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Event review: uncharted waters at the European Association Summit

The ‘c’ word was never far away, but the eighth edition of the European Association Summit (#EAS2020), in Brussels, explored deeper issues yet. James Lancaster reports…

The annual European Association Summit took place against the backdrop of coronavirus, but a thoughtful programme, which sought to define the role and relevance of membership-based organisations in a world of seemingly endless disruption, provided some much-welcome diversion.

The hundred-plus attendees were asked to consider, amongst other things, the secrets of sustainable organisational growth, the wisdom of crowds, the relevance of branding to international associations, and the dearth of women in executive and leadership positions.

Pleasingly, the session formats were interactive and engaging. Rather than simply ‘broadcasting’ a fixed message, the speakers and presenters saw it as their function to get attendees talking to each other, working in groups, critiquing ideas, and teasing out solutions to shared problems.

It’s a good thing that meeting planners are thinking more creatively about how to impart knowledge and a good thing that delivering ‘takeaways’ – stuff delegates can put into practice – is now considered key. However a successful meeting will always make room for thinking that isn’t strictly results-oriented, and that’s where this eighth edition of EAS got it pretty much spot on.

Planned or not, it felt as though we were being primed for the final session, The Association of the Future against Disruptions, which explored how radical changes in society (technological, environmental, socio-economic, health-related etc) were shifting perceived ‘norms’ and the boundaries of traditional thinking.

Here the impact of COVID-19 was inescapable – and one of several round-table discussions was dedicated to sharing advice on how to postpone or cancel events in light of the outbreak.

Force majeure inevitably got a mention  – specifically its scope and limitations –as did the need for associations to check their by-laws and articles of association. Do they actually allow for virtual meetings? Does everyone have to be present at your AGM?

Elsewhere the virus was referenced in broader terms. While making the case for associations to be more ‘agile’, session facilitator Stylianos Filopoulos urged delegates to consider putting their associations on a diet.

“The heavier you are, in terms of your organisational structure, the harder it will be to get through this crisis,” he said. “It is important to build resilience and flexibility into your association.”

As association events are cancelled all over the world, pushing some organisations into severe financial hardship, one fears this might be a lesson some will learn too late. Only time will tell.

This year’s event took place at Square Brussels, March 10-11th.

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The EAS is organised by convention bureau visit.brussels’ Association Bureau with input from the European Society of Association Executives. Support also comes from Dubai Business Events, Singapore Tourism Board, and Destination DC, who are all co-members of the Global Association Hubs Partnership (GAHP).