Leadership Letter - Colleen Harper May 2022

Spring has finally arrived here in NYC and with it some discussions about how our organizations first learned about and started preparing for COVID two years ago – including, of course, cancelling many events. The association I worked for at the time was approaching its Spring Convention, held annually in a European city. That year it was Vienna, Austria. I vividly remember the many discussions my Board of Directors had immediately after learning how COVID could impact the event, and how excruciating it was to finally acknowledge that it needed to be cancelled. A large part of what made it so agonizing was the unfortunate realization of how considerably our cash flow would be impacted, and knowing we needed to immediately start figuring out how to sustain the organization in the face of an unprecedented challenge.

Fortunately, two years later we are back to in-person events that are the lifeblood of many of our organizations. Without reliable event revenue for such a long time, countless associations had no choice but to tap into their reserves in order to continue operations. Of course, that’s one of the reasons that reserves exist in the first place; but even so, that decision is never easy and, as we know, reserves aren’t unlimited.

One of the silver linings to our organizations’ collective COVID experience has been the impetus to diversify revenue streams. “Diversifying revenue” is always a hot topic of conversation precisely because so many associations rely on just one or two sources of revenue, with one of them almost certainly an in-person event of some magnitude. My current association’s largest annual event accounts for 45% of our revenue, and the absence of that event since 2020 has forced some conversations to happen sooner than they otherwise may have. We are taking a hard look at our profit margins for individual products and services, as well as the percentage breakdown of where our revenue comes from. While there was pre-COVID concern about our reliance on one event, there was a lack of urgency to affect any real change because the business model was “working.” Our post-COVID discussions have been full of creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurialism – which has been exciting and energizing for the Board and staff alike.

Personally, I believe there are two other event-related benefits after working through COVID. One, being prohibited from meeting with other people in person has actually reinforced the value of face-to-face events, especially when it comes to exhibit halls and networking. That’s great news for associations, in general. Two, we all had to learn how to provide education virtually, and that made events much more accessible to people who are unable (or unwilling) to travel. The general concept of accessibility is incredibly important, especially when it comes to making progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

So for now, I’m really looking forward to my organization’s convention in Las Vegas next month, and to attending upcoming NYSAE events – both virtual and in-person (especially the Synergy Awards this fall!) And I’ll be hoping to see you at those events, too!

Colleen Harper, MPA, CAE
Executive Director, Illuminating Engineering Society