An account of the Associations World Congress & Expo by Pia Shekhter, attending on behalf of IAML in place of Secretary General, Anders Cato.
A few weeks ago, 7-9 April to be precise, I attended the Associations World Congress & Expo as a stand-in for our Secretary General, Anders Cato. It was the 28th congress in a series arranged by the Association of Associations Executives, which this year conveniently took place in my hometown Gothenburg. A full congress pass amounted to £695, but IAML was graciously invited at no charge.
The congress turned out to be more rewarding than I had expected with several useful takeaways, having IAML in mind. I will transfer some concrete tips to the Board, the Web Team and the Membership Committee.
If you would like to get an impression of the congress you might want to have a look at this video.
The purpose of the Association of Associations Executives (AAE) is to “support employees and officers of membership organisations in their own development and that of the services, products and events they provide their own communities.” It has over 24,000 members and subscribers from all sectors. Membership of the AAE is “contributory”, which means that there is no charge, but that members commit to contribute to the AAE in different ways. In addition to congresses AAE provides training courses, discussion forums, publications etc. I am particularly impressed by the “Resource Library” where members share “best practice documents, manuals, checklists, SOPs [standard operating procedures], guidelines, task lists, flowcharts, policies and job role specifications.”
The venue was Gothia Towers, which has been rewarded “The most sustainable meeting destination in the world” according to the Global Destination Sustainability Index 2016, 2017 and 2018. I really did not know what was waiting for me when I approached the congress and admit that I was a little anxious. It was very good to be reminded of how it feels to be a newcomer, not knowing anybody. In addition, I was an odd bird among representatives of alpine-rescuers, cotton traders and producers of container glass. Otherwise there seemed to be a predominance of people from medical associations, engineering and business. The attendees were both kind and genuinely interested but, in contrast to IAML’s congresses, it was quite difficult to find a common ground for conversation.
So, I was an odd bird in this company. I am, however, on no occasions an early bird. Because of this I did not take place in any yoga classes, joint walks or jogging tours that were offered in the mornings. I was also not able to mobilize myself enough to take part in the “Breakfast brains & destination insights” sessions.
All through the congress there was an emphasis on the attendees’ own participation. The congress started with a networking exercise called “Meet your peers”. The attendees were requested to find a few people from a similar organization for a short discussion about the greatest challenge their respective association was currently facing. Then the exercise was repeated with people from a different type of association. To our help we had colour-coded digital “smart badges” that allowed us to scan each other’s contact information. This was quite amusing and functioned as an ice breaker, but people eventually found the badges quite heavy. In any case they would not work for IAML’s congresses, since the batteries lasted for only three days.
Most sessions were open, but there were also two parallel strands for selected audiences: Association Leader’s Forum and Events Strategy Forum. The presentations had different denominations: Focus, exchange, case study, crash course and camp fire. The attendees could also choose between several so-called expert briefings - thirty minutes long presentations from experts in a wide range of areas, with a concluding discussion. Several “Association Success Stories” were set up in the same way. There were six sessions in parallel.
All rooms were furnished with round tables. The sessions finished with a ten minutes long discussion among the people who shared a table, with a final round-up. I was impressed by how willingly people grabbed the microphone and shared experiences with each other. I actually found myself talking about our work with shaping “the Future of IAML”, totally forgetting to be nervous thanks to the generous and supportive atmosphere.
This report would be too long if I tried to summarize each session I had the privilege to attend, so I will restrict myself to a few things I found especially interesting.
There is a global recession in the membership of associations and therefore several speakers dealt with the problem of how to find new approaches. I was struck by how often the word “community” (sometimes even “family”) appeared during the presentations and discussions. Everybody agreed that this is the key value of an association. While trying to attract new members (and retain already existing members), one should stress the benefit of belonging to a global network of professionals, avoiding the usual list of benefits such as the membership journal, reduced congress fees etc. Appealing to shared values and ethics works better nowadays. One of the presenters advised us to “market experiences” and “sell warmth and enthusiasm”.
Another instructive session was devoted to “meeting the needs of Millennials and Gen Z in your association” (students and young professionals). We have to adjust to the fact that we live in a different environment than fifteen years ago. The motto goes: “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere”. The two speakers gave a rather stereotyped description of “Generation Y” and “Generation Z”, but probably correct in essence: they expect everything to be fast, flexible and convenient – “24/7”. The chains of communications are non-conventional and they are very good at sharing – social media, photos and videos are important. After the session I felt totally alienated from this species, but then I realized to my great relief that this is exactly the age of the students of our Academy! And thank heavens I have no problem communicating with them.
During one odd, but thought-provoking session members shared experiences of handling “disaster events” during congresses. One member told us about how the outburst of the Icelandic volcano (Eyjafjallajökull) that took place some years ago prevented hundreds of delegates to reach the congress destination in time. Another horrific example was a meeting at which the congress organizers had forgotten to arrange accommodations. The participants had to sleep in tents quickly collected from friends and relatives of the organizers!
The congress dinner was an experience by itself. The organizers had employed chefs from Michelin restaurants in the city and the food was delicious. It was obvious during the congress that money was not an object… Several awards were presented, for example Best Membership Engagement; Campaign of the Year; Best Association Video; Best Association Website; Association Project of the Year etc. Another award was given to the table with the best performance of a Swedish drinking song! Our table was best (take my word for it), but nobody could hear anything by the time it was our turn to sing. Due to an abundance of wine in combination with aquavit the spirits were high, and so was indeed the volume. The unforgettable evening ended with all the delegates singing Abba songs together, with great pathos.
My conclusion from attending the Associations World Congress is that yes, IAML does have something in common with association of alpine-rescuers, cotton traders and producers of container glass. I am very grateful to the Association of Associations Executives for providing this opportunity to learn and share.