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All in a day’s Sirk

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Former ICCA president Martin Sirk speaks to AEN about his new advisory role at Global Association Hubs (GAH), and mentorship programmes for young people in the association sector.

 

How has your work with Global Association Hubs (GAH) differed from your previous role at ICCA?

It’s important to note that I’m not working with Global Association Hubs in a full-time role in the same way that I previously was at ICCA. I’m still consulting under my own name as Sirk Serendipity, but GAH is one of my main clients.

The GAH partnership is very much an advisory role. Most of the work is being done by the four cities that comprise the organisation: Brussels, Dubai, Singapore and Washington. They’ve got their own programmes, and they’ve each got very different strategies. Part of my job is to help bring all those strategies into alignment, and communicate to the outside world the difference of philosophy that sets the GAH cities apart from their major competitors.

 

What do you hope to achieve with GAH?

My first few weeks working with GAH have been a learning opportunity. I know the cities pretty well from a meetings perspective, and a traditional destination marketing perspective. But each of these cities is also positioning itself as a partnership hub for associations, so that meetings are only one part of the equation. 

The GAH partnership is about trying to encourage associations to locate, to run programmes, to identify partners who can support their development objectives. I’m trying to get my head around the support infrastructures that exist in each of these cities – the companies that can provide the organisational, financial, legal and advocational support that associations need.

 

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What specific advantages do the four GAH cities offer for associations?

In each of their regions, they are the major players. They’ve built up ecosystems over time that make it more and more sensible for other associations to follow their lead. Washington DC is where associations have based themselves since time began, and the same thing goes for Brussels. Associations base themselves here because they need to be close to where legislation is being crafted. We want to be much more proactive about selling that strength to other associations that want to get involved. 

Singapore has been a leader in linking its meetings strategy to its economic development for decades, but is now recognising the value of associations as well. And Dubai realised there is virtually nowhere in the Middle East region where associations could even legally register and operate, which it hopes to change.

Each of the four cities is committed to the association market in a way none of their competitors are, and yet each one is quite distinctly different. Part of my job is to explain this to the market, and help them synergise with each other. My job is also to champion associations as an essential part of the mix for any city that is serious about being a major player in the future.

 

What trends do you see going forwards for associations?

One of the trends I’ve been talking about for some time now is that they are facing more and more competition. Associations used to be monopoly providers of specialised knowledge within their region, but now those boundaries are breaking down. We have private companies that are looking for gaps in the market, organising events and sucking out the time of key people, as well as information being freely available on the internet.

We’re heading towards a period where there are definitely going to be winners and losers. Associations which are able to offer the very best quality of content, whether through live events or online material, will come out on top. They will squish other organisations in the same field who have not moved sharply enough – groups who only see themselves as offering a local service.

To me, it feels that a lot of associations are having to go global, or having to look outside their geographical area, simply because they risk being overwhelmed with competition from outside if they don’t. Knowledge is their currency, and they have to utilise it effectively.

 

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Our focus this issue is on young people getting involved with associations – what is your perspective on this; have you seen associations struggle to engage a younger crowd?

I’ve actually just started a mentorship project with Katrin Schmitt from CIM magazine. She wanted to encourage more mentoring throughout the meetings industry, and I was brought in as one of the ’16 over 60’ to volunteer.

It prompted me to think I wanted more young people interacting within the GAH cities, so I’ve asked each of the cities to nominate a smart young person to be my mentee. The project they’ll be working on is to investigate what makes a city attractive to millennials, from an association perspective. If we can articulate this, we can help associations to address this question when recruiting.

There are so many clichés about young people, and I don’t think most organisations have really gone much further beyond them. Young people are not a monolith, they’re a very complex mix of people and we need to start actually asking them for their views.

It’s going to be a challenge. Young people have been connected to each other electronically from a very early stage, so it’s more difficult to convince them of the value of local communities like associations. Things that my generation think of as a marketing activity, they think of as simply living and breathing. Many associations have not yet managed to come up with good models that tie young people in.

The biggest issue is to give them responsibility and trust them – to let them come up with some solutions themselves. Too often it’s the old Greybeards coming up with things they think millennials might like. But the future will be invented by the people who are going to live it.