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The Language of Being There for Your Members in Times of Crisis

The words we use matter

As associations deal with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it is essential that they create a digital meetings environment that can replicate aspects of the information sharing, industry learnings and peer connecting that happen during face-to-face events. Doing so will allow members to maintain connections.

At a group dinner in early March, a member of our management team, a telecom startup guy, shared the story about the impact of 9-11 on New York City’s telecommunications infrastructure, which was (and still is) operated by Verizon’s telephone switches located adjacent to the World Trade Center. In short, there was no backup plan.

Like all historically defining events, there are important parallels from the aftermath of 9-11 that can inform how American companies should respond to not only the current COVID-19 crisis but also others that will follow.

But first, some context: As the World Trade Center collapsed, Verizon’s four main switches went down too, wiping out 3.6 million data circuits connecting the world’s financial markets and 300,000 landlines bridging Manhattan to the rest of the world—essentially creating a no-communications environment. To rapidly restore service for emergency needs and the global economy, Verizon did the unthinkable: Despite the industry being notoriously cutthroat at the time, the company extemporaneously coordinated a coalition of manpower and infrastructural resources provided by competing telecom networks.

In his memorable Dec. 3, 2001, speech to the National Press Club, then-Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg spoke of the critical lesson learned from 9-11: “[T]rue security lies in having a diversity of technologies that give customers redundant capabilities and provide alternative ways for Americans to communicate. You need more than Verizon.” In other words, even Verizon needed more than Verizon.

Fast forward to today’s hyper-focused, detail-and-control-driven industry of highly specialized association professionals managing multi-million-dollar meetings and conventions and the current coronavirus pandemic.

Association executives and the members they serve are facing Sophie’s Choice-like decision-making, balancing uncertainty of health risks against the financial impact of collateral damage that decision will have on industry-supporting businesses and vendors, including everything from the corner dry cleaners to CISCO. As an industry, association executives have largely relied on a single solution: Physically gathering their members into a single location for an in-person conference or event. When that physical migration is prevented or threatened, the event collapses, along with all the benefits and goodwill that otherwise would have been created by connecting all those attendees together through shared experience.

It’s time for associations to, in the words of Steve Jobs, “Think different.” The ultimate goal of association meetings and conventions isn’t to move people; associations ultimately exist to create a strong sense of community, to educate and to inspire. In today’s digitally ubiquitous environment, isn’t it time the industry offers members alternative contingency options to gather in the absence of a physical location?

Leveraging new technologies in the event space to replicate the physical experience is not necessarily new, but the concept’s time has arrived. Just as online banking hasn’t replaced physical banks, creating a digital meetings environment will never replace the physical convention experience. But building a virtual space based on thoughtful, purpose-driven user-interface and user-experience design and development can replicate aspects of the information sharing, industry learnings and peer connecting that transpire in a physical environment and transform lives.

Association executives and meeting planners have a responsibility to embrace their power to explore fresh and innovative channels for attendees to enhance and sustain connections at the event, as well as after it. Remember this: Your association holds the cards. Make digital companies work for you, accountable to the same service standard you would expect from the hotel catering department serving your banquets—and your members expect from you.

You’re a fearless bunch. Entering new territory is in the association industry’s DNA. Post-911, we rallied as a nation, proving to the world the U.S. is resilient, but in so doing, we ultimately proved it to ourselves. Regardless of how immersive a digital sphere can attempt to recreate a physical experience, nothing will ever substitute the sheer power of being there, whether it’s restoring the world’s largest telecom network in 12 days or congregating with others who share our interests—it’s fundamental to our humanity.

In case you haven’t heard, it’s “the language of being there”—and it’s what the association industry does best.

This article originally appeared on ASAE's Center for Research. OSAE thanks ASAE for their commitment to strengthening the association community and its members' business acumen. Please select this link to read the article as it originally appeared on ASAE's website.

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