Dear Ms. Chairwoman and Members of the Board:
In advance of our upcoming association board meeting, I wanted to alert you to one of the most important issues on our horizon, one that if not addressed may impact our organization and members in ways that will have serious negative consequences. However, if we act now, this issue has the potential to be one of the most significant, positive influences on our organization and our industry for years to come.
As you know, capturing the time and attention of our members are increasingly more difficult. Our association must cut through the noise of the saturated media landscape, overcrowded inboxes and our members’ constant state of information overload.
Our association, however, is in a unique position to counter this noisy, saturated media environment and reach our members in a fashion no one else can.
Our most effective media channel for communicating, educating, convening and capturing the attention of our members is our annual conference. The highest-impact opportunity to build our association’s reputation, demonstrate our relevance, reach the most members and influence our industry is our annual event. Our meetings, conferences, trade shows and smaller summits are the core drivers of our revenue and industry influence, and are central to delivering our overall organizational value proposition.
As I write you today, we are under attack. There are several threats putting our event business at risk, specifically:
- Changing expectations and needs from the emerging professionals. The X and Y Generations are attending our conferences at a lower rate than the generations before them. We must win this audience to be successful in the future.
- We have a low market share of members attending our annual conference—it’s less than 10%. Successful association events achieve up to a 30% share of their members attending. We must increase the number of members that attend our conferences.
- A flat retention rate—we hover around 45% of our members attending year over year. Marketers call this the “leaky bucket.” We have to fill it every year, costing our association more each year to acquire a new audience.
- We face competition from for-profit events, small start-up conferences that appeal to niche member groups, industry events run by other nonprofits, and increasingly, from tribe-like brands such as Dreamforce and SXSW.
- Our members’ conference and travel budgets are under continuous scrutiny, forcing cutbacks on “non-essential” conference and trade show attendance. We must be perceived as essential.
- And finally, our event hasn’t changed very much since its inception 50+ years ago. I call what we’ve been doing “better sameness.” We get a little better every year, but still, we offer almost the identical educational format, trade show, keynote speakers and the handful of networking opportunities as we have for the past 30 years.
Recently, we have seen several important association events, such as the CTIA Super Mobility Week, packaged and sold to competitors. Just last month, two other association events—NCTA and FMI—closed their doors, and more significantly, hundreds more are struggling to survive, stay relevant and succeed.
What got us here won’t get us there. We must change before these threats force us to. We don’t need to wait for a burning platform to make the case—we can see a future of disruption clearly from here.
Therefore, I ask you to prepare yourself for our upcoming board meeting by:
- Paying close attention to the section in our board materials that deals with the conference. We are requesting an increase in our budget to make the changes necessary to reposition our event portfolio, which will allow us to be more competitive and successful going forward.
- Endorsing my recommendation to establish a special Task Force to develop a strategic plan for our conferences over the next 3 years.
- Increasing our marketing budget so that we may better reach out to and connect with our members and incentivize them to attend our events.
- Recognizing that our conference is a significantly under-utilized asset to elevate member involvement in our advocacy efforts for the entire industry. We are going to employ new strategies to make our annual event a key media platform for the issues our members care about most.
The purpose of this letter is to prepare you for the important discussion on the role that our conference and trade show plays in the future of our organization.
With the correct vision, the guiding coalition of my leadership team and each of you on our board, the right investment strategy, and a plan to win we can reposition our event, our organization and our industry to be at the vanguard of opportunity for years to come.
I look forward to sharing my recommendations and gaining your support.
With warm regards,