Preparing Your Association for the Long-Term Impact of COVID-19: A Conversation With KiKi L'Italien

COVID-19 has devastated the events industry, and the impact will have long-term effects. Associations are constantly changing to adapt to the new normal—and need to change in order to survive.

Amidst these rapid changes, smart associations are finding ways to prove their value and relevance. In this 30-minute conversation, Michael Hoffman discusses the future of associations with association expert KiKi L’Italien.

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Michael Hoffman:

Hey, everyone. It's Michael Hoffman from, Gather Voices, and we are here for preparing your association for the long-term impact of COVID-19. And I get to talk to KiKi L'Italien. And so let me just start by telling you a little bit about me. I am the CEO and co-founder of Gather Voices. We're a software company that makes it easy to collect, create, manage, publish video content, and we're very focused on the nonprofit association market today. I founded a digital marketing agency, and before that, and have been working with leaders in the nonprofit and association world for many years. I am excited to be joined by KiKi L'Italien, who probably there's nobody here who doesn't know, but assuming that there's somebody who has been living under a rock for the last 10 years, KiKi is best known, I think, as the creator of Association Chat, which just had its 10 year anniversary, which is amazing. What an incredible-

KiKi L'Italien:

I got to interrupt you. It's 11 years now. In May, we hit 11 years.

Michael Hoffman:

Oh, wow.

KiKi L'Italien:

That's how fast time flies. Yes.

Michael Hoffman:

It is. It is flying. So KiKi, why don't you introduce yourself, and tell us a little about the work you're doing today, and a little bit more about Association Chat, I think?

KiKi L'Italien:

Right. Well, like so many of us, I wear several different hats. One is as the host and, I guess, just the chief question asker of Association Chat, which is this online community reaching over 72,000 different people through all the different channels every month, and it's really focused on just providing good information, but bringing people together for the association industry. And then, that's one hat. The other hat is also operating Amplified Growth, which is my consulting firm that I've had, focused on primarily digital marketing, and I have gotten into doing some interesting things through this whole COVID-19 experience, which is doing more video image consulting. So I have to talk with you about that, Michael, which is, it's a totally new realm where it's basically, how do you interview and look better on video and communicate with people? Which is a little tiny bit of training that I've been doing. And then the third thing is that I work with Tech International, and Tech International is a very well-known, well-respected consulting firm in the association industry, that's focused on governance and leadership training. And the work that I do with them revolves around, primarily we do a lot of relationships strategy, and looking at some governance strategy, with the piece that I'm particularly interested in is in communication and community. So community and communications.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, that's great. So, we'll put links in the chat. I think there's a link that was just put in the chat about your upcoming conversation today with the chief learning and meetings officer at ASAE. So that's very, very timely, that folks can go check out. So before we jump in, I want to just do a quick poll, because I want to know who's here with us today. So I'm going to just launch this poll, and then you and I, if everybody could just click on the poll here, and in the meantime, do you, just a quick interstitial conversation while people are filling out the poll, what are you going to ask the chief learning and marketing officer at ASC? Because there's some really interesting things that have happened there in terms of-

KiKi L'Italien:

Well, okay. Let's talk about it. So they, this year, are celebrating a hundred years, so that's a big deal, no matter what. And so a hundred years for an association, you know that with associations, any kind of company, any organization would be very excited in building up to this. So they've been planning for this in some way, shape or form, for over a year ahead of time, trying to make, and it was supposed to happen in Las Vegas, which you can imagine, all of the contacts, the parties, the planning, that went into it, and now it's happening and it's virtual. So this is the association of associations, celebrating a hundred years, and having to make this a virtual event. There's the question of pricing. So when they reached out, initially there was some regular pricing that was available for folks, that there is some pushback on. Since that time all members are able to register for free, now. And there's a significantly reduced rate for people who are non-members. That was a big change in pricing. So I want to ask Amy about what went into that, and on the business side of it, how are they going to look at any recovery of revenue? Which is a huge, huge question for a lot of associations right now. So, that's just one of the questions.

Michael Hoffman:

That's a good one.

