Executives representing professional organizations recently met at the law offices of Holland & Hart in Las Vegas to discuss issues facing professional organizations in the Silver State. Most professional organizations are facing a downward trend in membership as well as difficulty in finding and renewing much needed sponsorships.
Connie Brennan, publisher of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for this monthly event that brings leaders together to discuss issues pertinent to their organizations. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.
What is the biggest challenge your organization faces?
Dennis Weingart: I think our biggest challenge is relative funding and staffing to the amount of workload that we’re seeing. As you can imagine, over the last 18 to 24 months, the Las Vegas area economy has created a lot of unemployed people, many of whom are now starting and running a business of their own as a means of generating income. That’s created quite a challenge for us to try to meet the demand for services in an era of decreased government funding for what we do. At the same time, we’re seeing a lot of so-called stimulus money out there which, to my recollection, has still not filtered down to the man on the street type of scenario.
Brad Schnepf: One of our biggest challenges is going to be to retain membership and attract new members in light of the type of economy we’re in, because everybody in our organization is affected one way or the other.
Kelli Bowling: Our biggest challenge is keeping and retaining members, showing our value to our members and then keeping our corporate partners or our sponsorships. We’ve had a lot of banks as our sponsors. Right now, as I’m sure you’re all aware, most banks are not doing very well, they’re struggling with where they’re putting their money. So, we’ve lost a lot of corporate partners in that regards.
Steve Holloway: The biggest problem for me right now is freeing up public money, including stimulus money to get projects underway. For example, Clark County right now is held up on about $300 million worth of public works bids, contracts and projects. Enough said.
Katrina Bruce: I’ve got dual challenges. One is being the management and staff support to multiple associations and helping guide those associations through tough times and help them to determine the best approaches and how to make them unique and valuable to the members. Secondly, as a business owner, to really forecast what I can expect a year from now, or 18 months from now in my business planning as the associations are looking at these challenging times.
Robin Civish: We have about 98 members right now. We’re down from about 180 members last year. So, our biggest challenge has been retaining members. We do meet twice a month, which is a little unique to most organizations. So our attendance at meetings bounces from one meeting to the next instead of having our members at both meetings every month like they were a year ago. A lot of the issues we’re talking about are not new issues, they’re just bigger issues than they were two years ago. Getting new members has always been a big driving force behind any group. It wasn’t as big an issue as it is now, but it’s always been an issue. It just hasn’t been right there in front of us.
Bowling: And I think any organization, no matter what year it is, if it’s 1980 or 2009, struggles to maintain and keep the relevance it has to its members. It’s constantly evolving and changing to meet the needs of its members. That’s just something that you’re going to have as long as you’re involved, as long as the organization exists, to maintain and keep the relevance to the members and how we provide value. That’s never going to change.
How are your organizations combating decreased membership?
Holloway: We’ve been very active in recruiting. Members want services that you provide that they can’t get elsewhere. One of those, of course, is networking. But, more importantly, it is the contacts we have, with public works agencies for example.
Civish: At CMG we had a staggered pricing for meetings for members and non-members, and we’ve changed that so everybody can come for the member price to try and help encourage non-members to come to the meetings. This was our first meeting and we had a better attendance than we did last meeting. I don’t know if that was a speaker-driven factor or if it was the pricing.
Bruce: That’s just the opposite of what we would do. What my clients would do in terms of encouraging membership would be to keep the differential between member and non-member greater so that there’s a reason to be a member. That’s one of the reasons I’m curious to see how that works.
Civish: We went back and forth on this in our board meetings. Our members were coming to meetings; it’s the guests we’re not getting. So, if we’re not getting new guests, we’re not going to get new members. We’ll try and see how it goes. It’s not a permanent change. We’re calling it a summer special.
Schnepf: We have a very active membership committee that gets involved in inviting people to our functions. We have a lot of monthly breakfasts, for example, we have networking functions, once or twice a month. And, we encourage folks to bring guests at some of these. Some of them are for members only so there’s an exclusivity associated with it. But, we also communicate constantly about the benefits of membership and what it means to be a member, and try to keep the membership active so that other people are attracted to the organization. One of the things that we realized was there’s a balance that needs to take place between adjusting the costs to be appropriate for the economic times that we’re in, but at the same time maintaining value, which is why people become a member anyway. That is the network abilities, the educational opportunities and all of the different types of committees that are involved. What we found is that, even though the dollars are tight and budgets are being scrutinized, there’s still demand for our existing membership to have these opportunities available to them. I think that has helped a lot in the retention of our existing membership.
Bowling: If you’re a member of NAWBO Southern Nevada, you’re a member of NAWBO National. Because of that affiliation, there are a lot of other benefits than just working with the local group. So, we’ve tried to focus on that. We’ve also changed our luncheon meetings and have put together whole series, as opposed to just having stand-alone meetings with standalone speakers. We’ve created a whole education series from starting your business, financing your business, checking your business bottom line, setting up your entity to sell, how to close the deal, how to check in on your business, from start to finish. We have a special on Internet marketing, which has been a huge request of ours on how to use Twitter, Facebook and Linked-In to make your business more successful. Because a lot of those are all free and everybody’s all about free right now.
In regards to membership, is the problem retention or recruitment?
