Looking Forward 2021

Association industry executives and senior staff are invited to participate in Looking Forward 2021; the nation's longest-running, most comprehensive environmental scanning research of the association business environment and the first association sector scan that takes the pandemic into account. For the first time ever, everyone completing the survey will receive access to a dashboard of the survey results, giving you timely access to valuable data on the state of the association business sector and allowing you to compare your responses to those of your peers.

The research is being conducted by Association Laboratory, an independent strategic research firm specializing in association business strategy. ESSAE is one of nearly 20 global, national, and state societies for association executives encouraging participation among its membership in this research via the Association Laboratory Research Alliance. This is the 10th anniversary of this research, but the first time using the data analytics solution, Nucleus, for the dashboard of results. Nucleus is the official Data Analytics Solution to the Association Laboratory Research Alliance.

The longevity of the survey, ability to create actionable insights from the data, and diversity in responses supports ESSAE’s efforts to provide you with the tools you need to foster strategic, future-focused discussions that impact your association’s strategy today.    

The survey is comprehensive and will take you up to 20 minutes to complete. You can take the survey on your computer, tablet, or smartphone. Please note that you must complete the survey at one time or keep the survey window open when you switch to something else in the midst of responding. If you exit before finishing the survey, you will need to start over at the beginning. Partial responses cannot be saved.

Association Laboratory Research Alliance: This research (and the article set below) is a benefit of ESSAE‘s participation in the Association Laboratory Research Alliance. Founded by  Association Laboratory Inc, the Alliance is a collaboration of nearly 20 state, national, specialty, and global societies of association executives partnering to investigate, lead the discussion of, and provide insight into the future of the association business model.

The Emerging Impact of COVID-19 on Associations

Author: Dean West, President, Association Laboratory, Inc.

In July, I spoke with a group of association executives about the future of the association business model given the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the time, the focus was on the immediate impact. Will we survive? Will our new ideas to adapt work? Will I have a job?

It is critical to begin looking up from our desks and start identifying the changes that will shape the decisions of association leaders for years to come.

In response and in cooperation with the Association Laboratory Research Alliance, Association Laboratory began working on Looking Forward™ 2021, the 10th edition of the company’s globally recognized environmental scan of the association strategy environment.                                 

In August, Association Laboratory conducted a qualitative investigation involving leaders of state, specialty, and global societies of association executives.

Our goal? To begin identifying how the business environment shaping associations and their members will be different.

The following identifies some of the most critical themes identified in this research. Themes that will be tested in-depth during a comprehensive quantitative survey to be conducted in November/December 2020.

Price/Future Investment Insecurity

The future environment will be characterized by economic disruption and uncertainty. This means we don’t know how much money we need to weather the storm or for how long we’ll need it.

Prior to COVID-19, all of us had business assumptions about our current and future programmatic success and financial performance. We used these assumptions to guide decisions.

Now though, we only have questions.

  • What will be next year’s renewal rate?
  • Will we be able to have, let alone make, the same amount of money for our annual conference next year?
  • Will the new virtual event, if currently free, be sustainable if we start to charge?
  • How can I diversify my revenue sources?

Historical guidance on future program and financial performance is effectively worthless.

Looking forward, association leaders will need to develop more sophisticated assessments of their known and unknown risk, guiding everything from staff and membership models to program development to investment strategy.

The Relationship of People – Space – Time

I often visit The Dock, a beachside restaurant in Chicago.

Due to social distancing regulations, they can allow in about half as many people as their space can accommodate. In an attempt to increase customer turnover, they limit time at the table to 90 minutes. The relationship of people, space and time is fundamental to their most important question. Will we survive?

But it isn’t just restaurants. This relationship is also critical in manufacturing, where machinery may be based on the number of operators on a shop floor producing products at a particular rate. It impacts surgical suites requiring a distinct number of professionals within a defined space to treat a patient. It also impacts how association members connect and network with colleagues, formally or informally.

Looking forward, the more your members’ professional and business assumptions are based on a certain number of people, operating within a finite or fixed physical space and influenced by a defined time period, the more likely they will be impacted by COVID-19.

The impact on associations is more localized opportunities and the infrastructures/technology that supports virtual networking and engagement. In addition, your association will need to continue to be creative as you add in-person events back into the mix, using the knowledge about putting on a virtual meeting to create more hybrid activities.

A new Take on “Centralization”

Hotels rely on you to come to their property. Downtown office buildings rely on suburban commuters traveling to leased, centralized offices. From work, to school to fun and exercise, much of our assumptions revolve around people living, working, or playing in a centralized location.

That centralization has shifted a bit as more individuals work from home or visit fewer places. If I live in a suburb, going “downtown” may be the closest neighborhood to my home instead of an urban “downtown.”

Looking forward, we can anticipate a shift in customer behavior and human congregation resulting in a society that operates in a smaller geographical area with fewer touch-points. 

