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SLA: How YOU Doin’? Part 2: The Business Meeting That Wasn’t

The Olympic Torch on the shore of Vancouver Bay. A fascinating sculptural site during the day.

The Olympic Torch on the shore of Vancouver Harbor. A fascinating sculptural site during the day.

The Olympic Torch at Vancouver Harbor. It looks best in the evening lit up like this.

 

 

 

 

 

Business Meeting, Business Meeting – Where are you?

According to many sources and many of our own personal experiences, we know that the essential purpose of the annual business and membership meeting of an association is to comply with by-laws to show accountability for finances and services provided to the membership. There is typically communication of accomplishments, challenges, and plans for the next few years to strengthen accomplishments and address challenges whether financial, operational or other.

This communication demonstrates transparency of operations to all stakeholders and helps to ensure confidence in the management and leadership of the association. The meeting also provides an opportunity for old business to be addressed if anything is outstanding, new business to be brought forward, and a forum for asking questions and clarifications of data presented and actions taken or planned. It also helps raise awareness of all the work done for the membership and shows the association’s value to them.

That is all well and good but there was not much of any of that in the SLA2014 annual business meeting in Vancouver. Attendees heard a revival type speech from the treasurer to all work as ‘one SLA’ with a mere smattering of data shown on charts but never spoken. The CEO and president gave well-deserved kudos to SLA staff and volunteer committee members and acknowledged that the SLA HQ building was up for sale. That was essentially it. There was no call for old business, new business, and no opportunity to ask questions at all. So let’s break it down a bit, shall we?

First off, I am sure we will be told that much information has been issued in reports or other documents available online. True or not, the audience deserved a summary of key accomplishments and an outline of key challenges and what is being done to address them. We also should hear what was discussed and perhaps voted on in the SLA Board meeting held the day before the conference began. Being told these are tough times brings no added knowledge to those of us willing and dedicated to stay to the end of the conference and attend the business meeting. I recall officially hearing the attendee numbers maybe once or twice in the past few years, so this is NOT a new thing done only by the current Board and SLA HQ and it is a very, very bad trend.

Let’s get specific. When the treasurer stood up to give his presentation, the audience saw 3 images of data over about a 20 minute span of time. The first was a map of the world sectioned to represent the chapters and that was an interesting graphic but didn’t tell us a whole lot. The second was a graph showing membership numbers in steady decline over the last few years where we are currently hovering around 8,000 members. At one time we had a membership of around 14,000 so that gives you an idea of the difference today.

The third image was a graph showing how expenses and revenue compared over the years, with revenue far exceeding expenses a while back but in the most recent past we are barely able to make enough revenue to meet expenses. The treasurer did make a brief comment to that effect with the graph displayed, but that what the extent of the facts we heard or saw at the meeting.

What I wanted to know and didn’t hear was:

* Attendance numbers for the conference – members, vendors, total. Why? The conference is often spoken about as a key annual revenue source for the association. Therefore the numbers of members and the numbers of vendors attending and participating in the conference have a direct impact on the economic health of the association. We as members and vendors cannot fully understand or assist in fixing a declining participation in the conference – or the association for that matter – when the facts are kept from us. Given that the business meeting is held at the end of the conference, the SLA staff clearly have those numbers handy. This is not the first time this has happened, so it more than the current Board and SLA Staff to call to question.

Be assured I feel the conference itself was extremely productive for me in many ways for my library and institution from a business standpoint, for me professionally in enhancing my awareness of what others are doing that I could do as well, knowledge of products and services, as well as for me personally in being able to see my many friends and colleagues and meet new ones.

SLA Past President and me checking out the scenery during a fun dinner across the bay from Vancouver

SLA Past President Deb Hunt and me checking out the scenery during a fun dinner across the bay from Vancouver.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So here is my anecdotal observation until we get an apparently forthcoming ‘first annual report’ to the membership, according to the Treasurer. Despite the lack of room availability in conference hotels near the ‘action’ due to being ‘sold out’, there appeared to not be a huge amount of membership attendees at this conference. I know the U.S. Government employees were unable to travel internationally, so that was one of perhaps a few key reasons. Nonetheless, I can recall in past years jostling through a crowd at the INFO-EXPO opening and it was a smaller crowd this time for sure.

