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Tip for globalization: Meet first, gather members later

International meetings are the best way to grow foreign membership, experts say, but consider a local partner to reduce risk

February 8, 2013
By William Ehart

Terrance Barkan
Johnnie White

If your association wants to expand overseas, call a meeting.

No, not just any meeting: an international meeting.

While some organizations try to build up international membership before holding overseas events, that is the wrong approach, experts say.

“One of the most effective tactics for associations to engage internationally is through live events, through holding meetings,” Terrance Barkan, chief strategist at consulting firm GlobalStrat, told CEO Update.

“Because if they do this right, it’s one of the best platforms to actually deliver education and knowledge-sharing and develop relationships with local thought leaders and representatives of the particular industry or sector,” he said.

“The other reason, again, if done correctly, these exercises can, at the very least, cover their costs or be profitable in their own right.

“Associations that have tried to promote membership first and events later find it very difficult to deliver good member services to a remote audience before they get any kind of real critical mass, and end up damaging their brand and that makes it difficult to run a successful meeting,” Barkan said.

Dick Blatt, 17-year CEO at POPAI—The Global Association for Marketing at Retail and now president of Planar World Consulting, agrees.

“There’s nothing like a face-to-face meeting, even in today’s world,” Blatt said.

International presence is important

Both Barkan and Blatt say if your association is not considering overseas meetings, it probably should be.

“The rest of the world still benchmarks itself against American organizations,” Blatt said. “They may not like the U.S. but they recognize us as the largest economic market in the world.

“But as importantly, [global expansion] provides one of the strongest opportunities for American-based associations to do globally what they do domestically, which is exercise thought leadership on behalf of their industries or professions.

“If American-based associations are not acting upon that, there’s a pretty good chance somebody else around the world is,” Blatt said.

Associations seem to be taking these messages to heart. According to an ASAE poll of 48 associations in its 2012 Benchmarking in Association Management report, 76 percent of associations are planning to hold more or the same number of international meetings in the next two years.

The trend is even more pronounced at the individual membership organizations that were part of the survey: 37 percent said they planned to have more international meetings during the period while only 22 percent said they plan to hold fewer.

“We are seeing more and more meetings being held overseas because of the trade and commerce that is happening, but also because associations are building their membership overseas,” said Bill Hudson, COO of IMN Solutions and former CEO of the Global Cold Chain Alliance.

He noted that GCCA recently had a summit in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

“The trend has been going on progressively over the last 15 years,” Hudson said. “It slowed during the recession, but now it has picked up strongly.”

Johnnie White, executive director of the Cardiovascular Research Foundation and chairman of the Professional Convention Management Association, said associations need to make sure they are aware of the local culture before holding an overseas meeting.

“Our model has been that you partner with an organization that’s already there that brings experience, because they know the culture and they know who to work with and who not to work with. They know the politics,” White said.

“You don’t want to go in without understanding the culture because you could offend them,” he said.

Local partner can reduce risk

A local partner also can reduce financial exposure, Blatt said.

“If an association wants to minimize its risk it may have to give up some of the revenue stream,” he said. “You can work with an event organizer in a different country who knows the country and can help them promote and organize and manage. That’s a good way, if you can find the right people to work with, to minimize risk and increase an association’s exposure to another country.”

International meetings can benefit U.S. associations, but foreign attendees need to see clear benefit to themselves too, Blatt said. He said having an international meeting is one thing, but sustaining an international effort over the long term is another.

“If an association’s strategic goal is to simply increase revenue and membership by going global and conducting more meetings, I don’t think that’s a sustainable global effort because the people in various countries are really going to look for benefit in their own countries and not just benefits back to the U.S. organization,” Blatt said.