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Award-winning leadership.

The winners of ASAE's most prestigious awards reflect on what they have accomplished and what lies ahead.


When Howard H. Bell, CAE, looks back on his long career in association management, he zeroes in on one lesson he learned early on: The members always come first.

"It's so fundamental, yet a lot of people don't keep it in the forefront of their efforts. They forget who they are working for," says Bell, president emeritus of the American Advertising Federation, Washington, D.C., and currently president of AAF's foundation. "You aren't working for yourself or even for the association," he comments, "you are working for the members."

Bell, a 1993 Key Award winner, joined the ranks of association executives 41 years ago when he became assistant to the president of the National Association of Broadcasters, Washington, D.C. There he developed a self-regulation program for the fledgling television industry in lieu of strict regulations proposed by the Federal Communications Commission. His involvement with legal and public policy issues kindled another interest, prompting him to attend law school at night. Consequently, Bell's name now appears on the letterhead of Wiley, Rein & Fielding, a Washington, D.C., law firm where he is of counsel on cases relating to commercial speech protection.

Before his retirement from AAF in 1992, Bell took every opportunity to promote one of his leading causes: ethical standards and practices. "One way you become professional as an association and as an industry is by developing and maintaining high standards that serve the public interest," he contends.

At AAF, Bell's belief took the form of developing standards of self-regulation that affect advertising in all media. He worked with four other associations, including the Council of Better Business Bureaus, Inc., Arlington, Virginia, to launch the National Advertising Review Board. The self-regulation program has been in effect since 1971, but getting the federation's diverse membership to agree to it initially was no small feat.

"A lot of people said it was impossible to mix apples and oranges--in this case, members of a federation who were natural adversaries," says Bell. "I quickly learned the way to work successfully in a federation is to identify and then stick to the elements common to those diverse groups. No matter who the members were--advertisers, media, or agencies--they all wanted to maintain the freedom to advertise.

"Whenever an issue divided the membership, we left it to the individuals involved," he continues. "It's not that we avoided difficult issues, but rather we concentrated on what everyone had a stake in. Sometimes we had 'hot potatoes,' but they were controversial, not adversarial, issues."

Bell's 25-year tenure as AAF's president also illustrated what he calls the "ups and downs, trials and tribulations, high points and low points," of association management. At one point in the mid-70s, for example, the advertising industry experienced a recession that had serious repercussions for the federation.

"There was a time when I wasn't sure we were going to meet the payroll the following Friday. That's about as scary as association management gets," he recalls. "That economic downturn taught me you absolutely have to use the best talents you have within your board and volunteers."

The current economic climate has prompted many companies to merge, consolidate, and cut back. Bell predicts those same actions will occur among associations that have overlapping missions or duplicated activities.

"Companies today have to justify every dollar they spend, including association membership dues. Companies have become leaner and tougher, and they expect the same of the associations that represent them. They're not paying dues just because it's a nice thing to do," he observes.

"Associations that don't provide the services members demand or don't keep up with these changing times will fall by the wayside. Successful association managers are leaders, not followers. They keep their organizations on the leading edge of change."


As president of the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau since 1990, George D. Kirkland, CAE, doesn't mince words when discussing marketing challenges--whether from earthquakes, recessions, or riots--that have presented themselves with some regularity in the city of Los Angeles.

"In the business of destination marketing, perception is reality. And the images distributed to Los Angeles's customers worldwide developed a reality that has been punishing," he says. "Governing our actions has been an understanding of the human as well as financial dimensions of the events of last year. Just how well we as an association have responded to this social and economic challenge will be measured in the months ahead."

Rather than sidestep the widely televised events or retreat into total denial, the bureau relied on candor and objectivity. "As a sales and marketing instrument of the Los Angeles visitors industry, it is our job to represent our 'product' in the most compelling and credible terms. We chose to avoid any attempt to create a 'marketing spin' that somehow positioned the civil disturbances as outside a relevant discussion of Los Angeles as a visitor destination," explains Kirkland, a 1993 Key Award winner.

"We have found that by acknowledging the reality of last year's TV images and the very real suffering they represented, we have also earned a credibility among an inquiring world audience," he adds.

Kirkland was well-prepared to deal with the crisis, having spent his 21 years in association management as a bureau executive. In his seven years as president of the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, Kirkland managed the city's development into a first-tier convention destination and formed an alliance with the local arts community to help boost bureau revenues. His three-year term as president of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau saw a threefold increase in room-night sales and a 50 percent increase in annual revenues.