While walking around the INFO-EXPO exhibit hall (ah, the questionable on-going need for a conference center exhibit hall — a topic I shall speak of again at another point) there was at least one entire aisle that was empty, there were several empty stalls to the back of each row of exhibit booths, and there were a number of ‘table top’ exhibits instead of full booths. It wasn’t as cavernous a feel as it was in Chicago or San Diego, but still felt a bit sparse. While thanking the vendors for their participation and getting good information on their products and services, I asked them about the customer traffic and their general opinion about the space and all. Many were very happy with the people they met and the business discussions, but said they did feel the traffic flow to be on the light side with few examples of large crowds at any one time. One vendor who has participated for years indicated that he felt SLA was ‘running on fumes’ and has been for a few years. He assured me that his organization would participate in the annual conference as an exhibitor through whatever SLA goes through even if it is to an endpoint – an endpoint that he thinks could come in a few short years or less. He thinks there is a core 20 or 30 vendors that would do that as well because of their loyalty to their customers and SLA. And for those of you who think you know who this vendor is, you would be wrong as it is someone else for sure.

Mind you, I know of several vendors who did not exhibit this year at all but did attend the conference. At least one significant vendor had their CEO in attendance and likely conducted individual meetings rather than exhibit. Hmmm… was that because of the booth expense, their own interest in cutting general travel and conference expenses, or ???

* Financial summary of the Association. Are we in a deficit (what time of day is it?), barely meeting expenses – apparently so, or making money (nope!). Many of us have budgets and run a ‘business’ so we can appreciate the challenges of revenues and expenses. We also know we work hard with our colleagues and senior management in our workplace to get things done with the limited resources available. So, stop playing shadow puppets and give us the skinny on the numbers! To hear a member of the Finance committee tell me in a side conversation at another point in the conference that we are barely squeaking by to meet expenses and had to make tough decisions on what to fund was enlightening but that should have been said by the SLA Treasurer, the CEO and/or the current President.

* The SLA HQ staff situation and what is really going on at SLA HQ – The CEO thanked her hardworking staff for their efforts in getting yet another conference accomplished. They are amazing indeed and we hear there are fewer of them, but this year we have no idea how many or the challenges. I recall that was addressed in more detail in the past and helped us understand the complexity and effort required to make the conference happen.

Many niceties were expressed by the CEO about cooperation of her and her team with the SLA Board of Directors and conference planners. She also mentioned the sale of the HQ building but that’s it – mentioned it. What else is going on with SLA HQ? How is the Association faring as compared to others? We know ALA has lost members as have many others. What does the ASAE membership say about their organizations? Inquiring minds want to know if we are an anomaly (doubt it) or one of the many in a crowd of struggling associations?

As an aside, it would have been nice to have a conference program booklet with all the maps of the conference center and hotels included. The Convention Center map was printed in the larger special conference edition of Information Outlook and there were no maps of the hotel locations or meetings held in them.

SLA CEO Janice LaChance speaking to the attendees at the Annual Business Meeting

SLA CEO Janice LaChance speaking to the attendees at the Annual Business Meeting

* The status of the sale of the SLA HQ building and the plans for the expected revenue from the sale. Oh, it was mentioned by both the CEO and President, but that’s it – mentioned. The sale is happening, though maybe not be able to close a deal for a long while, and there are lots of discussions about it but we aren’t going to update you on it here. Many of you are not privy to the SLA Leadership or LMD discussion list where many questions and answers were posed, but there was a dissemination of a summary through e-mail. It’s a hot topic and we don’t want to discuss it further and no, you can’t ask questions here even though this would be the place for you to do so. Nope, waste of time, can’t do it, won’t let you, so don’t try. In fact, we won’t even provide a Q&A part of the meeting so you can’t! — How can you have a “business meeting” with no questions by the membership about the very topics presented or absent?

President Kate Arnold addresses the SLA Annual Business Meeting at the close of the conference

President Kate Arnold addresses the SLA Annual Business Meeting at the close of the conference

It’s been a few days since returning from the conference but it is only now I feel like I was given a date drug and sent on my way before realizing we didn’t have an actual business meeting but rather a series of presentations and platitudes. This has to change.

Up next: SLA: How YOU Doin’? Part 3: Fact, Fiction or Political Nuance? We Are Professionals?

 

5 responses to “SLA: How YOU Doin’? Part 2: The Business Meeting That Wasn’t

  1. Richard, I know that two resources on the building sale were mentioned during the conference and are available to SLA members. There is a memo, http://www.sla.org/governance/board-of-directors/mtg-info/memo-re-sale-sla-headquarters-building/ and a Q&A document,
    http://www.sla.org/governance/board-of-directors/mtg-info/memo-re-sale-sla-headquarters-building/building-questions-answers/. We forget to mention the webinar, which is available to members at http://www.sla.org/governance/leadership-webinars/. (I’m providing these links as an FYI and not as an attempt to argue with you.)

    • Richard Hulser

      Jill,
      These resources are all well and good, but the business meeting is an opportunity to summarize the key points and give a to-the-minute update on whatever was discussed further since those were released or posted. Even if all the members present at the business meeting had read or listened to those items, a short and concise ‘here we are and this week no significant changes have occurred, but we believe that … ” and whatever pertinent is stated. If it is too early for much of that, then noting it would suffice as well. The links are much appreciated for anyone who may not have seen them via a leadership list or through their unit leaders — which is highly likely given that not all units spread the information out.