The impact on associations might be that you no longer need to invest in office space as your organization has shifted successfully to a remote workspace. You might be holding in-person meetings in smaller, more suburban locations where your members live rather than in the urban cores where they once worked.

Think Local

With centralization in mind, economic disruption also makes travel less likely. When you don’t have money or time, you are less likely to travel.

In addition, though, consider the psychology of travel. Are people comfortable confining themselves to trains or planes? Will your employer risk your infection and resulting lost work time?  Think of potential policy restrictions such as mandatory quarantines upon returning from a particular place. Think of the challenges navigating the new travel rules and the patchwork of different and varying regulations.

Looking forward, there is going to be a series of individual barriers to travel that will add up to more localized opportunities for education, professional development, and networking. This may mean working more effectively with national, state, and local entities (think educational institutions) or more directly with employers.

Greater Focus On Wellness

For some, a normal day used to look like this.

We woke up and traveled to the office. We left the office to walk (or drive) to a restaurant for lunch. After work, a few hours at the health club helped us burn off some stress. Later, after a quick drink at the bar, we went home.

For our kids, substitute school for office, after school sports for the health club. Not sure if your kids drink at bars yet.

Our day’s activity revolved around a collection of cells that separated work, entertainment, kids’ school pick up/drop off, health, etc. Each cell had a purpose. Travel between the cells was a big part of our day to decompress and re-energize.

Looking forward, we can anticipate an increased focus on opportunities for wellness, necessary for those remote workers--where the home becomes the center of work, school, recreation, exercise, and education--as well as those industries and professions where employees are grappling with income/job loss or working overtime.

Automation Incentives

One of many new phrases we now use frequently is “contactless.” You see it at restaurants or shops that promote contactless delivery. The service offering is being designed to minimize or eliminate human interaction.

For example, at a coffee shop near my house, you can only order online via an app. Your delivery is brought to a counter and left for pick up. No money exchanges hands. No person interacts with you.

On our previously mentioned shop floor, we’re reminded that just because you can’t have enough people in the room doesn’t mean you get to stop producing a product. The manufacturer needs to figure out how to maintain production with fewer people in the space.

Looking forward, we can anticipate all businesses exploring the use of automation to cut costs, reduce human interaction and maintain production within a defined space impacted by social distancing or related requirements.

Accelerating Innovation

By now, everyone has modified an in-person event, moved their staff remote or updated their Bylaws to allow for electronic voting or undertaken a project that would have been unthinkable in the past without 12 committees, a survey and two Board meetings to decide whether to move forward. The point is, we have had to innovate to continue business as usual and remain relevant to our members as they’ve struggled with how to do their jobs during the pandemic.

Looking forward, associations will have to be more creative in how they deliver value and how they define their audience. And that audience might be rewriting the rules of their engagement with you, expecting a more personalized experience and flexibility with how they pay. Associations will need to be proactive, diversifying their opportunities and creating more nimble Bylaws to allow for new ways of interacting with the industry.

How long will this all last?

Early in the pandemic we often used the phase, “when this is all over” to discuss what we’d do. Where we’d travel. Who we’d see.

We now know the pandemic doesn’t come with an on/off switch. There is no fourth quarter to get through. We’ve now witnessed first-hand how businesses from our local restaurant to hospitals and schools have adjusted.

The big question isn’t how long the pandemic will last but how much of these changes are permanent?

Looking forward, the more money a business has spent on adapting to the pandemic, the more likely the change is to be permanent.

You don’t spend millions of dollars putting up Plexiglas shields throughout your branches, factories, or restaurants, just to take them down. You don’t re-engineer the manufacturing space, just to put it all back the way it was.

Today, the leaders of the Association Laboratory Research Alliance are looking up from their desks. They are starting to see the results of their actions. They are witnessing just a taste of the success they’ll enjoy as they roll out lessons learned across their organization.

During the last few months, I’ve witnessed no end to the adaptability and creativity of the association sector and the companies that serve them.

While the pandemic has tested us, it has not bested us.

I’m excited to see how much better the people and organizations committed to Mission-based success become as they continue to adapt the association business model to take the future environment into account.

I’m looking forward to sharing the results of Looking Forward 2021 in January.

Dean West, FASAE
Association Laboratory Inc.
Dean West is a globally recognized thought leader in the association sector. A former executive director, he is the leading voice calling for strategic evolution of the association business model. Association Laboratory, founded in 1999, specializes in research and strategy for associations and in strategic education and sector insights for association leaders. You can email him at [email protected]

Save the Date – January 22

On January 20 from 11 am - 2 pm CST, Association Laboratory will release the results of Looking Forward 2021 at a complimentary hybrid event at the OLC Center in Rosemont, IL. This unique event coupled with a nation-wide broadcast will provide different interpretations of the data from trade, professional and other perspectives. Participants will learn what factors impact members, the implications on association strategy and what associations are doing to be successful.