The trade association model is under threat – is it worth saving?

The role of trade associations in the UK events sector has long been a bone of contention among planners.

The value of an association is in question, thanks in no small part to the sheer number of such bodies in the UK. One agency head I recently spoke to told me that the UK trade associations lack direction and cohesion and he simply didn’t know which one to be a member of.

And he’s not the only one, judging by the debate that took place at Meeting Professionals International’s (MPI) European Roadshow at the Hilton Kensington in London.

As part of a discussion forum, Simon Hughes, vice chair of the Business Visits and Events Partnership (BVEP) said: “The association model is under threat from new media and new networks. There are vast tranches of people in this industry who don’t touch any trade associations at all.

“I suspect that there is a huge number of millennials who are well connected and don’t touch any associations or societies. Associations need to get their act together in terms of how we position ourselves in the UK. We need to support our partners; some trade associations struggle.

“We go out frequently and ask partners to respond to surveys – and generally the responses are appalling. People haven’t got time to do that. There’s a question about how engaged membership is. It doesn’t surprise me that there’s criticism.”

On the panel, MPI board member Miguel Neves said: “Millennials are not that different, I don’t see them that differently. Online communities provide a place to exchange information, but an online community is not the place to change the world. We should be able to collaborate with an online community – as long as there’s an exchange of investment from both sides.”

MPI president and CEO Paul van Deventer, a fellow panellist, added: “The association model is under threat. The speed of access to content is a problem.

“We talk more about community than membership. In doing that, you have to think about a world where, what if we had no membership some day? We have to start thinking like a media company – how do we monetise this community?

“I don’t think it’s generational. I think the access to tech is changing how people behave.”

Sara Merriman, sales manager at Hilton Brighton Metropole, weighed in with her experience, as a millennial, of the association model, saying: “I think the word association has a stigma attached to it. I wouldn’t ever say ‘I want to be part of an association’.”

However, Simon Hughes concluded by saying that trade associations still have a role to play – now more than ever.

He said: “Two years ago, just after the EU vote had been taken, I was with planners in Europe. The head of a German trade association said, ‘Germany will no longer have to compete with the UK on creativity, because we will kill you on price’.

“It’s through associations that we can have a much more sensible conversation. I don’t think that conversation would have happened without links. There’s a real benefit from associations, it’s about the ability to talk about business sensibly.”

What do you think? Are you a member of a trade association? Do you see their value? Get in touch with your thoughts, we’d love to hear from you.