For many decades, association revenue was a factor of available inventory and the constituents willing to invest in reaching your audience through exhibits, sponsorships, advertising, and other forms of nondues support. But as more associations get back to a familiar business model in a post-pandemic environment, there is opportunity to change the way organizations are approaching industry suppliers. As a result, many industry suppliers will evaluate how they reach potential customers with new considerations, factoring their decision-making around data points and experience with your brand, members, and even leadership.

Some suppliers may create new value on their own and, at a minimum, will look to association business development teams as guides in their event and marketing decisions. Evolving staff skillsets is a requirement, but supplier organizations will also look within association leadership to understand the strategy and direction they may be investing in.

Staying ahead of this curve will require a flexible approach to business development and an evolved lens to view how your association works with the industry suppliers that annually contribute to nondues revenue programs.

Suppliers as Industry Stakeholders

Associations have a strong relationship with member stakeholders — even if those “shares” might be viewed as time volunteered, members referred, or value added to the profession/cause at the core of your missions.

When it comes to your association industry suppliers, the relationship as shareholder is often not as aligned — it may even be cloudy or nonexistent. Access to audiences, endorsement of ideas, and a path to commercial success is what many supplier relationships start as. That said, there exists strategic value in reframing and considering your association’s supplier market in a new light. They are investors in your member experience, event legacies, and even industry growth.

Investment in Programs Is a Choice — Give Suppliers the Options They Deserve

Companies work for shareholder value and can be a great example of how associations can embrace opportunities in their supplier program offerings. A 2021 Professionals for Association Revenue (PAR) poll found that 69% of association teams felt their program development was cautious and passive.

Suppliers aren’t just looking for return on investment, but also a path to improved industry advocacy that they can be a part of. As your association team looks to larger investment options (annual conference, partnership programs, etc.) be sure to include your supplier base in the options they need to at least compete.

Small changes that communicate an association’s commitment to value can go a long way. Your annual conference may still be recovering from the pandemic. So offer new programs for attendees to interact with exhibitors, improved hours, or even just extra customer service to help guide their experience.

Embrace Your Supplier’s Insights

In many industries, suppliers may have access to larger customer audiences than the association they are working with. They can bring the importance of their experience into the work your association is doing to move the industry forward.

In 2020, in the wake of event cancellations and a program that was heavily based on in-person interaction, the Society for Clinical Research Sites leaned on their Global Impact Partners for guidance for ideas on how they could work together. The result was a monthly topic and networking platform they called “Sites NOW.” The program allowed for thought leadership followed by collaboration and idea sharing where suppliers shared and invited their own audiences to participate. Nonmembers were then introduced to the mission and culture of the association. Sites NOW was popular enough to continue into 2021 and is now a staple in the association’s programs.

Know Your Starting Point

When planning exhibit hall schedules for your next show, overlook your suppliers’ perspective at your own peril: “60 minutes, of total expo-only time per day, over three days!” laments Amy, a longtime supplier who requested to remain anonymous for this article. This was the case at a recent association conference her organization participated in.

“The cost for us wasn’t just exhibiting,” she continues. “It was the travel, productivity, and maybe about $9,000 in marketing and personnel expenses. We received unopposed time in the hall in three, 20-minute break periods. It’s like they don’t care about our investment. … This will be our last show with them for a while.”

This cautionary response is important to reflect on. Understand and own how your association ranks with your industry suppliers for service, opportunity, and even partnership potential. Often, these elements can inform how your inventory and opportunity needs to evolve to meet the needs of the market. In this example, an improvement in expo hours could go a long way in improving the return on investment for the suppliers involved.

Growth Mindset as a Habit — Not a Hope

Schedule time internally to focus on how your teams and programs are interacting with industry stakeholders. Set time with your association leadership to review the programs, people, and potential of your supplier stakeholders. Is it time for a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis of your portfolio? Pick an area to evolve and improve, invite your suppliers to participate, and give a timeline in which to improve. Once the improvement objective is established, find time on your calendars to meet often to evaluate progress.

Association suppliers are looking for a successful path to work together and grow together, so offer these important stakeholders the resources and opportunities the industry needs. You’ll share in the revenue and the extra exposure.

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Sean Soth, Founder & Leadership Advisory Board Chair, Professionals for Association Revenue (PAR)

Sean Soth founded and launched PAR in 2020. Sean has more than 20 years of association management and sales experiences as well as a deep understanding of the unique opportunities association teams have when leading with mission and value for business partnerships.

Sean can be reached at