it’d be nice for that person to stick around for those five years.”
    Leigh Wintz admits the association “did have a bit of a misstep.” After 9/11, “sponsorship dried up, and we had a big debt to pay off because of the move,” she says. While she feels Kushner “really shined” in attracting funding and bringing education to the forefront, she agrees a new leader is needed to help implement the new plan.
    This much-touted overhaul promises revamped education and public advocacy efforts over issues affecting the meetings industry, such as too-stringent U.S. entry requirements and local mistrust of convention and visitor bureaus.
    “If we’re not at the table, we need to be at the table, and if the conversation isn’t happening, we need to create it,” declares Gregg H. Talley, CAE, chair of PCMA’s board and president/COO of Talley Management Group Inc., an association management firm in Mt. Royal, N.J.

Margaret Gonzales “We have our detractors;
people have their own agendas.”
Margaret Gonzales

As the International Association of Hispanic Meeting Professionals approaches its 10th anniversary, some members are looking ahead to growth while others question how the group is run.
    Theresa Garza, CMP, managing director of Amigo Meeting Solutions Inc., in Tucson, Ariz., attended two of IAHMP’s annual meetings and even became a member of the board, but she claims to have been dismissed for raising too many questions.
    “There are no elections,” says Garza. “Margaret [Gonzales] has been the only president in the organization’s history, her daughter runs the magazine and her husband is chairman.”
    Garza also claims the group’s annual meetings draw about 30 suppliers and only eight or nine planners, none of whom are decision-makers. She says a city’s willingness to pay for meeting planners’ trips has been an important criterion in site selection. Indeed, the Greater Hartford (Conn.) Convention and Visitors Bureau hosted all the meeting planners at the 2003 annual meeting, and some planners were hosted in Phoenix in 2004.
    In the minutes from a 1998 meeting, which were obtained by M&C, the board agreed the Gonzales family’s company, GVR Public Relations in Houston, would receive half of all advertising and sponsorship monies the association collects.
    Margaret Gonzales responds to the criticisms bluntly. “We have our detractors; people have their own agendas. But if it weren’t for my family’s involvement and support, this organization would crumble.” She adds, “I’m a volunteer. I don’t get paid.”
    Jim Fausel, CMP, CMM, director of the Professional Meeting Managers Partnership at Arizona State University in Phoenix and a member of IAHMP’s board, believes Gonzales gets no money from the organization and puts in a lot of her time. He also says Gonzales is open to elections, but no one has wanted to take her place.
    However, Fausel expresses some concerns. He says there aren’t enough members, marketing is inadequate and the board is too small and is opposed to working with other industry associations, notably Meeting Professionals International, which is organizing a multicultural initiative.
    “Margaret is not very fond of MPI,” notes Karen Garcia-Gonzales (no relation), CMP, managing director of MPI’s multicultural initiative. “I wish they would come to the table, but I think IAHMP sees us as more of a threat.”
    Margaret Gonzales claims her association has 500 members and that about 30 planners and 45 suppliers attended the most recent meeting. Fausel corroborates.
    “The conference we had in Phoenix was outstanding,” says Gonzales. “It was done at a very professional level, and people were amazed at the caliber of speakers.”
    Alisha Jackson, national sales manager for the Metropolitan Tucson CVB, has attended two IAHMP meetings, but she won’t be going this year due to budget cuts. “Whatever negative perspective people are experiencing has a lot to do with the fact that they are a grassroots organization,” Jackson says. “They are just so small.” -- J.V.

A search for synergies
PCMA also is cooperating more with other industry associations, a prominent example being the Multicultural Toolkit announced in January by PCMA and Dallas-based Meeting Professionals International. The Toolkit helps association chapters become more diverse and teaches meeting planners to become sensitive to the needs of minority cultures.
    PCMA, MPI and most other meetings industry organizations plan to collaborate more in the future.
    “We’re certainly hearing from our supplier partners that the pot’s getting smaller, that they’re not going to keep funding similar initiatives from different organizations,” Gregg Talley says. “There’s a level of interest on how we could work together more.”
    “Our sponsors are asking whether, instead of doing the same thing in three organizations, two or three of these groups could collaborate and do it at a reduced cost,” says Colin Rorrie, Ph.D., CAE, president and CEO of MPI. “We’re committed to finding ways to do that.”
    That’s only the beginning. NTP and TSEA plan to work with a U.K.-based group on bringing TS2 to Europe. And MPI plans to partner with the Alexandria, Va.-based National Business Travel Association on research projects.
    “If serving our members in a more effective manner means using resources outside MPI, that’s a good thing,” says Hugh Lee, MPI’s chairman of the board.
    The Chicago-based International Special Events Society also would like to form a partnership. This one, however, would be far more encompassing. President Dale Harmon is looking for a similar organization to pool resources with and merge their annual events into one. Says Harmon, “The organizations would probably stay in their same existence, but we would try to eliminate what appears to be too many trade shows and conventions every year.” Harmon is mum on the organizations he’s eyeing for the merge.
    Bill Boyd, CITE, CMP, CMM, president of the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, plumps for something even more drastic: combining all of the meetings-industry foundations into one pile of money. “All these foundations do the same thing and serve basically the same community,” says Boyd. “There’s a need for separate associations, but I do not see a need for separate foundations.”

International focus
Of all the major industry associations, MPI appears to be the healthiest. Membership is at an all-time high of nearly 20,000, and attendance at the 2005 Professional Education Conference hit a record of 2,733.
    The association now is working on becoming a truly international entity by opening offices in Europe and Canada and encouraging partnerships in those and other regions. Already, MPI has partnered with the World Trade Organization, based in Geneva, and the International Congress and Convention Association, based in Amsterdam.
    “You can’t be focused on the United States and be an international organization,” says Rorrie.
    Chicago-based SITE also is branching out, using a recently expanded endowment to help increase the acceptance of incentives in the corporate world through myriad research projects, including a major study attempting to quantify global spend on incentives.
    “Once we get that number, we can back up our claims,” says Boyd. “It’s going to be a biggie.”
    SITE’s members also called for an exotic bent to the conference schedule; now the organization sponsors a series of executive summits, one-day conferences in emerging destinations such as Beijing and Dubai.
    These associations’ growing pains are essential, many sources agree. Notes Corbin Ball, president of Corbin Ball Associates, a meetings technology consultancy in Bellingham, Wash., “Those that are clinging on old ways of doing things will cease to be as viable.”