How Associations Are a Lot Like Air Travel

By: Ellen Voie

Next time you're on an airplane, take a look around at the various passengers and crew around you. You might notice a lot of similarities between them and the variety of members at your association.

As an association executive I spend a lot of time traveling. Recently the similarities between an airplane and an association became evident to me, and I think they serve as a useful metaphor for an association executive in thinking about all the different types of members and stakeholders in an association.

Envision the airplane as the association, and the trip involves bringing your passengers (i.e., members) to the same destination.

As the passengers make their way onto the plane, the first class cabin is filled with those who support the association at the highest level. Whether through time, money, or resources, these are the folks who believe in your mission and are loyal to the association—the frequent fliers, if you will.

Those boarding in Zone 2 are your members, some longstanding and some recent additions, but all very supportive and loyal. As the remainder of the passengers board, some are flying on cut-rate tickets purchased from online sources and some are using points, miles, or vouchers accrued from past trips.

As the doors are closed and the crew prepares the cabin, those in front are given first-class attention. They are offered beverages and headsets and treated with the respect they deserve as the top supporters of the association. They are asked for input and feedback and their comfort is a priority.

The passengers (members) seated in the back will arrive at the same destination at the same time as those in the front, because we are all heading in the same direction. We are all together in the same airliner, and we are all anticipating the same arrival (mission).

However, the passengers in the back row who are riding on a free ticket (nonmembers, in this case) are not concerned about the plane or the airline's profitability. They are only concerned about getting to their final destination as cheaply and quickly as possible.

En route, one of the passengers complains about the temperature in the cabin. "It's too cold in here," she whines. She starts asking those around her about their comfort, but most of them ignore her and adjust the airflow in the overhead controls. So, the woman in 38C creates a scene and asks the flight attendant for extra blankets. She's your vocal member who needs extra coddling.

The fellow in 36A wants a drink, but the cart is still six rows away. He is flying free on a companion ticket and expects the same level of service as those in first class. He represents the members who don't pay their dues but expect the association to support them anyway. Forget loyalty and frequent-flier programs; he's on the plane because his son works for the airline and he gets to fly free.

There is a disturbance in row 26 as the toddler in the row behind the passenger continues to kick the back of his seat. Why can't these members, er, passengers, just get along and respect each other's space? How can the crew keep dissension to a minimum and refocus the members on the final destination (mission)?

As the crew moves along the length of the plane, they notice a few rows of empty seats. These are the members who neglected to renew and decided to go with another airline (association) instead. You'll have to make an extra effort to find out which airline they're on and what you can do to bring them back onboard.

As the pilot of the airplane, your goal is to ensure that everyone onboard is expecting to arrive at the same destination, even if some of them make a few stopovers along the way. You're responsible for getting their feedback and ensuring their safety so they will be with you on the next trip.

At the end of the journey, the shareholders (board of directors) will determine if you stayed on track. Maybe your next trip will require a bigger plane or a higher altitude. They're the ones who keep you (and the airplane) moving to the final destination.

Your association is similar to an airplane in many ways. The more first class travelers we can secure and retain, the more profitable we will be. The more passengers we have on the plane, the greater our strength as an organization. Just like the airlines, we try to accommodate our members and grow in size.

May your first-class cabin be always overbooked!

Ellen Voie, CAE, is president and CEO of Women In Trucking, Inc., in Plover, Wisconsin. Email: [email protected]