How One Association Cracked International Markets

The National Kitchen and Bath Association sidestepped familiar membership and events models to attract global attention, promoting its position as a trusted broker in the industry.

Finding a meaningful international value proposition can be a challenge for even the most well-established and -funded associations. The membership model is literally a foreign concept in many countries. Meetings and events can be attractive, but it can be hard, time-consuming work finding your audience. And even if you do, there are often analogous associations and governments to reckon and compete with.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) has wrestled with those frustrations as well. But it’s arrived at a successful and growing international model by serving not as a membership leader but as a trusted broker for companies looking to understand and enter the U.S. market.

We’re not trying to go over there and tell everybody what to do.

NKBA CEO Bill Darcy

The program, Global Connect, came after NKBA had already spent time trying to introduce its U.S. standards to Europeans in the industry, said CEO Bill Darcy. That approach simply doesn’t translate—the standards and culture around the materials are too different.

“We went to Europe and tried to share good practices, but it’s super difficult to implement,” he said. “One reason is the difference in measuring standards—we don’t use the metric system. And in Europe, kitchens are sold very differently—they’re furniture, they stay with you when you leave your house. It’s a totally different business and consumer interaction.”

But NKBA did find that a lot of manufacturers in Germany, France, and elsewhere were in need of good advice about breaking into American markets. Through the Global Connect program, companies pay an annual subscription fee of $2,500, which gives them access to events and industry research. But the centerpiece of the program is access to a pool of advisors assembled by NKBA that can educate participants in the American side of the business.

“If you’re in Germany, you can kiss a lot of frogs before you get somebody who really understands what the kitchen and bath industry is in the U.S.,” said NKBA Chief Strategy Officer Suzie Williford. “So we put together a vetted group of consultants. They’ll have a conversation with them, and then if they choose, they can hire them to help them figure out what to do next, whether it’s taxation or marketing or distribution.”

The subscription program launched about a year and a half ago, with around 10 on-call participants in the advisory group, and now has more than 30 subscribers, Williford said, hailing not just from Europe but the Middle East and South America as well. Because the program is built around elements that are already in place—a pool of experts and its preexisting events and research infrastructure—establishing Global Connect didn’t require a substantial increase in resources.

The next step for the program is to make sure that the connection happens both ways—that American companies in the industry have similar forms of access to overseas markets. A hosted buyer tour is planned for 2023 that will introduce U.S. members to those companies, and there will be more Global Connect-themed opportunities on the tradeshow floor at NKBA’s annual meeting next month. 

Darcy says that’s the best role for the association to play: Rather than imposing standards, it’s focusing on creating spaces where people around the world can build their own relationships. “We’re not trying to go over there and tell everybody what to do, and tell everybody we’re the smartest people in the room,” he said. “We’re trying to build collaborations.”

(coffeekai/iStock/Getty Images)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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