KiKi L'Italien:

You'll have to check it out.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. Absolutely. Well, I'm going to end the poll now. We don't have everybody contributing to the poll, but let's see where we're at. So it's, we got mostly associations and nonprofits here. I'm going to share the results here. Mostly associations and nonprofits, skewing to the smaller end in terms of revenue size. So 80% of our attendees are under $5 million in revenue. But here's where I wanted us to start chatting. So, "Do you believe the association industry will emerge from the current challenges stronger, about the same, or weaker?" Very interesting that about a third each here, and people saying, "Stronger," and, "About the same," being more than twice as much as, "Weaker," and we're in this moment where people are, these organizations are really struggling. So that's so interesting, that people think they're going to emerge stronger from this. So I definitely want to talk about that. So, and then this question about, "What should associations be doing right now?" So it looks like most people saying, really need to do all these things, adopt new technology, diversify revenue, deliver more meaningful member engagement and take more risks. So, yeah, that's great. So I am going to stop sharing, so you and I can chat. So what did you think of that? Do you think that associations are going to emerge stronger? And I'm so happy to have you here, because 99% of the time you're asking the questions and you're getting perspective from all different kinds of people in this industry. So now it's my turn. So, from that viewpoint, what do you think is happening right now, and how do you think organizations are going to get out of it?

KiKi L'Italien:

Well, I think that definitely while everyone's been dealing with the very immediate issue of, for a lot of associations, one of their primary means of revenue is the big meeting, or a couple of big meetings or lots of in-person trainings and education opportunities that are available. And we've been hearing, obviously, a lot of people who are scrambling and trying to figure out, "Okay, what are we going to do to recover that revenue?" Or, "How can we basically reconfigure the way that we're set up, business-wise?" So, looking at a new type of business strategy for their association. But I do think that this is a good time for associations, because the very thing that associations are here to do, the very strength that associations have as organizations, they're very unique, associations are, and this is exactly the time when we need something like an association. So, if you think about, there are several big changes that have happened to our society, and to our country, and actually with COVID, it's forced, I think, a lot of these changes to happen world-wide. And one of those is really rethinking about the way that we meet, the way that we travel, the way that we work, the priorities we have, and of course, trust, who are you going to trust in a very noisy space, that's only gotten noisier? And so for so many different reasons, there's a lot of change that's happening, and it actually puts a lot of opportunity at an association's door. Because, you look at education, education and training is usually one of the big cornerstone offerings that an association has, right? And it's a benefit, it is one of the great features an association has, and having access to the best experts and the people who are the best in their fields, whatever that field may be. And for a long time, there's been a call and a need for a change in education. There's been a call and a need for changes in the workforce, and providing better training. And how do we do that? And I saw that Nick Hare is on here, from Cue Career, and they're one of the people that are trying to connect associations to students, to help with the workforce. But I have to say that, for all of those different reasons, this is exactly the time when associations should be having a great Renaissance, because these are all the features that associations are uniquely positioned to do really well. And I think not the least of that is for this trust issue, which is, how can I trust the information I'm getting? How can I trust that these are curated, the best voices, the people I want to connect to, the people I want to hear from, the people I need to learn from? How can I trust that this education is going to be solid, and I'm going to get good education for the amount of money that I spend? And associations, most often, are able to provide that.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, that's interesting because I think for us, the reason that, Gather Voices, which helps organizations collect video from members, and thought leaders, and all of that, part of why we're growing so fast, in this world, I think, is exactly what you're talking about. The trust, which is, we don't need manufactured stuff from some central hub. We need to tap into the power and the experience of this membership, which is why we come together in the first place. I think that's a unique power of associations-

KiKi L'Italien:

It is.

Michael Hoffman:

Is what the membership brings. The associations are the membership, right?

