By Mary Lou Jay
It has been nearly a year since the COVID-19 pandemic brought meetings, events, and normal business functions to a halt across the United States. Not only did associations have to shift their own internal operations and delivery of content, but they had to adapt to meet the new and quickly changing needs of their members. Here, we highlight how four Texas-based associations across different sectors rose to the challenge, as associations always do, to deliver value and support their members in a challenging 2020.
Members of the Independent Bankers Association of Texas (IBAT) never thought they could provide all the services their customers needed without in-person access. But a year into the pandemic, “They’ve figured out how to do everything through the drive-throughs or virtually with the exception of somebody checking their safe deposit box,” said Christopher Williston, CAE, IBAT president and CEO.
Associations have demonstrated that same resiliency, determination and creativity as they’ve helped their members navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 era.
IBAT members were overwhelmed by the demands of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that was part of the federal stimulus package. “In three to five months, they made more loans than they typically make in 12 to 18 months. They had to do it very quickly, against the backdrop of a program that changed daily,” Williston said.
So IBAT staff became advocates for their members with the U.S. Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration, ensuring the agencies understood the issues the banks were facing. IBAT employees beefed up their communications to members, sending out frequent emails, continually updating the IBAT website, and hosting weekly webinars where members could get COVID- and PPP-related questions answered.
The members eagerly awaited these communications. “I never thought I would see a day where I would send an email at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night and would have 3,000 people open it in the first 20 minutes,” said Williston.
IBAT members have also taken advantage of less frequently used association services, including its agreements with a bond investment company and a payment processing firm.
One of the most important messages that IBAT provided members during this time was that they were not alone, and that their association was doing everything possible to help them help their customers.
The promotional products industry took a hit experiencing a 50% decline in revenues in one year as clients shut down their businesses and tradeshows, conferences and events were prohibited. But some companies acted quickly at the start, reaching out to their manufacturing contacts in China to procure hard-to-find personal protection equipment like unbranded masks, thermometers and hand sanitizer.
Since the need for customer and employee recognition and brand promotion still existed, companies revamped their distribution systems “Our industry can now drop ship a product to anywhere from one office to thousands of home addresses,” said Bob McLean, interim president of the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI).
The association served as COVID information central for its members, which include both suppliers/manufacturers and distributors of promotional products. PPAI staff kept them updated via webinars and the PPAI website with information about operating during the pandemic and about how to apply for PPP loans. “We tried to help our members stay in business,” McLean said.
Many members took advantage of PPAI’s offer of industry certification classes, which it usually charged for, for free or at a greatly reduced cost. “They were investing in themselves during this downtime so that when they were ready to come back, they were it in a better position than when the pandemic started,” said McLean.
When PPAI’s Las Vegas Expo was canceled, the association went virtual with PPAI Expo Direct-2-You. The four-day event included educational programs, virtual exhibitor booths and networking lounges where people with common interests, such as women’s leadership, diversity or regional affiliations, could chat as a group or one-on-one.
“Overlying all of that was what we called Direct-2-You Live,” said McLean. “We had live interviews and live programming, with an emcee in the virtual lobby at all times talking, doing interviews, playing sponsorship ads and doing one-on-one interviews with members of the industry and with staff.” A chat window down the right side of the screen enabled people to make comments on what was happening. “It was really rewarding to see that level of engagement from our members.”
Keeping Teachers in the Loop
Teachers had little time to make the transition to virtual instruction when schools switched to online instruction early in the pandemic. Those who provide technical education face a special challenge: how to provide what is often hands-on education when students aren’t in the classroom.
“There has been no reduction in the amount of earning standards that students must master without the benefit of in-person instruction,” said Robin Painovich, CAE, executive director of the Career & Technical Association of Texas.
CTAT represents and works on behalf of career and technical education programs and the professionals who lead them. In the spring of 2020, the association quickly recognized its most important roles would be to advocate for members and to provide them with opportunities to connect and support each other as they worked through these new teaching challenges.
CTAT served as an intermediary with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and kept members informed about its latest directives. It collaborated with TEA to ensure that seniors enrolled in programs like construction or auto tech were able to complete the curriculum and get the certifications necessary for an apprenticeship or other post-secondary training.
Shortly into the pandemic, CTAT began offering informal, bimonthly online events that are still continuing. CTAT staff provides updates on what’s happening with technical education at the state level, while members discuss their challenges and get advice from their peers. “It has provided a tremendous benefit for them,” said Painovich.
