Kevin Baliozian, MLA’s Executive Director, shared with us the association’s transformation journey through the pandemic and how they prepared for the future.
Baliozian: MLA has been redesigning and transforming for the last 5 years, so we were ready for what is happening now. In fact, when the crisis started it was an opportunity to go faster. For example, we were already thinking of transforming our annual meeting, which represents half of our revenues. Then, COVID happens and we are going straight to digital for meetings and exhibit.
By going virtual, by lowering pricing, offering financial aid and avoiding the issue of travel, suddenly we are dramatically increasing the ability of people to participate.
As a matter of fact, the organization has figured out a long list of projects that is way better to do virtually than face-to-face. MLA is now looking at going hybrid for their event next year with the physical conference as an add on to the live event, when it was previously the opposite. The reverse strategy is forcing us to think how we are going to promote the physical conference over the virtual one.
Baliozian: We focused on four key elements including our communities, our governance and structure, our event and finally our financial model.
1. Our first initial step was to unleash the power of our 45 member communities.
These communities are organized by areas of practice of health information or special interest and affinity. The health information element makes our members very connected to COVID-19. They have been reliable to providing trustworthy information such as search strings, trusted websites to the health professionals and make them available to the public.
We also launched weekly topical 30 mins discussion sessions combining a presenter/facilitator on Webex with Slack discussion channels.
2. We then looked at our governance and operations.
We organized a 5-day pivot to review the association policies on committee appointments and content strategy together with the executive committee and the executive director.
Small working groups were assembled, including three members and two staffs for vetting and coordination; and finally, new roles were created, and staff reassigned to new roles.
The budget was reallocated with the support of the Board and finance committee. As a result of these operational changes, member engagement has increased significantly with the involvement of new individuals not previously engaged. MLA’s relevance and perceived value have also increased.
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Our annual conference and exhibits represent 50% of MLA’s revenues and is our largest contributor of funding.
Our May physical event was cancelled and replaced by a virtual conference and exhibit in August.
We initially decided to take our content and exhibition and make it virtual, but we finally scraped away that approach and thought “If we were to start from scratch virtually, what would the conference look like?”
A conference crisis team was assembled including executive committee members, conference co-chairs and key staff leaders.
They were empowered to make quick and high-level decisions. At the same time, the staff was empowered to design a dramatically different event.
The launch of our first virtual conference was also the occasion to launch 6 new weekly online “open forum” gatherings on MLA’s topics.
The redesign of the conference now includes a live launch, an exploration week with asynchronous viewing and discussions, as well as live social events and a live action week with interactive sessions, meet-ups with panelists and exhibitors, and social events.
We are proud to say that 98% of our presenters maintained their presence, and 95% of exhibitors expressed interest in maintaining their presence and sponsorships. Thanks to this, we will also be offering a new experience to our members.
4. The fourth step was to rethink financial forecasting and communication.
The 2020 budget was no longer relevant, so we set up a series of scenarios based on actual metrics or events with daily cash management and safe strategies to ensure short, medium and long-term cash scenarios.
By doing this, we demonstrated trustworthiness - the MLA leadership is fast and financially savvy to make the right decisions.
Baliozian: As I was starting to think how the organization would go through this crisis, my President told me ‘you’re not alone’. What I have found amazing is the team and collaboration and spirit of our Board and Executive committee.
During that process, decision was made to increase the number of communications in a massive way, including monthly informational Board meetings, status reports, weekly open forums with members run by volunteers.
Trust is essential, and building trust comes through a lot of great communications with the different groups. At the end of the day, whether members agree or not with the decisions the Board is making, they know the Board knows what he is doing.
Baliozian: Our transformation journey required a lean, agile and quick decision-making process while working with the leadership.
Building trust with the various stakeholders was key in that process. Decision was made to transform the annual event, which consequently has allowed us to transform the entire organization.
MLA recently transitioned to an association management company, thanks to which we have been quickly able to innovate.
We have earned a license to experiment supported by experienced professionals, shared knowledge and quality systems.
This model has allowed us to solve engagement issues and address diversity to become truly inclusive. I can focus on the association needs and strategy when operational is looked after by the AMC staff.
We have a better spread of activities during the year and we are now operating in a more agile, flexible and fast-creative way.
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