KiKi L'Italien:

Oh, they are. And that's another, I'm so glad that you brought that up, because that's another part of it is, unlike a company or something like that, a for-profit, associations, you choose to belong to. And that act of belonging, that sense of belonging, is critical. That's such an important piece of this, because right now, in times where people are concerned about their livelihoods, they're concerned about their safety. They're concerned about their health. This is a time when people are reassessing their priorities. They're working from home. Maybe they're trying to figure out if their child is going to be going to school in person, if that child's going to be safe, if they're going to be safe. So this is an interesting period in time where people are experiencing that, and associations, then, they provide a place that is offering, "Look, we exist for you. We exist around a purpose. We exist to bring people together." So that sense of belonging is very, very much in demand right now. People need a place that they feel safe, that they can trust, where they can go and they feel like they're able to connect with, either others who can help them, others where they can share resources. Some of these very, very, that's part of survival, that sense of community that they get from associations.

Michael Hoffman:

Well, let me be a little cynical, maybe about some of the... I think you've identified the opportunity, which is right, in terms of that community, and associations can provide that. But can they? Are these institutions, and how they run, and how they've run for, in some cases a hundred years, are they capable of making the shift, and what's involved in that and what do they need to do? Because it feels like it's not just a, "Oh, run this new program," thing. It feels like it's a culture change, "Rethink the way we operate," level.

KiKi L'Italien:

It totally is. You're right, and not all of them are going to do it right. Not all of them are going to do it well. For years and years and years, associations have been told, they've been chastised, that they're not enough like for-profits, they need to be run more like businesses. And so in some ways that's been helpful. But in other ways it's also hurt associations, who have gotten away from that more human aspect of remembering that it's about bringing people together. So in that case, those associations that, culturally, has moved too far away from that, maybe gotten out of touch with who their membership really is, the voices of their, "Gathered voices," the voices of their membership, those associations that have moved too far away from that are going to hurt, because they haven't earned that trust over time. They haven't built those relationships over time, and maybe they've even lost trust along the way. And if they just seem like another place where you're spending your money, and you're not sure why, if it's just another thing you're spending money on, as we're going through our list of expenses every month. And we're trying to figure out where we can tighten our belts, and what we really need and don't need, then this is the time when people are going to say, "You know what? I don't know that I feel like I belong. I don't know that I need that. I don't know why I have that membership anyway."

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. Sometimes the training and certification is a bit of a crutch on that, right? Because in some cases, people have to do it, and so you can't mistake the, "Have to do," with a, "Want to do," right? Because those are different motivations that are happening, and you get much stronger when you're bringing people in for those community reasons as well.

KiKi L'Italien:

Exactly. I do think that it is a time for rethinking and reassessing on all fronts, because, and that's really the thing that I think that any leader right now should be doing, because it is a great opportunity. And that the risk is that you either jump into change that you don't think about enough, and you don't get the buy-in from people enough, and you jump into it and you haven't thought through it. The other flip side of that, is that you don't change, and you try to keep going the way that you were when everything around you is changing, and that is almost certainly the wrong way to go.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. Well, I think what you're saying, I think we're both saying, is that this is a major inflection point for this industry and organizations. And so if you're a leader in the association world, you have to say, "We cannot go on as business as usual." You can't say, "Oh, we're going to get back to normal in six months." You have to say, "There's something that's changed in the world. How is that affecting us?" And I had a really interesting conversation last week with Michael Tatonetti, I don't know if you know him?

KiKi L'Italien:

Yeah, I know him really well.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, around pricing, and it was interesting because he said, "The first thing you need to do, if you're talking about sponsorships and things is talk to those organizations about what their needs are." And I was just thinking, "Well, that's exactly what you need to do with your membership also," right?

KiKi L'Italien:

It is.

Michael Hoffman:

If there's leaders not knowing where to start, there's a listening thing to start with, which is, where are we finding ourselves, and what are our challenges in our different industries? And then thinking about, what are the gaps and what can the associations do there?

KiKi L'Italien:

Oh, totally. It's the first question that you'd want to know is, what do we wish we know, but we don't? And so, what do we wish that we knew, that we don't know right now? And once you're able to figure out what those questions are, those better questions, then absolutely go and ask them. But what I see is a mistake that is happening, and it's called research. It's not research, but it's called research. These surveys have gone out, and they ask for people to pretend like they're Nostradamus, and to prophecy. So, "When do you think you're going to be feeling safe to travel again? In a month? In three to six months? In a year?" And there's so much that can change.

