Holiday Showcase: Top 3 Takeaways for Association Leaders

After Thanksgiving this year, I attended the 35th Annual Holiday Showcase presented by the Chicago Association Forum (AF). Historically known as an event for meeting planners to meet with tourism and convention bureaus, AF has made the event a draw for all Association and Membership organization professionals. Topics involving leadership, technology, strategy, disruption, looking forward, and reviewing history were abundant. And while I couldn’t sit in all the sessions, the ones I did struck a few chords with me:  

  1. Artificial intelligence is still a topic for conversation but also a topic for action. 
  2. The “big three” are still big regarding the challenges that membership organizations face. 
  3. Experts and Innovators are not the same thing and rarely the same people. 

Artificial Intelligence

As with every professional conference in 2023, “AI” and “Artificial Intelligence” are words or phrases that come from everybody’s lips. Whether there are ethical or intellectual property concerns or how AI will impact staff’s productivity, these conversations were included in almost all the sessions I attended. However, one session focused on trial and error vs. success and failure.  

A medical society CEO led the session, and the message (paraphrased) was, “try this stuff.” He shared how his staff has his and their board’s blessing to experiment with AI tools in managing the organization. The ultimate goal for that team is to find efficiency while understanding capabilities. He encourages his team to work with the tools, have quick success or failure, and, if successful, bring the idea and tool forward so that the rest of the team can weigh in. They do not want five tools to do the same task, but five are usually tested before deciding on one for the organization.  

I liked how this CEO empowered his team to look forward and experiment with technology, focusing on improving some parts of the organization. I also enjoyed that he didn’t start the whole process by creating a policy of the do’s and don’ts. Governance is important, but education, learning, and experimentation will help adopt organizational change. 

Big Three Challenges in Membership Organizations 

One of the sessions utilized a yearly survey focused on the challenges and future of membership organizations in the United States. The data came from the last complete survey released in early 2023 and compared to several subsequent years. I attended, hoping to get some insight into whether anything has changed or is changing since the COVID years. The outcome was that nothing has changed, but there is some learning in that lack of change. Here are the top three concerns the data showed for the Medical Association Vertical: 

The presenters focused on the medical-based associations but mentioned that the top two challenges are the same across the industry.  

A challenge that should be on this list is utilizing technology and data to help lead or run an organization. Still, if you look closely, you can see where the lack of attention to data contributes to the stagnation. Attendees told many stories in that room of how organizations were using drip campaigns, renewal reminders, and rented lists to combat the challenges listed. 

Still, very few talked about how they were analyzing the data and what it told them. Drip campaigns are suitable for many types of engagement, but if a third of your list has received six months of emails and failed to open one, there must be some reason to keep sending them. Through analysis of interaction, transaction, survey data, and anything else that can be attributed to that third of the list, it is possible to find some of those reasons and change tactics appropriately. There is plenty of data and plenty of systems for reporting. A way to overcome these challenges is to turn that data into information and act upon it. 

Experts are rarely Innovators. 

The final keynote speech of the conference was so good. The speaker, Diana Kander, a New York Times Best-Selling Author, taught us that it is almost impossible for those who are and believe themselves to be experts in something to be innovators.

The key headline of her topic was that innovators are inquisitive and experts like structure. She said, “Innovators like puzzles, experts like checklists.”

Diana’s presentation was outstanding, entertaining, and thought-provoking because, with just that one statement, she had me rethinking my stance on whether I’m an innovator or an expert and applying the detail she gave to our industry and some of the challenges discussed above. And I was left with a question for myself and all of you: is expertise the roadblock to innovation in our associations and membership organizations? 

We’ve all heard the response, “That’s how we’ve always done it,” when thinking about programs, services, or processes we offer or utilize daily. But does that come from expertise that those items don’t need innovation, or just lack of time or interest to be curious about their validity? Change and innovation are not synonyms. In a 2022 article in Brainz Magazine, the author stated, “Change simply refers to the act of making something different. It’s a response to an existing situation. Innovation, on the other hand, proactively generates new ideas and solutions. It’s not a reaction; it’s a proactive force for positive change.” Diane’s session left me thinking about how to bring more innovative or inquisitive thinking to our industry and allow ourselves that curiosity to discover other (maybe not always new) ways to engage membership, meet our growth challenges, and continue to spread the word about the impact of associations on professions and society in general. Diane finished with, “Change is inevitable; innovation is optional.”  

For me, this was one of the best conferences I’ve attended in a while. As a lifelong digital, technology, and operations professional, now working in the association industry, I loved the mixture of ideas, conversations, and networking opportunities. And it was great being in Chicago near so many association colleagues that I don’t get to see in person very often. I’ll certainly be back next year.