  2. Quoting from the minutes of the April Board of Directors meeting, as disseminated via email: “DiGilio asked about the Vancouver registration numbers, which were not the same as those the Finance Committee had received. As of April 7, there were 1,034 registrants, which includes members, exhibitors, one-day passes, etc. At this time last year there were 916 registrants.
    “Early bird registration ends April 14; a blast email will be sent out over the weekend.
    “There are fewer exhibitors registered, with fewer and smaller booths sold. SLA receives less income with a reduction in booth size. Staff will continue to sell booths up until the conference opens.
    Question: What are we hearing from vendors? Lachance replied that we’re not generally hearing a complaint about the location, but comments on other reasons why they are not attending: not enough exhibit hall traffic, other ways to reach SLA members, and the continued depressed economy. It also costs more to ship “over the border.” Those who are not coming will be kept on SLA’s exhibitor list. The good news is that we are ahead on sponsorships this year.
    “Numbers for professional development courses are also down.”

    I think it has been a few years since the conference attendance numbers have been announced during the conference. I for one appreciate hearing the overall number and the breakdown (members, exhibit staff, non-members, students…or whatever breakdown is available). Given the layout of the convention centre, I can’t even guess what the attendance was, but I hope similar to San Diego. My big hope is that Boston and Philly – back on the East coast where many of our North American members live – will see a return to a noticeable larger conference attendance.

  3. Richard,

    Thanks for your thoughts and comments on the business meeting, it’s very helpful to have this feedback. You won’t be surprised to hear you’re not the only person raising questions about the content and format of this meeting.

    I’ve put discussion of business meeting on the next board agenda so will make sure you’re updated on this. In fact I’d question why we have this meeting at conference, midway through our year. It appears to be the one thing we didn’t change when we moved to calendar year for both fiscal and governance purposes. I’d like us to consider having a virtual business meeting in Jan or Feb, with regular virtual town halls with in person town halls at Summit and Annual Conference. That way more people could participate and understand what’s going on as well as ask questions.
    On questions, I’m told, and my own experience bears this out, that there has never been a point where questions were taken post business meeting speeches. You may be remembering the questions session at the Saturday open board meeting?

    You mention a lack of content to cover what was discussed by the Board at its exec meetings, well that was covered at the open session on Saturday. But I appreciate not everyone attended that so I did cover the key points in the conference wrap up webinar, sponsored by Baseball Caucus and BnF, last week. The recording will be available soon.

    Finally, on conference numbers, as Jill points out it’s now regular practice for us to issue a press release post conference. This was done last week and the info is at http://www.sla.org/about-sla/media-room/press-releases/sla-2014-annual-conference-transcends-borders-vancouver-23-june-2014/
    Thanks

    Kate

    • Richard Hulser

      Kate,
      I appreciate your thoughtful response. I think the point of move to a calendar year but not adjusting the business meeting is a good one. The problem is that most of the active membership attends the annual conference and not the leadership summit, so that questions a move of the business meeting unless a version of it is still held at annual.

      Questions were ALWAYS taken post business meeting up until about a decade ago. There are many instances after an annual business meeting where discussions of a dues increase, moving the HQ from NYC to DC and others were done by the Board and then opened up for members to ask questions and/or give opinions. Your point about ‘post speeches’ is a key one — the past few years have been nothing more than speeches with less and less content for the membership, a very bad trend in my opinion and that of many other experienced members. The ‘closing’ of Board meetings that became the norm somewhere a year or a few more after Bill Fisher was president and that also carried over to the kind of business meetings that are as we now know them.
      While the conference wrap up seminar weeks later from the annual conference may have had the key points from the Board meetings summarized, that does not absolve the Board from alerting active members who take the time and money to attend annual conference and go to the business meeting to get this information in a timely fashion. THAT is what the business meeting is for according to many definitions and descriptions found about association management. I would suggest this be kept in mind for next year.

      A press release post conference on attendee numbers is again not timely for the members attending conference. There is no reason such information can’t be relayed to those of us in attendance. I do hope the Board thinks carefully about these and any other comments people have been providing.

      By the way, I took a look at the very detailed report about re-imagining the conference. It is very dense and really requires an executive summary of key issues and actions to mitigate identified concerns. The SWOTs give an interesting perspective and to me the key is that we need to drastically reduce the number of sessions needed at conference without sacrificing the key content of many units. I know this is extremely unpopular with many units, but they need to get a grip and I will be doing a blog on that topic alone in the near future. It would be interesting to do some math on the number of sessions as I think we have many more than are really necessary given the number of attendees at conference.
      Richard

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