Michael Hoffman:

We've seen it-

KiKi L'Italien:

Right, right. Right.

Michael Hoffman:

In the last two months, right? People thought, "Oh, we're in one trajectory," and now we're in a completely different-

KiKi L'Italien:

Exactly. So you ask these questions and that's not really what they want to know. What they're really trying to get at is, they're trying to establish, how serious is this? Maybe they're trying to figure out if they should go ahead and plan on having their meeting be in-person, but-

Michael Hoffman:

And maybe the better question is, asking people about the conditions that would make them feel comfortable and safe.

KiKi L'Italien:

Right. And when you start getting to the point of, what is it that you wish that you knew, right? Then you're going to get closer to asking the questions that you really want to have the answers to, and that will lead you to making better decisions. But there are a lot of people who are spinning their wheels around, prognosticating and trying to predict what the future holds, and that's not going to help them when things are changing so quickly. So that's a challenge for folks. And I think that those conversations, really taking the time, you would get so much further by setting up telephone interviews where you have maybe five questions that you have prepared to ask, and you have these conversations. Check in with your stakeholders, call your volunteer leaders and find out where they are, what's happening in their lives. Another big issue for associations right now is, for my governance, my board of directors. If they're worried about their jobs, if they lose their job, how likely are they going to be able to continue to serve on my board? So you have to be thinking about your members, your volunteer leaders, and figuring out where some of your leadership may be shifting, and planning for that.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, that's really interesting. That's connected to me also, in this idea of the short term, versus the medium term, versus long term. We know that, I think ASA reported 70% of associations are dipping into reserves to deal with revenue loss, mostly around events. Right? And I think in those short term pain moments, it's scramble, scramble, scramble, and not necessarily take the time to do what you're talking about, to really listen, and take some time. You need to really balance those things. Right?

KiKi L'Italien:

You want to know something? This is not going to be a popular thing that I'm about to say, I don't think, but for years I've been really annoyed by the fact that there's been so much stock put into building up around, planning your revenue around these in-person events, when they're not maximizing the ability to connect people when you leave the meeting. And that's been a real point of contention for me, because my background is in working in building chapters, and membership marketing, where I would work with these volunteer leaders. I knew that it takes so much more than that to build a community, and I was annoyed by the fact, over the years, that there wasn't more focus on additional ways to bring people together when they weren't right there in person, because that's not always financially feasible for people, and for a host of other reasons. But that was a concern of mine for a long time. And now we've come to this point where, okay, so people aren't able to meet now. Now you have to address that problem. And it turns out, it really is a big problem, because if your members aren't feeling connected, what was that biggest piece of value that you get from going in person? The connections, the networking, the feeling, building those relationships. Without that, it's not just the content. The content matters, but it's not just that. It's the, what are you doing to connect these people in a way that is going to provide value to their lives beyond learning? It's the relationships. So, now people are finally starting to ask those questions, and starting to figure out how to solve them. And I'm hopeful, because I do believe that we're going figure out new ways to do it. I think people will always default to trying to do the easiest thing, if they can. And it makes sense, but you can't buy trust and you can try to make things easier with putting people in the same place, but it's no longer okay to just throw people in a room with music in a bar. You're going to have to figure out something else, because we can't do that right now.

Michael Hoffman:

Right? No, that makes a lot of sense. I did an interview recently, and it's on our blog, with a guy named Tony Lorenz, who has been in the event business for 30 years. Tony is very optimistic about the future because his analogy is about sports. He says, the sports team, this is where associates were worried was, they didn't want to do hybrid things because they were worried it was going to cannibalize their attendees, which was not ever true. So they kept away from building that muscle that everybody has to have right now, which is how do you do these things virtually? But if you look at sports, the same thing was true, that the sports teams didn't want to be on TV, because they thought it would cannibalize attendance. And the value of these teams, now that they are on TV, is much bigger, much bigger. So if you start to think about, how can we extend these communities beyond the things that where easier, and easier for us to do, not necessarily easy to execute, right? Some of these big conferences are the opposite of that, but they're easy to understand, and wrap your mind around. "We're all in one place. We can do certain things."

