The Pandemic’s Wake-Up Call: An Interview with Erin Roberts
How has COVID-19 affected associations?
We at Zzeem work with a wide variety of associations, both as a management consultancy and as an association management company (AMC). What we’re seeing right now is a focus on managing risk. I was a bit surprised that governance would be a top focus during a pandemic, but it’s true. Right now, associations are looking for strong governance training. They want to ensure their boards are following best practices for governance.
The other area of focus we’re seeing is not a surprise – associations are focused on ensuring they have a compelling value proposition for sponsors and members.
And these are all positive results. The pandemic has been a wake-up call to all of us that we must be highly professional, we must know what our members want, deliver it, and make sure they know we’ve done it.
Looking into my crystal ball, I believe we are going to see a greater impact from COVID-19 in 2021 than we saw in 2020. For some associations, member renewals will be down substantially and event revenue will be hit hard for a second consecutive year.
It’s going to get tougher for a while, but we’ll get through it by proving our value, and delivering what our members need.
What are the top things that associations should keep in mind as they try to address these challenges?
- The topmost focus for all of us must be member renewals. Members need to know what we’ve done for them in 2020 and why they need us in 2021.
- A close second is working with sponsors to give them a return on investment at a price they can afford. Many traditional sponsors have been gut-punched by the pandemic, and they still want to engage with associations, but their marketing budgets are way down.
- Finally, member engagement is key. This has been a challenge for associations for years, and the pandemic has been a great help in engaging members and bringing them together for a common cause.
What trends are you currently seeing?
As I noted earlier, governance training is a top area of focus, policy development is big this year, and of course sponsorship attraction and retention is top of mind.
Associations that rely heavily on trade shows and conferences for net revenue are also examining their options for sustainability. Associations hit hard this year are considering the option of moving from full-time staff to an association management model.
Have you witnessed unique opportunities in the association sector arising out of the pandemic’s turmoil?
Yes! This is a huge opportunity for government relations (GR). The federal and provincial governments are listening like never before, and the money tap is wide open, for better or worse.
For associations for whom GR is a critical element of their member value proposition, this is an outstanding opportunity to generate wins for your members. Our approach is to think big (very big) and push hard on GR priorities.
It’s also a huge opportunity for member engagement. When there is massive uncertainty, this is our time to shine. Associations provide support, guidance and information — and this is needed now more than ever.
On November 5, you’ll be speaking at Unprecedented, CSAE’s virtual conference. What will participants learn?
I’m looking forward to connecting with my fellow CSAE members at the conference. I’m going to be talking about Financial Risk Planning for 2021 and Beyond. We chose this topic because the unusual events of 2020 have resulted in unique financial risks that will carry over into 2021 and beyond.
Associations will be critical in rebuilding the post-pandemic economy, workforce and society. What special strategies will associations need as they focus on their financial risk management plan for 2021? In this interactive session, I will lead participants through a process to identify their key financial risks and develop strategies to mitigate them.