Where is the Opportunity in this COVID-19 Madness?


Definition of Black Swan Event

An event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult to predict.


How did the COVID-19 Crisis Hit One Association?

On March 12, 2020, I and my colleague Phil Puckorius, Vice President of Association Laboratory arrived in San Diego. Our goal was to lead the International Warehouse Logistics Association through strategic planning.

Here’s what we found upon arriving.

California Governor Gavin Newsome had just spoken about the state’s response to the growing crisis. Quickly referred to as the Newsome 250 Policy, for all practical purposes, resulted in wide-spread cancellation of meetings with more than 250 attendees.

Respecting growing concerns about the spread of the virus, the Board and staff had acted swiftly.

The convention at which the strategic planning meeting was being held had just been cancelled that day. More than 423 attendees and exhibitors had been told to stay home. IWLA was suddenly staring at a $1.3 million hole in their anticipated revenue/expenses, overnight.

Out of more than 30 original participants, only nine would be in attendance for strategic planning.

In a nearly empty room, with 4 times the food needed, a group of leaders plotted what to do next.

Getting Ahead of the Crisis

Late yesterday evening, March 19, as I sipped my 2nd whiskey, my mind kept struggling with a critical question driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on businesses worldwide.

Where is the opportunity for organizations in all the madness resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic?

I was a bit drunker than normal for two drinks. Probably because by two, I mean four. Regardless, I was hoping for some insight.

For the last week, I’d had conversations with clients and prospects who were so dominated by the current crisis that they couldn’t manage the emotional or intellectual bandwidth to think 3 months down the road, let alone 3 years.

Critical to me was figuring out how to get ahead the curve of this crisis. At Association Laboratory we did two things.

Association Laboratory quickly marshaled associations active in the Association Laboratory Research Alliance.

Formed in 2019 to lead research into the future of the association business model, members of the Alliance chose to ignore the daily frantic headlines and, instead, focused on collecting the information association leaders needed to make rational, thoughtful decisions.

Within 3 days, 16 different global, US and state societies of association executives were organized and within a week, we deployed a survey designed to assess the impact of the pandemic on associations. Each organization promoting the study to their members and stakeholders.

The Strategic and Economic Impact of COVID-19 on the Association Sector (available for free in early April) will identify how and how badly associations will be hurt but, more importantly, what they are doing to adapt.

Association Laboratory reassessed the data in Looking Forward, the world’s leading environmental scan of the association strategy environment.

At the same time, we are reexamining the meaning of data collected just prior to the pandemic highlighting changes in the business environment facing the association sector.

In December 2019, more than 500 association leaders had assessed the environment facing their members. They had identified how this environment was impacting their strategy. Finally, they had told us what they were doing to adapt.

How did this data look different, given the anticipate impact of the pandemic on communities, professions and industries?

Conclusion? Strategic Assumptions are Accelerating, Not Changing.

While the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic must be understood and incorporated into decision-making, it will be critical that association not underestimate the impact of fundamental shifts in the environment that were already occurring and may now be accelerated.

In Looking Forward 2020, the data collected prior to the pandemic already showed movement towards online or digital relationships.

Association Laboratory believes that while face to face activities for many organizations will continue to be a critical component of their strategy portfolio, the business environment has reached a tipping point where meetings, as a focus of organization activity and association strategy, will decrease.

Consider the following.

People are accustomed to meeting virtually.

More than 1/3rd (35%) of respondents to Looking Forward 2020 say their members are increasing their use of online or virtual education.

The familiarity of individuals and the use of companies of virtual meeting technologies, such as Zoom or WebEx, has become commonplace. This behavior is no longer rare or exotic.

Disincentives to travel are becoming more prevalent and online learning more important.

For many individuals, particularly in healthcare, institutional or employer disincentives for travel to conferences were becoming more commonplace.

In a multidisciplinary environmental scan of the physician environment conducted in March 2020 on behalf of Wolters Kluwer Health, physician respondents identified online learning centers as twice as important as face to face events to their relationship with a medical society.

Virtual meetings and related technology are becoming less expensive and more reliable.

Technology platforms for virtual events have become more prevalent, less expensive and easier to use. Technical difficulties and disruptions seem less apparent. Average WiFi speeds are increasing making virtual activity easier. The augmented/virtual environment experience will continue to improve and provide real competing and complimentary options to traditional face to face events.

Associations were shifting their focus to the digital and online environment prior to the COVID-19 crisis.

In December 2019, 61% of respondents to Looking Forward 2020 say they were expanding online education. In addition, 52% of respondents planned on creating or expanding online communities.

The preliminary data collected for The Economic and Strategic Impact of COVID-19 on Associations simply reinforces the directional push of the business environment that was already impacting association strategy.

In Conclusion

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins, the protagonist, is anxious about the danger he finds himself in; the dramatic turn his life has taken as he journeys to Mordor.

He seeks the comfort and wisdom of his friend, Gandalf, the Wizard.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo, referring to his newfound plight. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Association Laboratory, along with our partners in the Association Laboratory Research Alliance, believe it is time to rise to the challenge of COVID-19 and lead the changes necessary to continue improving associations’ contributions to our industries, professions and society.

Good luck from my Seat at the (home) Bar.