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Finding Value in Professionals Associations: Management and Membership Issues

Magazine article Online Searcher

Finding Value in Professionals Associations: Management and Membership Issues

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I've spent the majority of my professional career working for companies located in and around Washington, D.C. I live there as well. You could aptly describe this area as "Association Central." Associations, in the aggregate, are the second-largest employer in the area. Only the government employs more people.

Associations flock to this area for its proximity to the lawmakers whose influence is needed to lobby for and create legislation favorable to each association. Many of my neighbors and business colleagues are actively engaged in association activities as lobbyists, organization executives, and, of course, members.

Many years ago, as a newly hired "sales guy," I vividly recollect the day my boss called me into his office and informed me that attending association-sponsored trade shows was part of my job responsibilities. He believed that our largest and most valued customers attended these shows. It was our best opportunity to meet our customers and see new prospects. In addition to listening to customer needs, showing them our latest and greatest, and on occasion entertaining them, we also supported the association that supported our customers. He believed that a strong association benefits both members and companies.

During my 35-year career, I continued his legacy by supporting these associations with trade show attendance and financial support during fundraising drives. For many years, it was a mutually advantageous relationship.


Recent events in the library and information science (LIS) community have led me to wonder how viable its professional associations really are. The 2015 Midwinter meeting of the American Library Association (ALA; experienced a significant drop in attendance from the previous year. The attendance numbers were 7,171 attendees in 2015 (Chicago) compared with 8,091 in 2014 (Philadelphia). These numbers exclude vendors, press, and other nonpaying attendees. ALA's annual meeting is held in the summer and always draws a significantly large crowd to its chosen venues. In looking at ALA's attendee numbers for its annual meeting, no clear pattern emerges: There were 13,019 in 2014 (Las Vegas); 20,237 in 2013 (Chicago); 17,642 in 2012 (Anaheim); and 20,186 in 2011 (New Orleans).

Perhaps the variation can be chalked up to location, which plays a crucial role in the decision-making process for attendees and vendors. For example, it can be difficult for U.S.-based members to attend an industry trade show in another country. The Special Libraries Association (SLA; sla. org) held its 2014 annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada, and experienced a significant drop in attendance from the previous years' conferences. Chicago in 2012 saw 3,472 attendees; San Diego in 2013 had 2,808; and Vancouver in 2014 was able to attract only 2,402. Although SLA is an international association, the bulk of its membership is in the U.S. SLAs 2015 annual conference is scheduled for Boston. It expects attendance to surpass previous years' totals.

SLAs Leadership Summit, held in January, as is ALA Midwinter, experienced no decline in attendance. However SLA holds Leadership Summit to train its chapter and division volunteer leaders. It's not a trade show. Likewise, NFAIS (National Federation of Advanced Information Services; nfais. org) moved its February 2015 conference from Philadelphia to the Washington, D.C., area with about the same number of attendees as it had in years past. The NFAIS conference has no exhibit hall, although it does have sponsors, and is an informational event rather than a trade show.


When an association's conference is poorly attended by its membership, vendors rethink plans to continue sponsoring upcoming shows. Too great a delta between costs to attend and revenue obtained causes ROI to rear its ugly head. If things are not working correctly for both the vendor and the association, a fatal domino effect will unfortunately be achieved. …

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