His talent for raising revenues has carried over to ASAE, where he has served as chair of the ASAE Foundation's fund-raising committee in addition to numerous other committee appointments. Locally, Kirkland has been working with the Los Angeles Society of Association Executives and seasoned educators to develop a three-pronged program consisting of a magnet school, an internship program, and scholarships to advance visitor industry career opportunities for Los Angeles's minority youth. According to Kirkland, the bureau itself has encouraged greater minority participation in its staff by restructuring its sales organization three years ago to form the single largest concentration of minority sales representatives among major U.S. convention and visitors bureaus.

Still, Kirkland cautions that a focus on demographics could lead to "fuzzy thinking." He acknowledges he's risking heresy by saying so. "While an enormous transformation in the ethnic composition of the American work force is well under way, the working population still seeks fundamentally the same qualities of life. Recognizing this is at the heart of hiring practices that are truly open--and the key to marketing efforts that persuade and succeed.

"In a subtle way, the current preoccupation with ethnic diversity can quickly mutate into beliefs that divide and isolate," he continues. "Associations will be well-served by the conviction that a collection of common, fundamental wants and needs will inform the decisions and choices of its members and audiences."

During his career, Kirkland has learned to trust his instincts as much as his knowledge. Successful management, he believes, has its roots in the willingness to look for what is best in other people. Looking ahead, he sees a growing importance of an executive's ability to define or measure the association's output, especially as companies faced with shrinking budgets eye the line item for membership dues.

"In the next five years, the demonstration of productivity will take on the same urgency as 'cost per rating point' or 'profit per square foot' or any other unit of commercial output," Kirkland predicts. "In an association where effective yield management and a high return on investment must be seen as career-sustaining routines, leaders will need to redefine the terms by which their success is measured. Motion will not easily be confused with progress." Measurable performance, Kirkland notes, can be the basis of dreams--or nightmares--for the chief executive of tomorrow.


In 1976, just seven months after joining the Association of Western Hospitals as director of education, Kathryn E. Johnson, CAE, was promoted to executive vice president. Over the course of the next 17 years, she directed AWH's transformation from a regional association into The Healthcare Forum, an international organization based in San Francisco.

"We are a hybrid organization with a wide variety of stakeholders, including providers, academic groups, and firms that work with the health care industry. We're more of an action-oriented think tank, not a typical trade or professional group," explains Johnson, now president and chief executive officer and a recipient of the 1993 Key Award.

AWH's transformation hardly occurred overnight. In fact, Johnson and her team of staff and volunteers spent a number of years repositioning The Healthcare Forum as an integrator to the health care industry. The organization cuts across industry lines to focus on creating healthier communities rather than on addressing illness-based care. What's more, the reorganization hasn't stopped. The association's staff and volunteers continue to "think outside the box" about ways the association can contribute to the nation's health. True to its mission, The Healthcare Forum has worked indirectly with the Clinton administration's health care reform task force by providing information and by recommending task force members.

"Organizations need to be in a constant state of renewal and reexamination," says Johnson, who chaired ASAE in 1990-1991. "An important element of reinventing ourselves has been to codesign the organization's future with staff and members. Board members may be the champions of change, but members must be engaged in such a way that they feel they own the organization's vision."

The Healthcare Forum involved members through focus groups, educational sessions, regional presentations, and journal articles. Rather than extrapolate from what had been, the association used what Johnson calls the "Back to the Future" planning model. Members envisioned the ideal future for their organization, then worked backward to create it.

First, Johnson says, "We did a careful examination of our history and traditions. Then we tried to focus on the end result--the ideal we wanted to create. We asked what the association stood for, what we were, and what we wanted to see realized."

Johnson says the strategic process opened her eyes to different ideas and new philosophies. She believes she has become more sensitive to working with and listening to members to ensure that they truly participate in the association's vision. And while Johnson describes visioning as an energizing process, she acknowledges it also requires discipline.

"The clarification of what we stood for forced us to revisit everything we do, to be sure everything supports the vision. It pushed us to explore the pathways that would take us most successfully to the implementation of that vision," she says. In some cases, that meant eliminating or modifying longtime programs.

To encourage its sister health organizations to remain future-oriented, the association recently convened a conference devoted to charting a national health care vision. It also tracks international health care trends through the international Health Futurist Network. This group is currently being connected by computers.

Forty members participating in a one-year Healthcare Forum leadership program recently received laptop computers, and they are developing action plans for their communities. The Healthcare Forum plans to draw in other groups for ongoing, on-line communication.

"Through computer and real-time communications technology, we'll see association staff having more direct interaction with members," predicts Johnson. "Eventually, members will be able to reach us and communicate with each other through a host of electronic networks and highways, not just through face-to-face meetings. Technology is greatly augmenting and accelerating the transfer of knowledge."

