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Association meetings: ignore the doom-mongers

Sometimes the best theories are just that: theories.

No matter how much you pummel and shape them, they refuse to comply with reality.

Sometimes this creates a kind of cognitive dissonance in those who proposed the theory in the first place. They continue to believe their hypothesis even though all the evidence points elsewhere.

And so there are still people who cling to the idea that associations are a relic of the past, pointless anachronisms breathing their last gasps before a digital Tsunami washes them all away.

Social media, open-source publishing, the rise of the ‘individual’, the pick-and-mix nature of modern consumerism: all have been cited as sensible reasons why associations are doomed.

It is a theory based on a false assumption – that associations are incapable of reforming themselves; flat-footed beasts who can’t see what’s coming. I’ve been hearing this for the last ten years.

And yet, according to most available indices, ICCA’s City and Country Rankings included, the number of international association meetings continues to go up and up. Some of this, of course, can be attributed to ICCA’s swelling membership base and better reporting from its members.

But that doesn’t explain why long-established members who have had rigorous reporting procedures in place for years also show a steady rise in the number of meetings they host.

In a fascinating article for AMI earlier this year, the association consultant Geneviève Leclerc identified a string of emerging industries – from medical cannabis to bitcoin, autonomous vehicles to wearable technologies – and found start-up associations representing all of them.

So much for millennial fatigue.

If it were true, too, that associations are facing extinction, nobody seems to have told the world’s emerging city economies, who are investing millions in convention centres and have installed the international meetings sector as a central plank in their future economic strategies.

Look at all those ‘vision’ documents coming out of the Middle East – places like Dubai, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and, yes, even Saudi Arabia – and it is clear they see their future in the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ and the nurturing of international organisations as a fundamental part of that.

Besides, there is evidence that associations are changing. Some are remodelling their membership structures or even ditching the traditional membership model altogether in favour of a ‘community-based’ approach, with different points of entry, where essentially all-comers are welcome.

In a drive to satisfy the different demands of their increasingly international membership, others are holding more regional or pan-continental conferences. More hybrid events are being held – a blending of the physical and virtual worlds – and some of the more adventurous associations are experimenting with simultaneous ‘multi-hub’ events, connecting cities via satellite link-up.

What does appear undeniable, however, is that huge international association meetings are on the wane. The trend in ICCA’s data over the last 20 years has been for more, but smaller, meetings.

But that, to me, speaks to associations’ ability to adapt to the world around them and augurs well.