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December 21, 2006

ASAE & The Center's Unplanned Unconference

If you're not an Executive Management Section (EMS) Listserv subscriber, let me bring you up to speed...

Over the past week, participants on the EMS Listserv have uniformly condemned ASAE & The Center for ending their support for Prometheus, a small open-space retreat for senior association professionals. Most listserv participants seem to believe that ASAE has pulled the rug out from under a most valuable program. ASAE & The Center staff are signaling a willingness to make it work; although what "it" is has not been explained.

Apparently the October 2006 Prometheus was the last one for the foreseeable future. I have never gone to Prometheus, but having heard about it from our CEO and others who have attended, I understand it is one of the best programs ASAE runs, if not the best. Past attendees affectionately dub themselves prometheans and they almost uniformly feel a strong affinity for the program. So they are obviously distressed over news that ASAE & The Center is even considering changes. Some of the program's founders are airing their displeasure at not being consulted about changes that were made to the program over the past few years, as well as not being asked for input about the decision to stop supporting Prometheus. Some of the listserv posts seem to teeter on the edge of member revolt.

In light of all of this, several EMS listserv participants are calling for volunteers to support and run a Prometheus retreat outside the auspices of ASAE & The Center this spring. No fees will be paid to anyone. It will be an open space meeting, the agenda gets created on-site, and whoever shows up is the right group of people. A true unconference! Personally, I think this might be a good thing. ASAE rids itself of a program that is highly valued by a few, but doesn't deliver an acceptable ROI. The program continues for those that are willing to support it. I could even see an association-industry consulting firm taking on the project as a marketing initiative. Still, this program delivers far more value than what appears on the financial statements, supporters argue.

Several elephants in the room have been pointed out in the course of this conversation. Some have complained about the high cost of room rates at Prometheus, which are in line with room rates of other ASAE programs, in my experience. Others have decried the expense of the program itself (which is similar in price to most 2-3 day conferences from ASAE & The Center). Still others, when participants suggest a DC-area replacement to hold down expenses, lament the DC-centric bias of ASAE & The Center (which I personally think has improved).

Let me rant for a minute on ASAE's room rates. I think they are unnecessarily high. Another association I belong to, The Virginia Society of Association Executives (VSAE), seems to negotiate far better room rates than ASAE. This seems counter-intuitive. Even when just a dozen or so rooms are guaranteed at The Jefferson, a five-star/five-diamond facility in Richmond, room rates there are about $150 for the VSAE. And this is for a five-star/five-diamond hotel. At VSAE's annual meeting in May 2006, the room rate at a brand new Hilton on the Virginia Beach oceanfront was under $100.

It's not too much of a stretch to assume that ASAE & The Center are taking almost all the incentives and concessions these properties are offering to maximize profits, and leave members to pick up a larger hotel bill than necessary. I understand that concessions and incentives are often a zero-sum equation, so if the room rates go down, ASAE might be forced to raise the registration fee. I think I'd rather spend more money on a registration fee than on a hotel room.

But in fairness, the advertised rack rate for the Marco Island Marriott, site of the upcoming Great Ideas Conference is $539, and conference attendees are staying for less than half that amount. Still, it seems to me that generally speaking, there is room for improvement in ASAE's negotiation of room rates for its members. I can recall getting a phenomenal deal (around $150/night for an apartment-sized suite) at a golf resort in Florida when I attended ASAE's Future Leaders Conference back in 2001.

ASAE staff has done a pretty good job engaging in this online discussion. They're getting plenty of good feedback in a public forum without having asked for it, which is difficult to handle. I'd encourage ASAE staff to capture everything that's being said, summarize it and then post it back to the listserv for additional input. I'd also suggest that key staff post their direct-dial extensions with an invitation for interested members to contact them directly with further feedback.

This challenge has all the marks of a classic association management decision. It will be interesting to see how this turns out. Will ASAE stick to their guns, or will they break under the pressure of a few vocal one-percenters?



Nick said...

I end up traveling around talking to chapter exec staff all over the place. Many belong to ASAE and are pretty unhappy at this point. There does seem to be a pretty strong feeling (which I am not unbiased about) that ASAE is only in it for the bucks.

True, we have high standards because we could all do ASAE's job. Griefs fall into two categories:

1) Older members tend to find ASAE unuseful b/c the content is geared toward people learning the profession. (This episode is really bad for that perception, clearly). There's also resentment at the CAE program - for reasons of ROI, as well as the perception that ASAE continues to make $$ off it while simultaneously backgrounding the program.

2) Younger members feel that ASAE's offerings are all too expensive. This is how I feel.(And this speaks to your room rate thing). We can't afford it. We learn to do without ASAE's offerings, and even when I land in a job that will pay for it (which I have now) I have established other networks that have better ROI and are much lower-maintenance.

BTW - I haven't been blogging at nicksbookblog for awhile. My wife is opening a communications shop (geared toward assocs and small business) after the 1st of the year and I'll be moving my blogging over there - and it'll not be focused on books anymore. FYI :) Merry Christmas Ben!

Ben Martin, CAE said...

Nice to hear from you, Nick. I can't say I agree with all the gripes you are hearing, but I can definitely see where they're coming from. I have noticed a significant increase in conference and seminar prices from ASAE over the past 3 years. One of my colleagues (a blog reader) gave ASAE an earful a little over a year ago about the lack of attention paid to senior staff, so it looks like everybody is getting their turn to be unhappy. I don't think the CAE program is that much of a cash cow.