The next generation
Students and graduates have a wealth of fresh ideas and experience to offer associations. So why
are they being left behind? AEN investigates
What is the purpose of an association?
A simple question, but one that might not be as easy to answer as we think. Some associations are formed to advocate for industry to Government. Some are formed to create crucial regulations across business. Some, probably, are formed just so that a bunch of Hungarian dentists can get together for a piss-up at an international conference.
But I think most would agree that an association’s primary purpose is connection: pooling the collective knowledge of everybody who works in a particular field for some common purpose.
Why, then, do so many associations seem to be drawing from such a narrow pool?
Our focus this issue is on young people in associations - or, more specifically, why there are so few of them. Many associations lack involvement from students and young professionals, and as a result they are not hearing the voice of an entire generation. Events students and graduates have been raised in an era of change, both in the industry and the wider world. They are on the cutting edge of technology, they are passionate about sustainability, and they are full of fresh ideas – but they are being left behind.
Melisa Bazane is a recent Events Management graduate from the University of Greenwich. During her degree, she joined an events industry association as a student member, but found that the communication quickly fell off.
“As a newbie to the association world, I found it quite challenging to get my head around how exactly an association works, and the benefits it could give me,” she says. “I was advised to keep up to date with the main website to discover upcoming events and read association publishing, but I found that many events were held in locations that are not easily accessible for a London university-based student.”
The problems run deeper than simply staying informed about association events, however. Bazane says the lack of communication made her feel like associations were not designed for her: “Associations are largely marketed at event professionals who have already established their careers in the industry.
“As a student, I felt slightly intimidated by the association’s respectable members and its high position in the industry. It made me feel that I don’t quite belong in the association world, based on my background and experience.”
It’s a sentiment that is echoed by Radka Jancikova, a third year Events Management student at the University of Greenwich. She says: “It would really help if the communication was more personal. It would also be very helpful if the association highlighted what information is relevant for the student members, and what to do to make the most out of membership.”
The event architects of the future
Students and graduates are not connected to the same industry circles as other association members. This means that if their enthusiasm and ideas are to be harnessed, they will have to be sought out.
Both Radka and Melisa suggest that social media, a flashy logo or other marketing aimed specifically at young people is unlikely to be effective: what associations really need to do is form deeper ties with universities. This way, they can access a ready-made community of talented young students looking to take their first steps into the industry.
That’s precisely the purpose of Meeting Professionals International (MPI)’s University Challenge scheme, which the industry association has been running for several years. It sees students submit detailed pitches for their dream event, which are then boiled down to six finalists before a winner is chosen by a panel of industry judges.
I had the pleasure of sitting in on the finals of MPI’s University Challenge at IMEX Frankfurt in May, and hearing the six pitches made by a diverse group of students. The event was fascinating as a snapshot of the recurring themes and ideas being taught on modern event degrees, with many of the pitches putting a heavy emphasis on legacy projects and sustainable innovations.
It was also fascinating as a demonstration of the sheer creativity on show from the younger generations. The theme was ‘food of the future’, and its winner was South African Emile Coetzee, who proposed a cruise ship lined with edible insect meals, hosting game shows with ‘dare’ cards to break down stigma surrounding alternative food sources. Coetzee won a scholarship, and a trip to MPI’s World Education Congress in Toronto.
Schemes such as this are a fantastic way of engaging younger generations with association events, in a way that values their fresh perspectives without intimidating them for lack of experience.
This is a point highlighted by Noemi La Torre, who served as a student representative on the board of the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers (ABPCO). She says: “There need to be stronger links with the institutions young talent comes from. My advice to young people entering the industry is to not feel intimidated that their limited experience does not add value – on the contrary, they bring in new solutions, valuable skills and the ability to adapt to fast-paced changes of technology.”
If associations want to harness these skills, it is their responsibility to seek out and encourage young members. Connecting with young people isn’t about riding skateboards, creating an Instagram account, or sitting in a room full of old people trying to define the word ‘millennial’. I’ll tell you a secret now: you can’t. It’s a completely meaningless word.
Instead, connecting with young people is about ensuring that a generation born and raised in digital communities also understands the unique benefits that local communities like associations can bring. And most of all, it’s about valuing their opinions without intimidating or patronising them, dude.