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Everything you need to know from the Associations World Congress


AEM travelled to Gothenburg, the world’s most sustainable meetings destination, where the Associations World Congress 2019 served up some food for thought. And spiky lobsters.


The concept of Fika is an important part of Swedish culture. 

Translated literally, it means a “coffee and cake break” – but it has a greater significance than that. Fika is a ritual. It means taking time to refresh the brain, to relax and meet with friends or colleagues over a drink and something to eat.

It’s a spirit which was tapped into by the Associations World Congress 2019, which took place from 7-9 April in the city of Gothenburg. Gothenburg is the home of Swedish car giant Volvo, which directly employs over 21,000 people in the city. It has also been ranked the world’s most sustainable meetings destination for three years running, according to the Global Destination Sustainability Index.

AWC 2019, which was organised by the Association of Association Executives (AAE), delivered insight and opinion from key figures in the industry, who gathered to discuss the trends and challenges facing associations today. It took place in Gothia Towers, a hotel venue connected to the Swedish Exhibition and Congress Centre (Svenska Massan koncernen).

Across a three-day programme, delegates heard from speakers on a variety of topics, ranging from how to market associations and attract young leaders, to sustainability and how events can raise the profile of an association.




What’s the point of events?

Day one kicked off with an opening keynote by Paul Welander, senior vice president and advisor to the CEO of Volvo. He talked about how closely connected the company is to the city of Gothenburg, and Sweden as a whole - Volvo makes up more than 10% of the country’s entire GDP, and is Gothenburg’s largest employer by some way.

In the Events Strategy Forum, Rodney Cox, events director at International Gas Union, then delivered a keynote titled: “What’s the point of events? Assessing their value and contribution to objectives.”

He talked about the difficulty, but also the importance, of balancing an association’s objectives with marketable events. “Associations move slower than the marketplace,” he said. “So if you want the money, if you want to stay on trend in events, do you begin to leave your association objectives behind? There’s a balance you have to find.”

“Associations move slower than the marketplace"

He said it was critical that associations clearly communicate what their objectives actually are, and that everyone working within the association is aware of them. Many organisations do not have a clearly defined set of values, or objectives. “Ensure your events are magnifiers of your objectives,” he advised. “Break down silos within your organisation, and get everyone speaking the same language.”

Once that happens, he said, associations can start to generate advocates – people who will independently preach the benefits of membership. “Advocacy is an underexplored area in the association world,” he said. “International Gas Union has heavily shifted our focus to advocacy, when it comes to marketing and communication.”

Lastly, Cox also discussed the networking benefits which events can bring to associations. International Gas Union events, he said, always received feedback from delegates saying they wanted more networking. The difficulty, however, was that as an industry gas is very hierarchical, and top execs had no reason or desire to network with those lower down the food chain.

As a solution, the organisation implemented a ‘traffic light’ system, which Cox says made all delegates feel like they “had permission to say hello”. It made all attendees feel welcomed, and led to an increase in community and advocacy among the association.




Events as agents of change

Later on day one, William Thomson and Guy Bigwood both spoke on the topic of sustainability. Thomson is a professional speaker who has worked in a variety of roles across the industry, and Bigwood is the managing director of the Global Destination Sustainability Index.

Thomson suggested events need to be considered as part of the community in which they take place, and take into account their human as well as environmental cost. “The events industry, almost by design, is not sustainable,” he said. “The growth, the goodie bags, the international travel…”

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival was held up as an example of an event which has grown to a potentially unsustainable size. Thomson said the event has developed an increasing reliance on unpaid volunteers, and that locals were at risk of feeling they were subjected to the festival, rather than feeling that they were hosting it.

Bigwood then went on to discuss Gothenburg’s ranking as the most sustainable destination in the world for the past three years. The Svenska Massan koncernen runs on 100% renewable electricity provided by wind power in Gothenburg, and has received eco-certification from Green Key and ISO 20121.

"The Svenska Massan koncernen runs on 100% renewable electricity provided by wind power in Gothenburg."

It also makes use of a number of sustainable initiatives. The venue converts its leftover food waste into biogas, which powers its kitchens. It also has an ‘all-in-one’ concept to its design, with the Gothia Towers hotel directly connected to the exhibition and conference spaces. This is to reduce the amount of travel required between sites, while providing delegates with an extra level of convenience.

The venue’s communications manager Nils Sjöberg adds: “All [the SECC’s] shipments are climate-compensated, and we offer climate-compensated transport options to our customers to help them minimise their carbon footprint.

