Made To Measure Article

Are Trade Associations Still Relevant in a Digital Age?

By Jackie Rosselli

There are 27,000 associations in North America, the majority of which are in decline. Market consolidation, an aging membership, and technology have all been cited as reasons for the downturn.

Of the three the later has arguably been most disruptive. There are a variety of online platforms from which most of us consume information these days. Busier than ever, a new generation would rather connect in cyberspace than a meeting space. For them, a trade association's signature product – its convention, is a quaint throwback to a bygone era.

With these dynamics, we wondered: what's the value of belonging to an association these days? Are trade groups even relevant anymore? Are they providing enough ROI to attract and retain members?

We spoke with several to find out:

The Industry's “Voice”: NAUMD

The NAUMD came to be in 1933, when 13 manufacturers formed a group that would “fight government competition, curb sales of small pieces by mills to irresponsible buyers, develop an interchange of information, and promote business and cooperation,” according to an article from the period that appeared in the Daily News Record. Back then, the NAUMD was simply NAUM – dealers participated, but weren't fully integrated into the association until 1981. Its moniker changed again in 2007, when in a nod to globalization, the “National” NAUMD became the North American Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors. Since its inception, it has been referred to as the “voice” of the uniform industry.

That voice has become a bit horse in recent years, and in some respects, NAUMD is showing its age. Heavily dominated by baby boomers and an over reliance on the convention as its showcase event, the association has until recently struggled to engage with the next generation of management. “It's not that millennials want to avoid networking or face to face interactions, it's that they don't want to do it first,” NAUMD President Neal Waters said. “We have to engage them where they are now, get them to see the value, and then perhaps they'll come to the convention or industry meeting.”

Where they are now, of course, is on line. So Waters, who took over the reigns in 2015 and a boomer himself, got together with the board of directors for a reset. If the association was to be seen as more than just the convention, it had to be more than the convention. It had to provide benefits year round, in a format better suited to a new generation.

The solution to breaking the paradigm? The NAUMD wants its members to head back to school. A virtual school. Welcome to NAUMD University.

NAUMD U: Career Development At Your Fingertips, When You Want It

“Associations can't do everything,” Waters observed. “They have to decide on a strategy that brings unique value to members; an approach that best suits the market.”

For NAUMD, that means becoming the go-to source for the uniform industry with programs like NAUMD University. Introduced last year, the online platform intends to bolster individual careers and build better businesses for both manufacturers and distributors. Participants select the topics of interest, and access material at their convenience, from any connected device. NAUMD U's online, on-demand catalog boasts over 6000 courses; generic topics range from sales tips to marketing strategies to PC applications. Industry-specific subject matter is slowly being introduced; there are currently six areas of study and another batch will roll out in 2017.

Under the NAUMD University umbrella falls two other digital initiatives. A quarterly report prepared by ITR Economics targets eight market segments that do business with the uniform industry and forecasts employment and growth to reduce risk and drive practical and profitable business decisions. And each month, members can now access electronic monthly research reports that focus on trade, international labor laws, prison industries, and other areas of interest.

Yet much of the information is readily available online, accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Why should any company pay NAUMD to find what it can find itself?

Because it's not that simple according to Waters. “We're sourcing information from many places and boiling it down so that it's easy to digest; creating efficiencies for members, saving them time,” he noted.

Starting Conversations Online and Face to Face

The days of a week-long family vacation disguised as a business trip have long since past of course, but there's still value to be found at conventions. NAUMD has retooled its annual meeting by shortening its duration and blending its information sessions and exhibits with social and evening events that provide networking opportunities and yes - fun.

Whether online or face to face, NAUMD is about building relationships. “The information is important in its own right but coming together as a group creates the networking the industry is known for,” Waters said. “NAUMD is about starting conversations between members. It's the reason we've existed since 1933 and is the one thing we've consistently done well.”

The jury is still out on whether these efforts will reap lasting benefits, but there are encouraging signs. The 2016 convention – Waters' first – was an unqualified hit; exhibits sold out and attendance was up. The NAUMD president admits that growing the ranks wasn't his first priority when he initially took over; building a better value proposition with better engagement became the focus. That changed last November when NAUMD kicked off a recruitment campaign that netted 16 new distributors and 2 manufacturers. A free trial membership was used as a hook. “We gave people the opportunity to engage by removing the barrier of money,” Waters said.

The battle to remain relevant is constant in a digital age. “Connecting the industry through NAUMD University is a good first step,” said Waters. “Maybe they don't go to an event, but if they got to know each other or picked up a phone because of NAUMD, then we're doing our jobs.”

The Voice is growing stronger.

URA: Building Stronger Relationships

New-kid-on-the-block URA – the group held its first-ever convention in 2007 – began life with a clear goal: to better position the independent retailer for success within the health apparel market segment. In an of-the-people-for-the-people approach, membership in the Uniform Retailers Association is reserved exclusively for the independent uniform retailer.

