You probably already know that trade associations are an integral part of the American economy. They represent the industries that comprise every sector of our free market system. ASAE tells us that there are over 92,000 associations and professional societies.
Today, however, trade associations are at an inflection point. While many are well funded and have deep reserves, vibrant membership growth and a powerful voice on Capitol Hill, just as many are under significant pressure to reinvent themselves and modernize their business model.
Way back in 2010, futurist Jim Carroll was quoted in an NPR broadcast as saying, “many of the trade groups remain stuck in a rut of complacency. They deliver the same old program. They focus on the same old issues, generate the same old knowledge, plan the same old conference and have their agenda managed by the same old membership has-beens.”
Running a trade association is no easy task in this dynamic economy. Within a political system that is something less than high-functioning and with myriad disruptive forces impacting every business in every industry, I don’t know a single trade association that isn’t identifying new approaches to lead and stay relevant.
Interestingly, most association CEOs come from a few key backgrounds: from within the industries they represent, Capitol Hill, law firms and other trade associations. Few come from marketing, media, sales or advertising backgrounds, and it is from these disciplines that the true power of this secret weapon is revealed.
I can say with confidence that if you are an association leader reading this, no matter how many important changes you’ve made to your organization, there is one asset—the secret weapon—that has not been fully leveraged: the strategic use of your annual conference and trade show.
This is your once-a-year opportunity to show your association members, your industry, prospective new members and relevant policy-makers that your industry is on the leading edge of the future.
Sadly, most trade shows don’t look much different than they did 40 years ago, making modest changes every year to the same formulaic foundation of the past. The education is less than you’d get at a B-school executive development program, and the networking is typically from another era.
Your secret weapon is your association event. The way to activate this powerful asset is to modernize and reinvent the annual conference and trade show into a new brand experience for the industry, media, policy makers, members and the business community – to view your event through a new lens.
I’ve seen attendance increase by 160 percent for a trade association that reinvented their event, with sponsorships increasing by 4,000 percent (no, that’s not a typo). I’ve seen association CEOs get national TV coverage from the floor of their event. I’ve seen policy-makers attend private tours of industry trade shows and be persuaded that the industry is creating jobs and advancing the economy. I’ve seen medical students be inspired by association events in ways that create new, future members. And I’ve seen start-up businesses close deals on trade show floors that put them on a new path to success.
An annual conference and trade show is too important to take for granted. It’s too important to assume it will survive against new competing entrants or continue based on the critical mass that you now enjoy.
Look at your event through a new lens. See it for the powerful secret weapon it is for achieving the relevance you need to build membership, to advance your industries reputation, to continue to deepen the relationship with your most loyal members, to apply strategic agility and become the twenty-first- century organization your industry needs and that your members expect.
I haven’t been to an association event in the past five years that doesn’t have at least 20 percent more opportunity to improve, increase ROI and become a more wow, powerful experience.
Now is a great time to examine how your annual conference can take your association to the next level. I can promise you that your annual event will change. The question is, will you be the catalyst, or will someone else?