Why Trade Associations Need to Think Bigger

Advocacy is still Topic A at trades, but a new survey shows that they’re rethinking partnerships and meetings to remain effective.

Trade associations have a reputation for being monolithic organizations—they represent the whole of a major industry, busily advocating for its member companies but not looking far beyond that. A new survey, though, suggests that trade associations have been compelled to stretch more, and recognize that they’re just one piece in a larger value chain. 

The report, released earlier this month by Potomac Core Association Consulting, found that leaders are feeling generally more confident about their standing: 58 percent say they feel better about their association’s “overall situation,” compared to 51 percent in 2022. They’re more upbeat about their finances as well, with 66 percent saying revenue will improve compared to 2022. (The findings are based on responses from 93 C-level association executives, mostly CEOs, surveyed between February and May 2023.)

But to arrive at those good feelings, they’ve had to approach their work differently, says Potomac Core CEO Dan Varroney. “Trade associations have made a substantial pivot from being the traditional trade association to being a strategic partner to an industry,” he said. “They’re acknowledging that we’re in an era of chronic uncertainty.” According to the survey, 68 percent of executives are planning substantial new initiatives in the coming year, and strategic partnerships are among the most popular of them; 29 percent say it’s important to become “a strategic partner w/organizations to advance the industry,” just behind advocacy and awareness-building.

If you really want to be effective, stop thinking about your circle as you’ve drawn it today.

Dan Varroney, Potomac Core Association Consulting

That trend echoes the findings of a similar survey Potomac Core conducted in 2021, which showed trade associations dedicating more energy to education, research, and awareness-building on top of their traditional advocacy role. Today, Varroney says, associations are building on that experience to develop partnerships throughout the supply chain that their industry operates in. By convening more organizations together, an association can develop a show of strength that is more likely to make headway in today’s partisan legislative environment.

“They’re saying, ‘How can we bring the entire value chain to the table with us?’” Varroney said. “If you really want to be effective, stop thinking about your circle as you’ve drawn it today. You just might have opportunities that you wouldn’t have had five or 10 years ago that could create synergies and advocacy opportunities.” (A blog post on Potomac Core’s website details how this has played out with Helicopter Association International.)

The study suggests that trade associations are also feeling more optimistic around meetings: 32 percent of respondents say that businesses in their association’s industry will send more employees to their flagship meeting, an 18 percent jump from 2022. But as with those good feelings around revenue, there’s some anxiety bubbling under the surface. Jon Kulok, principal at Edge Research, which helped conduct the survey, said that trade associations are still behind pre-COVID attendance levels, and are looking for ways to adapt. 

“There are definitely more people going to conferences and more associations getting back to the way things were, but it’s not going to be the same amount of dollars as four or five years ago,” Kulok said. “There’s a higher requirement to get [travel] funds approved. Before, somebody might go to one meeting for networking, another for training and education, and a third one for sales. Now employers are looking for one that does all three. That’s one reason why some trade association execs are concerned and trying to make sure that their event is a go-to event. Because there are going to be some that are in trouble.”


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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