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PAI Case Study: Emerging Stronger by Navigating Whitewater in an Uncertain Time

In business, and in life, there is a saying people use “when things get back to normal, back to the way things were…” and the image of calm waters and clear sailing come to mind. Bringing forward the vision of a rowing crew all in line, all rowing in unison. At the same time, what if we are living in the new normal? More whitewater rapids, challenging us as teams and individuals to maneuver differently, quickly responding to the rocks and fast water swirling around us?

It has been over four months since we started operating in this brave new world. For the PAI sales team, this journey has taken us through quite a few rapids and challenging twists – especially during March and April. In the earliest phases, there was a prevailing feeling of emergency, as if taking on whitewater, and operating in a reactive/crisis management mode. We kept moving forward and making headway, taking it one day at a time.

In the early phase, we were guided by our instincts and principles which said to double-down on the people – to focus on the relationships and to listen intently to all stakeholders.

It was a deeply personal phase. Instead of focusing on specific outcomes and results, we found our mission was stewardship. Care and empathy heightened in all encounters, having a positive human interaction was the payoff – on a one-by-one and daily basis.

We’re not sure exactly when, but one week in late April we rounded our latest bend only to find that we were stronger, wiser, and filled with a vision that was fast taking shape. It did not occur all at once, but our collective experience with fellow industry members, clients, and their constituents became the very fuel that provided clarity in how best to embrace the new reality.

We emerged with a clearer purpose, leadership in thinking, and a proactive approach to delivering for our clients. By being “on the water,” we gained conviction along with a proof of concept.

Several members of our sales team were actually out in Las Vegas attending North America’s largest trade show the week that the World Health Organization declared the novel Coronavirus to be a pandemic. Meanwhile, another client was scheduled for two of their own in-person tradeshows five weeks later, to be held in Dallas. PAI had all but completed their selling cycles, with more than $1 million in revenue sold and in the bank. Immediately we were in emergency calls with the client’s executive team and planning committee. The events were initially postponed before ultimately being canceled.

Our client looked to us for guidance as to how to handle payments from both attendees and exhibitors/sponsors — including whether or not to issue refunds or credits. Instead, we suggested a different take.

“Pay It Forward” Vs “Refund”

Our solution was to adopt a “pay it forward” approach, allowing sponsors and exhibitors to use the money they were planning on spending at the April conferences towards the association’s events either in the fall or 2021. We crafted a position statement that allowed us to both to be in lock-step alignment with our client but to also be able to use a credit policy and position in all communication. It included an “appeal to spirit” to support the association during an unprecedented time.

For the canceled events, we had already executed a 15-month sales program. We swung into action and immersed in a new campaign, calling each and every sponsor and exhibitor. We tracked every single engagement, “selling the association” and its shows all over again, starting with the largest supporters. We implemented new processes for the new cycle.

Weekly updates were shared, trends were ascertained. We encountered companies that insisted that they must have a refund, yet we dealt with all with grace and latitude, becoming optimistic that a majority of companies would accept a credit option.

Retained 70% of Events Support Revenue

Ultimately, we were able to help our client retain approximately 70% of their support revenue. By serving as goodwill ambassadors for our client association, we also strengthened our trust and relationships with the more than 200 companies involved in the shows. Moreover, as a service provider, we gained invaluable insight and expertise about ways to take control on the water and navigate the currents successfully.

Keep Your Head Above Water

As a result of this experience, we learned the following:

  • Don’t panic, keep paddling – when your organization hits rough water and challenges its always best to keep moving forward and it the right direction.
  • Have a team that can be trusted and fully on-board before you hit the water – by working with key support people and teams before hitting whitewater you increase your likely hood of making it through and onward no matter the challenge. Having them on your team before the challenging times helps you respond quickly.
  • Navigate based on a direction – Sometimes the first response might not be the best one. Take a moment to know the direction and the plan you are hoping to follow. Pulling over to the side for a moment to plan out the next few miles in a challenging time can allow you to not waste effort or time. Refunds seem like the right response when you are in the middle of the being bombarded by calls, but with a little planning and working with a trusted advisor you can come up with a better way to support the mission and not drain the needed financial resources.

Our experiences from early in the pandemic continue to guide us proactively as we shape and deliver solutions during these “new normal” times.

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