KiKi L'Italien:

Yeah. In my dream world, it would be amazing if. I'm just going to let everyone know, this is not a setup, but I'm just going to say this. And knowing what you do with Gather Voices, it would be amazing to have every single member be able to say, to give a little short thing about why they belong to the association they do. Why doesn't every association have that? A little clip, a little tiny bit. Every single one of us is getting on Zoom or something right now, and we spend amazing amounts of time in meetings. Some of them are more worthwhile than others, but how hard would it be to get that tapestry of voices that are able to share why they actually belong? And that's just an example of something that would be relatively easy to tackle. That would be a project that would be relatively easy to tackle, where it would add to, "This is the voice of our organization. We now know why they belong. We have an idea where people can find out more about each person and get a sample, just a taste of who that person is."

Michael Hoffman:

You're speaking my language here

KiKi L'Italien:

I thought I might, but I was like-

Michael Hoffman:

And that's really what we're trying to make possible with, Gather Voices, but you think about that. Why, in the member directory, why aren't you having those introductions? And where we're seeing this play out in virtual events is really interesting, that organizations, our clients who are adding the voices of many members during the event, because if you ask people just a question, one question about the field, or the future, or whatever it is, and you intersperse those into your virtual event, people pay attention completely differently. They feel like co-creators of that event, and not like they're just being talked at, that top down. And that builds trust, that builds community. So I think, obviously that's exactly what we're trying to do here. And it feels like a big opportunity, and it also feels like something that a couple of years from now people are going to be like, "Yeah, of course we do that," right?

KiKi L'Italien:

Yeah, well, and that's the opportunity that we have here. There's a lot of horrible things that are happening right now, but I think that we can all agree that that through, because of, what this has done for all of us, how it's changed the way that we're working, how it's changed the way that we've had to think about things that we do every day. It's changing how we're looking at education, that is now just run up to the top of the list. It's changed how we're looking at our social contracts with minorities, and people who have been in positions where they haven't been recognized, or maybe they've been recognized, but it's been in a negative way. It's forcing issues to the forefront that should have always been there. And we've had the technology to be able to connect people better for a long time, but we haven't been forced to try to solve these problems before, and so we defaulted to the easiest thing that we would do. We've had the ability to do hybrid meetings for how long? A long time.

Michael Hoffman:

No, no question.

KiKi L'Italien:

And now that people are being forced to find these new solutions, to do the work from home thing, and to make things more accessible to people, finally, we've had the technology, but finally, we're addressing some problems that have been around for a long time. And we do have the potential to make things a lot better.

Michael Hoffman:

Well, it's hard to believe, but we have just blown through our 30 minutes together. I need to give a little bit of a word from our sponsor, but also related to what we just talked about, Gather Voices is partnered with Higher Logic to bring video into the Higher Logic communities. And I think that's, what you just said about, how come members aren't hearing from each other and what they want, and I think this feels like a really great step. We're really excited about it, I don't think I've even told you about it.

KiKi L'Italien:

He didn't tell me, but I love Higher Logic. That's awesome.

Michael Hoffman:

But it's super cool, and you will see it at a community near you, and if anybody wants to learn more from me about that, they can, I'm just Michael@gathervoices.co, and, KiKi, is it okay, if people have follow-up things they want to talk to you, they want to get your consulting, they want to hear about the things that you can do for them, can they?

KiKi L'Italien:

Absolutely, absolutely. The very first place that they can go to find out more information is join me on this interview. Then I'm getting ready to do with Amy Ledoux from ASAE, that's happening at 2:00 PM Eastern time. But follow me on Twitter @KiKilitalien, reach out to me through email, reach out to me through the website. I would love to talk to anyone.

Michael Hoffman:

Well, terrific. KiKi, thank you so much for joining me and for being on the other side of the microphone, as they say, and everyone, have a terrific rest of your day.


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