Tips for Associations Heading Back to the Hill

NovakShowalter_tips for assns heading back to Hill May 31, 2022 By: Liz Novak, CAE and Amy Showalter

COVID-19 shut down in-person lobbying days for the better part of two years, but some associations are venturing back. Learn how one an association navigated the new restrictions and managed attendee expectations.

As the country returns to our “next normal,” some associations are resuming their in-person lobbying days. Because there is no substitute for live, in-person meetings, we looked at what one association did to help make its return to the Hill a success.

According to Diane R. Boyle, senior vice president of government relations at the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA), the group typically hosts two days on the Hill each year—one in May and the other in fall. Pre-COVID, their in-person May Congressional Conference drew nearly 1,000 members from every state for meetings with approximately 90 percent of Congress in a single day. The fall day was combined with association programming for 200 attendees and roughly 100 Congressional meetings.

NAIFA members are accustomed to meeting in person and understand that these events are more than making an “ask” for legislative priorities. In-person meetings foster relationship development. While sharing preferences, detailing concerns with policy proposals, or urging support for legislation can be accomplished via Zoom, developing a relationship is best done in person.

After two years of virtual meetings and at the urging of members, NAIFA decided to host the December 2021 National Leadership Conference in Washington, DC.

“If our members come to DC, I want them on the Hill,” Boyle said. “Some offices began allowing visitors, so we gave it a go. We held 40 Congressional meetings in person and a host of activities to entertain those unable to get Hill appointments.”

Managing Protocols

Boyle noted that the new Capitol complex restrictions and various office policies significantly affected scheduling. At the time, the Senate offices restricted attendance to eight. The House only allowed five and required IDs, badging, and masking. Both chambers required an escort to meet attendees. Some offices provided a contact name and phone number, while others met attendees outside the office building. In addition, some offices required a health screening to be completed and turned in the day of the meeting. This meant that communicating what to expect to attendees had to be personalized for each office.

Lessons Learned

The NAIFA event provided some important takeaways that other associations can use to help their events be successful.

First, it’s important to manage attendee expectations, especially for seasoned Hill Day attendees. The experience is significantly different from their previous visits. For example, they will not be able to enter the building without an appointment or an escort. If there are more than 10 people in a group, it is likely they will not all get to participate in the meeting. Plus, only about half the offices were willing to schedule an in-person appointment.

This means that associations should plan additional in-person activities for their Hill Days. These activities will help mitigate attendee disappointment if their member of Congress isn’t scheduling in-person meetings. You want them to feel that this event was worth the time and expense to attend, especially if they had to travel out of state.

Finally, don’t try to hold hybrid events. If you commit to an in-person lobby day, do not accept virtual meetings on the same day as a substitute for in-person. The scheduling logistics and communication challenges are significantly more labor-intensive than pre-pandemic scheduling. Save the virtual appointments for another day.

Liz Novak, CAE

Liz Novak, MBA, CAE, is deputy executive director and director of advocacy and publications at International Association of Plastics Distribution in Overland Park, Kansas, and a member of ASAE’s Government Relations and Advocacy Professionals Advisory Council.

Amy Showalter

Amy Showalter is president of The Showalter Group in Cincinnati and a member of ASAE’s Government Relations and Advocacy Professionals Advisory Council.