In addition, Connect CTAT, the association’s web and email-based forums for idea exchange, has never been more popular. “The forums have been like lifeboats on the Titanic,” she added.
One CTAT officer started an open-source Google workbook with curriculum resources for technical education programs, and others have added to it over time. “CTAT took over the management of it, but we didn’t lock it down for members only; we provided it to everyone,” Painovich said. “This isn’t about putting up walls around our resources. We want to be good stewards and live up to our mission, and it’s not just our members but everyone who is in need.”
CTAT pushed out resources on Facebook and Twitter as well and saw a significant spike in member engagement there.
The association usually holds two conferences each year, one in summer and one in winter. The summer virtual conference was such a success – it attracted 20% more participants than the previous year’s in-person event – that CTAT held three additional online conferences in 2020.
Traveling the Extra Mile
Like other medical professionals, emergency room physicians have been hailed by the public as heroes for their tireless work during the pandemic. Unfortunately, that recognition has been outweighed by the additional stresses that they’ve faced. With people hesitant to come to hospital emergency rooms because they feared contracting COVID, and hospital surgeries being canceled due to the virus, many ER physicians had their hours cut or were laid off, and new physicians had job offers rescinded.
Beth Brooks, CAE, executive director of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians (TCEP), said with all these stressors, “Mental wellness is still very much a concern. Emergency medicine physicians are used to trauma, but it’s been 11 months of continuous, unrelenting stress. They work long hours and many, many days without a break. Add to that the fact that they’re not able to save all their patients, and it all weighs very heavy on them.”
The Board and staff at TCEP thought about how they could help members during the pandemic and found they could assist on several levels. “We hired a PR firm in Texas to help us get out the message that emergency departments are safe, that standards are being upheld. So if you’re sick it’s safe to come to the emergency department and they will take care of you,” Brooks said.
“We got a tremendous amount of TV coverage, both state and national and worldwide. There were lots of editorials in Texas newspapers, and interviews by newspapers and magazines. We did a lot of social media messaging. It was really incredible,” she added. The PR initiative is continuing, with TCEP now emphasizing the safety of the new vaccines and the importance of everyone getting vaccinated.
With personal protective equipment in very short supply, TCEP worked with the Texas Medical Association to get 300,000 N95 masks for the emergency room physicians who desperately needed them. The association staff sent out cases of the masks, charging only the cost of shipping to members and non-members. In addition to shipping over 400 cartons,
TCEP staff and members traveled to the larger cities and
distributed the masks personally.
Helping members specifically solve a problem in that moment made these initiatives very worthwhile. Talking to members and realizing their mask situation was dire – some were down to their last mask, which they were wearing – was humbling and shocking, Brooks said. “We feel that these two campaigns added value to our members and made a difference.”
Adding Value for Members
Over the last year, association members have experienced firsthand the value of having a professional organization ready to assist them. They saw how staff came through and took on a wide range of new responsibilities: learning to conduct Zoom meetings, to work with a conference sponsor moving from a live convention to an online event, or to find better and faster ways to provide essential pandemic-related information.
These new roles are stretching staff’s expertise even when there are fewer to handle the workload. Both IBAT and PPAI had to lay off staff, PPAI by 50%. “We can no longer say, ‘That’s not my job,’ or ‘That belongs in a different department,’” McLean said. “We’re all cross-functional now, nimbler and more collaborative than we were before.”
These associations have used the experiences of the last 12 months to better define and refine their missions. “I think we remained consistent with our strategic plan, but we changed some of our tactics,” McLean said. While PPAI has always provided continuing education for members, it has found new ways to provide the deliverables by making those programs free and creating informative online events.
IBAT’s team has demonstrated to members that it does an excellent job of being an honest information broker. “We’re really good at taking complex things and making them simple,” Williston said. The financial services industry has many consultants who are willing to provide advice that ultimately benefits them, but the association has demonstrated that IBAT has the banks’ best interests at heart.
Painovich said CTAT has proven that it is fulfilling one of the goals of its strategic plan, to be an indispensable partner to members and their school districts. Its success is evidenced by members’ attendance at Zoom meetings and virtual conferences, and in their use of the member forum. Another indicator is CTAT’s retention rate, which was 98% last year, and the association’s addition of 100 new members in 2020.
Brooks said TCEP’s message to members is simple: We are here to help in any way that we can. “Whether that means securing PPE that they can’t get anywhere else or looking at what bills are going to come forward in the legislative session, we are ready to advocate for our members in their moment of need.”
Photo credit: iStock.com/Shaun L