How the landscape is changing for associations: An interview with Julie Watterston

Julie Watterston sJulie Watterston of Watterston Associates has been working with international and UK associations for over 20 years. During that time, there have been huge changes in how associations run their events, what delegates are looking for and how technology is increasingly being used to maximise both marketing and delegate interaction at events. We spoke to Julie about how the landscape for associations is changing.
You have been working with international associations for many years, what are they key changes you have seen in the last 5-10 years?

A lot more industry trade shows are being promoted and associations are now being much pickier on which ones they attend as they realise the value of their time.  More associations are incorporating social media to promote their conferences and introducing mobile applications.  However, communication can also become more difficult as people receive so many emails that they are averse to too much information.  There is greater harmonisation across the EU on holding meetings and the expectations that one has from those assisting with the event.  There is also greater use of English as a business language as the younger generation comes through the industry.

In your experience, what are the top three challenges facing associations when it comes to their annual congress? What are their priorities?

Getting delegates to attend the congress is an ongoing challenge as costs rise from venues, airfares, accommodation etc and organisations and individuals have to justify the cost.  From a destination perspective, delegates to not want to have to do multiple legs on flights so destinations that are not first tier have to really focus on how they market themselves.  Delegates also expect more and more from attending the conference and want to have a good time as well as discussing business matters.

How is the ‘make up’ of international associations changing? Are there any different trends in different parts of the world?

US based international associations do not often rotate outside of the US even if they do claim to be “international”, this is slowly changing but the Americans are more likely to “stay at home” in times of political turmoil.  When in the US they are able to use vast conference centre/hotel complexes but have to re-think their venue requirements elsewhere in the world where these type of facilities are not so readily available.  Slowly more and more international associations are using Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media and some associations now are only contactable to “outsiders” via their Facebook page.

How do you think associations are adapting to changes in technologies, for communications, social media, event registration and more?

Most associations do not do all of these things very well yet but are beginning to experiment.  To do these things well, it is no longer just a matter of dabbling in social media etc but outsourcing this component to benefit fully from PR and social media is often the best option.  The younger generation seem averse to picking up the telephone but often it saves more time, you can get an immediate answers and it is more effective!

How well are associations using data in your view?

We recently did an exhibitor boosting recruitment project for one association and their database was years out of date. This meant that any promotional literature that was being sent out was not getting to the right people at all so they were struggling to get enough exhibitors.  Whilst it is expensive to maintain your data, it should be vital and can be outsourced for best results.  However, a lot of associations are too protective of their data and would not allow an outside company to use it even on their behalf.

Click to get in touchHow do you think technology providers can help associations best?

The most obvious answer to this is providing free wi-fi that works!  It is now an expectation and should not be an additional cost.  With regard to other technology, reducing costs for associations is crucial and providing someone who can speak about technology in layman’s terms rather than blinding them with techno-speak that they don’t understand.