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Toss Out the 2019 Playbook; It’s a Whole New Game

Debra Zabloudil, ASAE’s new vice president of learning, on getting the right balance of in-person and virtual programming, the right member input on content, the right approach to hybrid events, and more.

Is it an overstatement to say that 2022 will be one of the most critical years ever for the association community?

Not if you think of it this way: After two years of doing whatever was necessary to stay afloat financially, associations once again have their most important asset—in-person events—available to them. But with members having adapted to a new way of learning and interacting with each other over that time, what must an association’s educational portfolio look like now in order to meet member needs but also deliver the necessary revenue?

That question sits squarely in front of Debra Zabloudil, FACHE, vice president of learning for the American Society of Association Executives. It’s not only because she is central to ASAE’s task of keeping members moving forward in their career development, but also because she is new to the role. In January 2022, Zabloudil came over to the practitioner side of association education after 17 years of leading The Learning Studio, an instructional-design firm that builds content-delivery frameworks for clients around the world.

With that experience—plus a few years of coordinating meetings for two other associations—Zabloudil has a deep perspective on the challenges facing ASAE and other associations as they set a path for member education and interaction through events in the post-pandemic environment.

MeetingsNet: How are you and your team looking at ASAE’s educational portfolio differently than in early 2020, the last time in-person events were a central part of the strategy?
Debra Zabloudil: One of ASAE’s core strategic initiatives is to deliver content and learning in an omni-channel approach. So what that means, and what I would say other associations should be thinking about, is building a balanced portfolio of in-person and digital offerings. I use the word “digital” in a broad sense: Everything from webinars to hybrid meetings to virtual events that stand fully on their own.

Of course, many associations had to pivot so quickly in 2020 and just put their annual conferences online as is. But now, the philosophy around digital should be that, to whatever extent possible, online events are developed specifically for the platform rather than simply converting elements of your face-to-face programs.

We’re thrilled to go back to in-person events and we're seeing a really strong response to our annual meeting [set for August in Nashville], even stronger than before the pandemic. [Members] want to see each other and spend time together as a community, and we're thrilled with that. But we're looking at really building out our digital portfolio as well because the environment is different; the world isn’t going back to 2019. So, we're looking at conducting digital activities on different themes and of varying lengths of time.

MeetingsNet: How much does surveying members come into your decisions about what to do in person and what to do virtually?
Zabloudil: There is always a place for solid market research because it gives us a sense of our demographics, how they are shifting, and what different communities are interested in. We are looking at where the bulk of our members are in order to deliver learning products and services that meet their needs at every stage of their career.

That said, there has to be a proper balance. While we need to be talking to our members all the time—doing wider market research as well as focus groups—you have to make sure you know exactly what you’re asking. For instance, if you ask members, “Do you want an in-person or a virtual program dedicated to such-and-such topic?” Well, that’s not enough for them to answer you definitively. What are the specific issues under that theme you’ll focus on, and will they be addressed mostly through presenters or through peer-to-peer interaction? What is the time frame? What is the cost? If we are not asking the right questions or not getting granular enough, we could be making decisions that don’t meet market needs.

What we’re doing at ASAE right now is some concept testing: We're developing themes and formats and putting them in front of a group of members and saying, “Let us know if you think this idea would be useful, and also try to poke holes in it.” It is more of a fleshed-out product brief than a series of questions we’re asking.

MeetingsNet: Does this allow you to make tangible changes to your educational offerings quickly?
Zabloudil: Yes, but it requires a combination of talking to members frequently and having our antenna up about what is happening in the macro environment that's going to be affecting our members. We must be able to turn product around quickly enough that we don't miss the opportunity to be part of a given conversation. I think that's something associations tend to struggle with—the amount of time it takes us to get to market with new products. Today, that time has to be compressed.

For example, we're looking at some of our in-person programs and saying, “Should we really be talking about such-and-such topic again this year, or is there something that's more urgent, a pain point that’s top of mind for association executives as they come out of the pandemic? Actually, it's like that with every single product that we offer right now. We are taking a very holistic look and saying, “Is this what’s best in 2022? Is the content on point? Is the messaging on point? Is the format accessible to the people who need it?”

MeetingsNet: What will be new and different at ASAE’s in-person annual meeting in August?
Zabloudil: One of the things we’re very focused on for this year is enabling peer-to-peer interaction. In the association community, we tend to be a group of people that likes to be connected to others. We don't compete with each other, so we do a lot of sharing of best practices and our common pain points, and I think that folks are just yearning for that. What did you experience in your work during the pandemic? How did you get through it?

Also, we will have content stages on the show floor featuring many short sessions. We sort of threw out the blueprint for what the annual meeting looks like; for every element that we're bringing in, we've examined it to make sure it makes sense in this moment. From there, we’ll be focused on how we further attendees’ learning after the annual meeting ends.

MeetingsNet: What is your opinion of real-time hybrid meetings versus asynchronous hybrids?
Zabloudil: For an event team, it is such a heavy lift to do a real-time hybrid. Most associations need to be firing on all cylinders to run the in-person event; splitting up the staff between the in-person and the virtual at the same time is tough. As for the financial case for doing it, I have seen very few associations that have been able to make it successful. The revenue does not match the additional expense.

I can't argue with anyone who tried it during the pandemic, though, because we all needed to do what we thought was best at that moment. But I think many associations are now struggling with this: How do we offer some encapsulation of the annual meeting after the event, or maybe offer something that's actually produced before the in-person event but can run immediately afterwards?

I do see and hear more organizations doing a curated approach to their annual conference and having moderators come in to run discussions as the best in-person sessions are done virtually at a later time. I think it's a tricky space, and we're all still figuring out as a community how to most effectively take the learning from the annual meeting and present it in a way that creates greater access for our communities. The choice made by each association also has to be financially beneficial.

MeetingsNet: What is something that most people wouldn’t know about you?
Zabloudil: Well, my father was a chiropractor and was very involved in associations, as a board member for many different ones. So, I grew up going to conferences of every kind, from local to regional to national and international. As a result, while I never consciously decided, “I’m going to do what my dad did,” I think somehow it got in my blood. It was very natural to me, and I saw it as a way to really be able to affect large-scale change in a profession, which is inspiring and a great thing to take on.

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