When to Make Pandemic Pivots Permanent

Through continually engaging and gathering feedback from members, associations can emerge from the pandemic stronger, and with a member-driven reimagining of their product offerings.

By Lynn Pehanich

commercial airplane sitting on runway

The International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading (ISTAT) understands the importance of maintaining strong relationships with members. Through staying connected and attuned to the needs of members from the first moments of the pandemic, they were not only able to maintain renewals but add new members over the past year.

The association is a network of commercial aviation professionals, mostly at the C-Suite level. The association has more than 5,000 global members, the majority of whom are based in the United States and Europe.

ISTAT supports its membership and the larger industry through many means, but none are more valuable than their in-person conferences. The association hosts numerous international conferences each year, including four marquee events in the U.S., EMEA, Asia and Latin America. These events provide a platform for members to network and conduct business face-to-face, something that isn’t always easy to accomplish in an industry with a global reach.  

“We make our members’ jobs easier by bringing them into the same place at the same time where they can work on multiple deals with people across the world,” said Crystal Ligda, ISTAT Director of Marketing and Operations.

Ligda added that the conferences are a significant source of revenue that comes from within and outside their membership. One of the main appeals of joining the association is reduced conference registration fees.

In addition to conferences, ISTAT runs the primary appraisal certification program and engages and educates with quarterly magazines and an increasingly robust digital presence. The association also has a foundation that provides internships and other opportunities for those looking to break into the industry, among other initiatives.

The 38-year-old association benefits from a highly engaged and interconnected membership, partially due to the value the conferences provide. Their magazine plays an important role in engaging members as well.  But historically speaking, the organization never had demand for digital platforms — that is, until it was faced with a once-in-a-generation global pandemic.

COVID-Compromised Revenue Streams

The association’s operations were upended, but so was the community they served. It wasn’t lost on association leadership that commercial aviation was among the hardest hit industries.
Given their global presence, ISTAT felt the impact of COVID-19 before many other U.S. associations. Their first cancelled event was set to take place in Asia in May 2020. Every upcoming conference was canceled before long, and the association’s main revenue stream dried up overnight. The quarterly magazine quickly became their main contact point. The association’s operations were upended, but so was the community they served. It wasn’t lost on association leadership that commercial aviation was among the hardest hit industries. Given this, the first reaction to the disruption was to look for ways they could support their loyal members, rather than replace their lost revenue stream.

“When the pandemic hit, our goal was to find new ways to support our members,” said Guilherme Lopes, ISTAT’s Executive Director “It was one of the darkest times our industry has ever seen, so it was really about coming up with digital platforms to help our members continue networking.”

The forced digital transition wasn’t just a matter of shifting their conferences online. It required a fundamental rethinking of the value they provide members.

One of the first change the association implemented was to waive all membership and registration fees for members who were laid off from their jobs. Soon after, the ISTAT Foundation supported numerous efforts to help distribute PPE to countries in need.

Gathering Feedback Early and Often

The association already had nearly two dozen different committees made up of member volunteers, but they formed a pandemic task force to understand how best to support members. Members were surveyed as well. After gathering feedback, they developed several products to continue providing value for their membership throughout the pandemic.

“Knowing industry trends is great, but you really must hear from your members. Virtual conferences were really popular over the last year, but our members didn’t want that. Had we done those, we wouldn’t have added much value,” Lopes added.

Initially, virtual conferences seemed like the natural replacement for their typical in-person conferences. But preliminary conversations and surveys with members revealed that they couldn’t derive the same value from a virtual event. At that point, there were several potential pivots. But in an unprecedented situation, the association “didn’t know what they didn’t know,” as Lopes explained, especially when it came to understanding how to best serve members — which led to significant investments in digital products.

“We were in uncharted waters, so when we launched digital products, we would listen closely to the response from the membership and tailor them as needed,” Lopes said.

Developing Digital Platforms to Support Members

Through reimagining rather than just repackaging their conferences as online offerings, ISTAT was not only able to maintain renewals, but also added new members. Part of this success was due to the ability of the virtual content to engage members and non-members alike. While the products were new, their main goal was to provide part of the same value as their in-person offerings: to bring people together.

“We were really looking to reconnect our members. They weren’t coming to our platforms for the bells and whistles. They were coming for the human connection and to reconnect with colleagues and friends,” Ligda said.

One digital product developed to support all members during the pandemic were conversational discussions, called ISTAT Chats, that featured longtime members and prominent industry executives. They spoke about the future, the current issues their organizations were facing, as well as their career paths.

In addition, ISTAT created a Learning Labs program which was an educational offering to teach members about specific parts of the industry. This was especially beneficial for those newer to the industry, who were experiencing an industry crisis for the first time. 

“Our webinars were open for members and nonmembers to support the industry. On average, 28 percent of our live event attendees were nonmembers, so we could demonstrate our value, and we added over 300 new members. Part of them came from webinars,” Ligda said.

Part of their realization in developing these digital offerings was that they appealed to younger millennial newcomers to the industry — a group they hadn’t previously provided much support.
Similarly, they also launched a podcast discussing industry trends with experienced members to engage the community from afar. In-person events have already begun again and will soon return to their role as the association’s primary focus. But they plan to continue investing in digital products, especially to attract and support younger members. 

Permanent Pivots to Support Younger Members

While valuable, the new offerings developed by ISTAT aren’t a full replacement to in-person conferences. While the in-person conferences will continue to be a key part of their offerings, the association plans to continue to develop their digital offerings, especially to address their shifting membership demographics.

Part of their realization in developing these digital offerings was that they appealed to professionals newer to the industry — a group they hadn’t previously provided much support.

Given that much of their membership is at the C-Suite level, there’s some annual attrition due to retirement. While their foundation supports students and youth seeking to join the commercial aviation industry in the future, there’s a product gap for those who are newer to the industry but not necessarily experienced enough to justify a paid membership.

To address this, they launched a Rising Executives program, where individuals with less than 10 years of experience that work for ISTAT Corporate Members can join the community and utilize the benefits to progress in their careers. In addition, they plan to offer more educational opportunities as they expect demand to increase as younger professionals become members.

Through this new model, ISTAT will continue to evolve and expand its product offerings to support all members. While the future is uncertain, one lesson reinforced over the past year was the importance of maintaining strong relationships with members and empowering them to shape the association’s future.

About the Author

Lynn Pehanich is a Chicago based Sales Executive at Walsworth who has been working with association publishers for 30 years. Walsworth is the number two book printer, number four catalog printer, number five magazine printer and the only family-owned printer of yearbooks. Current leadership is under the second and third generations: Don O. Walsworth, CEO, and his son, Don Walsworth, president. Walsworth employs more than 1,200 people worldwide, operates in seven facilities across the Midwest and offers a variety of end-to-end print and digital services — from digital solutions to fulfillment and distribution.

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