She identifies diversity as another emerging issue associations must deal with at the staff, leadership, and member levels. In the last 15 years, for example, she's seen more women become association chief executive officers and play a much broader role as staff members and volunteers.

"Diversity is a multilayered issue. It's not just diversity of age but also race, gender, orientation to life, and so forth," says Johnson, a firm believer in multigenerational input. "Associations must be sensitive to what the 'senior statesmen' in the field have to offer--which is considerable. Yet we also have to find ways to engage emerging leaders, who come from increasingly diverse backgrounds.

"That requires new listening skills and new ways to engage people who may not traditionally have been involved in your association," she concludes. "To be truly representative of the changes going on in America and in our own organizations and industries, associations must reach out to broader groupings than ever before."


The link between the hospitality industry and associations was undeniably underscored for Charlotte St. Martin several years ago, when the Loews Anatole in Dallas experienced a 35 percent falloff in business. Companies that had previously sent a large number of executives to an association meeting were cutting back to one or two participants. One association canceled its 700-room convention completely, because it had lost all but 50 members.

The recession prompted St. Martin, executive vice president of operations and marketing for Loews Hotels, to rethink the way her company did business. "We have gone back to the basics of our business, which is hospitality," says St. Martin, winner of the ASAE Academy of Leaders Award for advancing the association management profession. "During the 1980s, many new hotels were opening every month, and customers lost their loyalty to the people they had been doing business with. They went to whoever offered the most bells and whistles for the least amount of money. Now, customers are reverting to doing business with friends, with people they have a relationship with."

As part of its back-to-the-basics approach, Loews has placed more emphasis on developing quality standards and making employees accountable for meeting those standards. St. Martin acknowledges that it's difficult to measure the results of a quality-oriented program. Still she points to improved ratings from guests and reduced staff turnover as positive signs.

"The prettiest guest room in the world will not offset an unfriendly check-in or bad service. People expect service, and they'll give up some of the bells and whistles to get it--but they also know what good service is and will not settle for less," says St. Martin, who has spent her 24-year career in the hospitality industry.

When the Loews Anatole sales office opened 16 years ago in Dallas, she became its director of sales and marketing as well as its first employee. In addition to her corporate position, she is the president and chief executive officer of the Loews Anatole, a capacity that entails shuttling between offices in New York and Dallas when she is not visiting other hotels in the chain.

Despite her hectic travel schedule, St. Martin makes the time to serve on several association boards. In fact, she credits her volunteer work with associations for helping her grow professionally.

"I've always been one of those people who believe that if you're a member of an association, you must participate. Of course, with an attitude like that, I get put to work right away." Seriously, she adds, "At the time I got into the hospitality business, there weren't many women in key roles. As I got exposure to leadership skills and became president of two associations, I luckily gained a lot of professional experience. Volunteer work takes up hours, but you get experience that may not be available yet in your own organization."

St. Martin has also experienced association management from the staff perspective. In 1987 she took a leave of absence to serve as president of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau while it was being reorganized. The 16-month stint as a bureau executive gave her a deeper understanding of the volunteer-staff relationship.

"It was one of the best experiences I ever had," notes St. Martin. "It made me look at how I deal with other volunteers and how to be a more effective leader. Also, the experience gave me a different perspective on what volunteers ask of staff."

In the 20 years St. Martin has worked with associations, she has seen them garner more attention and clout. "Today, more people across the country know what an association does. Also, associations are quoted in almost every news or television story," she observes. "Associations have done a tremendous job of becoming the voice for an industry or profession."


In his eight years with United Airlines, Stephen C. Praven has seen the Chicago-based airline parallel some changes in associations. As membership-based organizations have reached across borders, so has United, purchasing Pacific routes in the mid-1980s and expanding throughout Europe in the last few years.

"Associations that were predominately domestic now go off-shore for meetings or study missions, whether to London or Milan or Australia," says Praven, United's manager of meeting sales. Likewise, "We've changed from a domestic airline to an international airline. United is ... actively pursuing marketing alliances in countries where, due to regulatory restrictions, we're unable to reach certain areas."

According to Praven, those alliances typically take the form of joint fares, coordinated schedules to ease connections, and joint marketing with airlines such as Trans Brazil. "As economies become more tied together, international business will continue to grow," foresees Praven, winner of the Distinguished Contributions Award, which honors an ASAE associate member.

Praven, who works with corporations and associations, has seen a significant increase in business from the latter groups in recent months.

"Since the Gulf War in 1991, it has been a difficult marketplace," he admits. "A year ago, people may have stayed away from their association's annual meeting, but this year they're going."

Sandra R. Sabo is a free-lance writer based in Mendota Heights, Minnesota.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society of Association Executives
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Annual Meeting Issue
Author:Sabo, Sandra R.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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