Tuesday, November 2, 2021
What’s next after COVID? Is your association ready for the next “black swan” event?
Yes, it’s tempting to just move forward and try to regain a sense of normalcy. After all, that’s human nature. But, as leaders, it’s imperative that association executives apply the lessons learned during COVID-19 to strengthen their organizations. We offer some guidance on how to pandemic-proof your organization.
A black swan surrounded by white swans

Remember when the phrase “black swan” mostly conjured up thoughts of the Oscar-winning 2010 movie about cut-throat ballerinas? Now that COVID-19 has brought the term into our everyday vernacular, it’s association executives who find themselves pirouetting madly as they work to clip the wings of the ongoing pandemic’s effect on their bottom lines.

And COVID has proved to be a particularly nasty bird with an insatiable appetite that ate into associations’ bottom lines. One big bite came when members didn’t renew their memberships after losing their jobs or moving into new professions.

In-person meetings and conventions, the other critical revenue sources for associations, took an even bigger hit as most association meetings were canceled last year. Ninety-six percent of association executives report a loss to their annual revenues due to event cancellations — and things haven’t improved much since then. According to UFI – The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, event revenue is only expected to reach 47% of 2019 levels by the end of this year.

Crying fowl: Ugly ducklings and black swans

So, what exactly is a “black swan”? It’s an unpredictable event that has an extreme impact and compels us to try to make it explainable after the fact. COVID-19 – major black swan.

An “ugly duckling,” on the other hand, is an unfortunate event, but it’s typically something you can plan for, such as weather-related disasters, VIPs injuries or deaths, fires, protesters in a city during a time of civic unrest, or even a smaller-scale disease outbreak.

For example, an ugly duckling that should already be in the contingency plan would be a weather event at a conference in the Southeastern U.S. during hurricane season. But something the size and scope of Hurricane Katrina? Total black swan.

While COVID-19 may be the most recent, most widespread, and longest lasting black swan event, it won’t be the last. But who knows what the next black swan may be? It could be another pandemic: According to scientists, COVID-19 is likely just the first in an escalating wave of more severe infectious disease outbreaks. It could be a natural disaster caused by climate change. It could even be a devastating cyber-attack.

The bottom line is that a black swan could swoop in at any time from any direction — even while we’re all still trying to find ways to survive and thrive during the ongoing pandemic. That’s why, as leaders, it’s incumbent upon association executives to take steps now to ensure their organizations are as prepared as possible for any contingency, from ugly duckling to black swan.