Conference Season: Globalize Your Efforts

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

It’s now conference season. The deadline-driven work is taking a short respite allowing CPAs and other firm professionals to learn what is going on in the profession. How to grow the top line, how to strengthen the bottom line, what’s new in technology and how to keep your best people; these and other topics are on associations’ radar screens.

Whether you are a conference attendee or a host, the goal is the same: derive as much value from the experience as possible. Association members, like clients, are looking for useful information they can apply to the effectively manage their operations. Information is not limited to conference session binders or online files that can be downloaded and printed, if necessary. (If you are still using the former approach, get everyone onboard with the latter; it is cheaper, faster and more efficient. I know. It’s a duh!)

Session outlines and slides with spaces for notes are simply extraneous and usually left for recycling in the plenary room at the conclusion of a multi-day gathering. The real benefit is the face-to-face interaction in the sessions. Whether you employ a panel approach or roundtable discussions with one person at each table serving as moderator, the goal is to give every participant a chance to engage and be engaged.

Facts given, opinions expressed, questions asked, clarification requested or even side conversations by contrarians who are off topic, the goal is to have an environment where people can feel comfortable and accepted. Engage, participate and share are the cornerstones of these conferences. And if your conferences can be enhanced by attracting representatives from different functional areas, such as information technology, marketing, human resources and operations, the more value you will derive from having your people meet their counterparts to learn more about what is universally defined as “best practices.”

In addition to functional areas, associations should consider getting younger professional involved. This cohort is new to the conference experience and looks to take back actual information they can use, especially if the conference is more technical in nature (e.g., audit and tax updates, valuation, forensics, etc.), while others look to learn about other work environments. The older, more-seasoned professionals will attend conferences that encourage networking, camaraderie, information exchange, problem/solution sessions and making new connections with those whose background may be ripe for a joint venture.

Conferences Without Borders

Most of the more established associations have an international infrastructure. If you want to strengthen global relationships within your association, invite non-U.S. members who are new, who have a service to present that your U.S. audience can leverage, or who come from a country where new rules and regulations may impact international engagements. Nothing compares with conveying information in person and having informal conversations. While learning what other U.S. firms are doing is important, the business intelligence should not stop there: an international component should be part of the conference planning process every year.

To be sure there are issues to consider. If travel, time and cost are issues, turn to technology to simplify the logistics. You have a number of options to employ to create a more interactive environment. If universities employ technology for long-distance learning, certainly professional associations can implement the appropriate tools. If a satellite hook-up is used, U.S. regional members can travel to an easy-get-to-and-depart-from location, especially if they want to have pre- or post-conference discussions.

U.S.-based associations whose numbers are significantly larger than their regional counterparts have the built-in advantage because the practices, industries served and services offered have greater breadth and depth than other countries. This is a formula for inbound referrals, the “gotta have” element for firms that decide to affiliate.

If approached, international members will jump at the opportunity to participate and gain greater visibility, particularly if they seek to be the “go to” firm for a specific industry sector. I understand that not every association wants to expand the scope of the U.S.-based conferences because of the time constraints or that the preferred topics are narrowly defined, such as how to design an effective compensation system or avoiding the usual pitfalls in a firm acquisition. However, not hearing about global issues and trends can diminish the growth of the association when potential business opportunities are not revealed.

Ways to Globalize Your Conference

Here are some easy ways to enhance the worldwide perspective of your association:

  • Seek international volunteers by working with regional counterparts to identify those who are want to gain exposure.
  • Define the business case to the board or a conference planning group to convince the decision makers of the importance and value of having international participation and the benefits that inure to U.S. members.
  • Approach the conference pricing in an innovative way that can draw an impressive number of international guests (if technology will not be the solution). If you administer the conferences, don’t fret of the loss of revenue; the potential long-terms gains will be worth it.
  • Gain momentum early and often by promoting the international nature of the upcoming conference. Those who recognize globalization as the way of life for their clients will “get it.”
  • Establish a culture of engagement for the U.S. members to offer the international members a sense of support and advocacy. Make sure that the opening comments, conference keynote and other speakers recognize and welcome the international guests.
  • Create a sense of opportunities for vendors, sponsors and other interested parties regarding the international guests, for they, too, will see business opportunities for their products and services.
  • Ensure that the administrative and logistical aspects are attuned to the needs of the international guests.
  • Marketing of the conference program should project a sense of esprit de corps event to those who are more challenged in the English language. Again, work with your regional counterparts to strike the right tone in your communiques.

The success of any U.S. association is usually predicated on the level of member participation and achieved by articulating the value proposition. This is especially important when a conference involves traveling. Broadening the participation to regularly include international counterparts presents challenges, but none that cannot be overcome or supersede the extra effort expended.

The key is to nurture a relationship of engagement and support, making the non-U.S. guests feel valued and willing to think and act globally. As a member of any association where the oxygen is business development, you want to know that the dues you pay will yield the necessary returns for you and your firm.

You can’t put a price on changing a mindset but you can calculate an opportunity cost.


About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at