But make no mistake: though these retailers self-govern, there are plenty of manufacturers in the mix. The URA/manufacturer relationship is a true partnership. “We started out wanting to build a stronger relationship between retailers and manufacturers and I feel we've done that,” URA co-founder Melanie Imlay said.

This bond is solidified in large part through the convention. Unlike many associations, the convention is still THE event of the year, URA's raison d'etre. Most of its 250 members attend the meeting, making this an attractive and cost-effective way for a manufacturer to get in front of a retail account. It's also a great equalizer, with well-known manufacturers exhibiting side-by-side with their lesser known counterparts. “The show creates a huge buzz for their products and name, and can help a smaller, niche market manufacturer build brand recognition,” Steve Land, URA co-founder noted. “We've seen an uptick in shoe manufacturers, accessory suppliers and others looking to tap the market who see URA as a great place to get a lot of feedback.”

With such a captive audience its no wonder that URA shows have seen growth since its inception. The 2017 Convention will be held in Nashville later this year; booths sold out in November and companies are currently wait-listed. And those lucky booth holders are taking more space than ever before, according to Land. “When we first started, there was talk of putting a cap on the amount of available exhibit space, but the leadership balked at this idea,” he said. “The exhibits are a big source of revenue for us.” Manufacturers underwrite all education sessions, evening events and social activities that take place during the show.

Unlike NAUMD, where dues are based on annual revenue, URA retailers pay $150 annually regardless of size. Membership is concentrated in the east, but Imlay reports growing international interest from Canada and even South America. Another difference? URA ranks are actually skewing younger, with more and more millennials flocking to events. “They're looking for the same thing as the rest of us,” Melanie Imlay noted.

Part of its allure may be due to the product line; scrubs after all, come in an array of bright colors and patterns, a far cry from the staid items that populate the blue goods industry. Take-home value from URA conventions is strong too; its business sessions are filled with best practices, industry reports and the latest product news. But there's another factor. URA shows are fun. “Who wants to sit through a boring seminar? It may sound ridiculous, but if you just spew facts and figures it can be dull,” Land said. “But if you make the event fun, they'll want to come back, and that's what we strive to do.”

A Perfect 10

The convention may be its centerpiece, but members can expect more when they sit at the URA table. Like most groups URA's member benefits include common perks like a monthly newsletter and discounts on office supplies. Less usual is another savings program known as the Perfect 10. Members in good standing receive a ten percent discount on first quality goods from name brand manufacturers; industry leaders such as Barco, White Swan and Cherokee participate.

“Why should you pay $150 for a membership? Because it's free,” Land pointed out. “If you do it right, you'll get this back and more; one retailer recently saved several thousand dollars in a year.”

Another member favorite is the URA scholarship program. Customers of members may apply for a $500 scholarship to help defray the cost of pursuing a career in the health professions. And in 2016, the association launched the David Nejberger Fund in honor of the late industry professional. Recipients must be pursuing medical studies with emphasis on cardiac medicine.

Find it Online? No You Can't

The internet upended the business model of many trade associations who relied on their annual meeting as both a money maker and an exchange of information. A fast paced business environment further exacerbated conditions. We can train online, communicate in 140 characters, and get all the information we need from the comforts of home. Right?

Not necessarily.

“First of all, who are you getting the information from? As a business owner, I want to be able to hear from others with industry experience,” a skeptical Land explained. “I agree that it's easy to find general information, but try finding detailed statistics on retailing or uniforms – you're not going to get a lot.”

There's another component missing. “Being a URA member means knowing like- minded people, truly independent retailers with the knowledge and know how, not just somebody sitting in his basement selling uniforms. It really comes down to networking,” Imlay said. For smaller retailers whose visits from sales reps are seldom or non-existent, going to the show has added significance and tangible benefits. They get to meet with the manufacturers, ask questions and get to know other retailers. “Networking is just as important as surfing the web. Face- to- face interactions often result in lifelong friendships that really make a difference; you know you can count on it.”

None of this is to suggest that URA doesn't perceive value in newer forms of communication. “People communicate through technology now,” Land said. “It's old news if you don't connect on a daily basis.” A major initiative for 2017 includes a redesigned, mobile-friendly website intended to do just that: connect members with the news they need in a timely fashion. There's an education component too; members will be able to access information on marketing, SEO and design. They'll also be able to connect to URA via Facebook, Twitter and other social channels.

“This is huge for URA,” Imlay said. “Most members are mom and pop outfits and are not necessarily internet savvy. They don't have time to do this – they're too busy with their stores. It's a big benefit to have us do the legwork for them.”

Of those 27,000 associations in decline, URA does not appear to be one. “We will absolutely be around in 5 years,” Land said. “I don't see the bottom falling out.”