“We endeavour to use only products bearing an EU Eco-Label in our daily operations, such as the EU Flower, Nordic Swan or Good Environmental Choice labels. In addition, we support organisations and projects working locally towards worthy causes that could also have a global impact, such as the Gothenburg Rescue Mission and a research project at Chalmers University to reduce micro-plastics in our waters.”

Bigwood said initiatives such as this are key to the industry leaving a positive impact upon the planet. “We need to reimagine events as agents of change,” he said. “The first step is to create sustainable policies, and include them in your requests for proposals. Get it involved from the beginning. Then, we need to try and make sustainability fun wherever possible. Make it inspiring, not a lecture.”





At the end of day one, delegates were taken on a coach tour of Gothenburg city centre, before being dropped off at events venue Kajskjul 8 for a raucous dinner party. We were treated to performances from a children’s choir and musician Timo Räisänen, who also gave us a live demonstration on how to eat the rather spiky langoustines (or Norwegian lobsters) which were delivered to our tables on enormous platters.

As the wine and food kept flowing, an impromptu sing-off broke loose in the venue, with each long table taking turns to stand and belt out a national tune while toasting their glasses. AEM was placed on a table full of Scots, and subsequently roped into a rendition of The Proclaimers 500 miles. You can watch a video of our X-Factor worthy performance over on the Conference News Twitter page, if you so desire.

Once the singing was over, AAE executive director Damian Hutt took to the stage to begin the 2019 Association Awards, recognising excellence in a number of categories. Association of the Year went to the European Society of Endocrinology, which generated possibly more excitement than the field of endocrinology has ever seen before.

"An entire room full of association eventprofs joined voices to sing ‘Dancing Queen’"

If there was any doubt as to what country we were in, the evening ended with a thoroughly Swedish ABBA medley, delivered by the returning children’s choir. An entire room full of association eventprofs joined voices to sing ‘Dancing Queen’, then wandered back to their hotels before day two of the event got under way.

On day two, Tamlynne Wiltons-Gurney of South African agency idna touched upon an important issue which seems to be a bit of a missing link in the association world: marketing. Many associations, she said, do a poor job of selling the benefits they provide to members, and are particularly bad at speaking to a younger audience.

She commented: “In my experience, associations don’t think that branding and marketing principles apply to them. They have this idea that membership is separate to marketing and that they don’t need to build a strong brand to compete. I have heard things like ‘we don’t need to do marketing, our members have been members for years and will always be members’.

“Associations think that marketing doesn’t apply to them.”

“Many associations also don’t embrace digital – they don’t have strategies and think digital just means having a website and a Facebook page. They depend on death by newsletter and emails as the be-all and end-all of their marketing efforts. And again, they are not conceptualised to make the most of its content or communicating the right message. Instead, those newsletters and e-mails become junk mail fodder.

She added: “The survival of associations depends on them getting with the times. This is the information age - if you can’t prove your value, you become irrelevant, and that is exactly what associations can’t afford to be. 

“Associations are at their core driven by content, but if they don’t know how to properly drive that content through strategic brand communication, the membership loyalty they think they have means nothing.”




The missing piece of the puzzle?

One of the final talks on the second day was on the subject of young leadership within associations – another piece of the puzzle which many seem to be lacking. Judging by those in attendance at AWC 19, there is not an abundance of young leaders within today’s associations, and many who joined the discussion were candid in admitting they had struggled to bring young people in.

Drilona Shtjefni, deputy secretary general at the European Biomass Industry Association, spoke about her experience of being a young person in a leadership role. “As an industry, we need to be giving young workers the opportunities to take leadership opportunities,” she said. “We need to be letting them know their ideas are valued - don’t treat young people as subordinates, but as business partners.”

Association certified coach John Scarrott also weighed in with some advice for aspiring young leaders. “Be a leader today, don’t wait for the opportunity tomorrow,” he said. “Be a good listener – ask active, supportive questions and empathise with your colleagues. If you’ve listened, you’ll be listened to.”


Associating with greatness

The Associations World Congress proved to be an effective sounding board for some of the big problems the sector is facing in 2019. It highlighted the importance of good communication, both internally and externally. Internally, associations need to clarify their objectives, and give space for young leaders to develop. Externally, they need to get better at telling people what they do, and why they do it. 

They could certainly take some pointers from the sustainable city of Gothenburg, too. It presented plenty of new ideas, and opportunities to network with top association leaders over three days in Sweden. Association Event Manager is glad to have been associated with the Association of Association Executives’ Associations World Congress 2019.