Bowling: For us, it’s retention in particular. Just because we have a lot of really small business owners that are members. The majority of our members are business owners with under $500,000 in revenue a year. So, if they’re looking at places to cut, this is one of the first things they cut, their membership and subscription dues. It doesn’t seem like a lot, our membership is only $200, but that is $200 that they don’t have to spend. What I’ve been hearing from people that haven’t renewed is “I’m cutting costs. I’ve laid off people. I can’t justify a membership in an organization when I cut staff”.
Bruce: I’ve noticed that the professional organizations that have a designation, the SIOR, CCIM, IRAM, have much less of a problem with retention. If you have your designation, you’re going to part of your association.
What is most important to members and how do you keep them engaged and involved?
Civish: Recognition for what they’ve done. Talking about it at meetings, recognizing the work of members and committee members at the meetings in front of the general membership is important.
Bruce: In going back to my early years with NAIOP, there’s a three-stool approach of education, networking and legislative. Without one, you’re stool is going to fall. There are different people that go focus on different areas, but I think all three are very important to most members of associations. What I see, especially with NAIOP, is focusing on building relationships with the people that you serve on committees. It’s truly serving on a committee that will give you the opportunity to do business with members more so than just going to a breakfast meeting. So, it’s the investment of time that will get you those relationships that business is built on in this town.
Bowling: I use my own experiences to try to show that. Katrina [Bruce] is right. You can go to every group meeting, but you really aren’t going to get anything out of it until you build a relationship with people that are in that group. They’re not going to refer you business just because you met them and were nice and gave them a business card. I wouldn’t refer my customers to someone unless I trusted them implicitly. You really have to form relationships and get people to understand what you do, and how it can benefit them, and benefit their customers, contacts, family members and everybody else.
Schnepf: In order to keep people involved and engaged when they are on a committee or they are working on an initiative, they need to know that what they do and what they have to say is important, and it matters to the organization. So, it’s not just being involved for the sake of being involved, but they have an impact. If that is accomplished, the motivation stays very high.
Holloway: What we find is that people are members of associations for different reasons. Any trade association, as Katrina [Bruce] pointed out, provides three services and many associations go beyond that to provide other services and that’s how they attract and retain members.
How do you determine how best to represent all of your members on legislative issues?
Schnepf: That’s a challenge.
Holloway: That’s part of the fun.
Shnepf: Yeah, that’s part of the fun. We have lobbyists and they come in and speak to us. It’s always been an open dialogue, knowing you can’t please one hundred percent of the people all the time. When it comes to industry issues, we don’t get into many issues that aren’t directly related to development of commercial real estate. We could have varying opinions with different organizations. I know we’ve had talks before with the AGC. Generally, we sit down with our membership, our leadership and/or the lobbyists and we explain our concern. Like I said, we normally find middle ground. For the most part, I don’t think we’ve experienced too much disagreement internally because we do focus our attention on those issues or those legislative matters that are directly impacting the industry that most of the members are involved with.
Bruce: In addition, NAIOP has developed a position paper on government affairs outlining the issues and the general positions on those issues. So, it’s not addressing a specific bill or ordinance, but it’s overall, this is what NAIOP stands for and I think that’s really important.
Holloway: We do the same thing. We focus on construction-related issues and try to stay as much as possible away from the social issues. Although, because of our position, we do get dragged into those, usually because of the tax issues or something like that.
Do you find that most organizations are communicating more with members in an electronic format?
Bruce: Absolutely. This goes back to cost-cutting. We’re all looking at, in some ways, jumping on the sustainability bandwagon to save costs. It’s green to only publish your newsletter on the website and oh, by the way, we’re saving a bunch of money. So we’re able to make use of the desire to be sustainable in saving costs. We’re looking into this by doing marketing through email as an organization. In the future, we’ll look into marketing through Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In. We’re really figuring out just how to use it and how to maintain it. It’s kind of like a whole other website to maintain.
Civish: I know Galit [Rozen] set up a CREW Las Vegas site on Facebook and/or Linked-In. So, she’s got them set-up and she posts to them. They have newsletters. CREW National has Linked-In accounts so that you can join there. They have people publish discussion items. I’m not sure how well it’s doing, but I know that every couple of weeks I get the updates on them.
Wiengart: The whole social media thing is really a double-edged sword. On the one hand you want the connectivity and the communication links that those kinds of things can facilitate. But, on the other hand, it almost forces you to grovel, if you will, for stuff to put on there so that you can be constantly in contact or have a two-way communication. The danger becomes that, instead of being informative and useful, you become frivolous and overused.
Where do you think the economy is going to be in three years?
Schnepf: I don’t think the economy is going to be what it is today, it’s going to be different and I think it’s going to be better. Whether we’re having the same challenges, I sincerely doubt it, especially in our industry. It seems to cycle every five to ten years anyway. With new technology, with the new economy that is going to be evolving, I think it’s going to be positive and I think there’s going to be some new challenges associated with that.
Wiengart: We’re already seeing a dramatic shift through government intervention in a number of industries; financial industry, the energy industry and soon to be the education industry. I think one of the big issues that’s going to arise for membership organization is, because of all the changes in how business is done in the country, what is our new value proposition? What can we give to our members to help them cope with, survive and prosper in this new business environment? And so, that whole value proposition will have to be re-examined over time.