Beyond Europe: Exploring New Markets and Territories for European Associations

‘Beyond Europe: Exploring New Markets and Territories for European Associations’
Peer2Peer Session – Friday 14th October 2016, 16:00-18:00


This peer2peer session, organised by the ESAE (European Society of Association Executives), addressed the challenges and opportunities of exploring new global markets and territories for European Associations.

Though most Brussels-based associations are primarily focused on Europe, the market in which they operate is increasingly global: they organise events on the five continents, cover topics of global interest, aim to reach members across the globe, and may open offices in other regions to develop their market. This expansion raises several challenges: generating the required resources, operating in different cultural environments, globalising their service packages, managing teams in multiple locations, building partnerships with local actors, etc.

The session was led by Mohamed Mezghani, the Deputy Secretary General of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP). While UITP’s main office has always been in Brussels, Belgium, 14 liaison and regional offices and two Centres for Transport Excellence have been established across the globe in the last 15 years. Having a global presence enables UITP to better connect the sustainable mobility sector and promote public transport as a motor for green growth and improved quality of living.

His insights were complemented by Elisabeth Van Ingelgem, the Director of the Convention & Association Bureau at Visit.Brussels – a partner in the Global Association Hubs Partnership (GAHP). GAHP is a collaboration between Brussels, Dubai, Singapore and Washington DC as leading global hubs for international associations to provide support and advice for international associations willing to expand to new markets.

Globalising Sectors – The Reason to look beyond Europe

Today, most sectors that may have been ‘European’ once are now dominated by actors who work on an international scale. If an association wishes to truly represent this sector, it will have to follow its members and become global. UITP represents the public transport and mobility sector – a sector in which most businesses operate globally and where policy is driven by trans-national bodies. Having a global presence enables UITP to better connect the sustainable mobility sector and promote public transport as a motor for green growth and improved quality of living worldwide. The expansion of UITP’s activities throughout the four corners of the globe is therefore a key objective for the association.

While not all associations have the means or ambition to establish regional offices, many will consider the opportunity to develop some of their key activities globally or create strong partnerships with ‘sister’ associations in other regions. Whether it is a need to represent a globalising association sector, to have more impact on global policy or gain new markets for events and services, it is worth working on an international expansion strategy. Regional association bureaus or the members of the Global Association Hubs Partnership offer help and support when it comes to regional specificities and contacts.

Smart Globalisation – Based on Regional Needs & Developments

Before expanding into a new region, it is essential to fully understand the legal framework, policy priorities and survey existing governmental and association structures supporting the sector. Is there still room for a new association, or is the market already well covered? Will the region benefit from the services of your association or is the sector too different in its framework conditions and needs? Where is the right place to be?

Expansion is not ‘colonialization’ – a simple export of European ideas to new markets. It is a two-way process where an association is willing to enrich one’s own priorities and points of view through a dialogue with the players in the new region. It requires time, understanding and local partners to ‘open the doors’. For UITP, organising joint events with existing key players has proven a useful first step into a new region. It is a way to avoid unnecessary competition and establish partnerships for the overall benefit of the sector.

The next market in the international expansion strategy should therefore be identified based on local needs, ease of entry, but also by looking whether new knowledge/activities are taking place. If neither your association nor your members have those insights, local association bureaus can help to identify key players and provide access to local research and market intelligence. This is also one of the services GAHP offers in its four cities.

Accommodating for Regional Differences – Creating One Strong Voice

A new market for an association is not a blank canvas – almost every region already has its own political, economic, social and legal traditions, strengths and challenges when it comes to your sector. It is therefore essential to listen first, and to then work towards a mutual understanding of concepts, objectives, membership conditions and activities.

UITP not only gives local members a strong voice, they have also learned to customise association services for each region. For instance, accepted formats for educational activities and communication channels vary considerably – with virtual seminars being very prominent in some regions and completely rejected in others. This is where they harness the know-how of their 14 regional liaison offices that were established in cooperation with local members, authorities or in collaboration with existing national associations.

While supporting regional priorities, it is equally important to create a strong and coherent international identity. For UITP this means one global vision – working to enhance quality of life and economic well-being by supporting and promoting sustainable transport in urban areas worldwide. This vision is supported by a clear structure of regional and thematic divisions, issue-based committees and commissions. A standard set of activity types is defined for all key areas of work – advocacy, education, networking and communication – and is implemented in a coherent way worldwide. For UITP, speaking with one voice also means speaking in one language, with translation being available for official meetings and at transnational events.

Some Challenges

In addition to the vast differences in legal and economic frameworks, the challenges most often mentioned during this ESAE session where:

  • Protection of Intellectual Property Rights: With an increased global presence often comes an increased interest of others in benefitting from this ‘brand’. This makes it quite tempting to use the association’s logo as a seal of quality for organisations, events and activities that may not be directly affiliated with your association. While it is almost impossible to ‘police’ this practice on a global scale, it does help to set clear rules and conditions for the use of logos and endorsements. It seems that often, these infringements are not done with malicious intent, but result from a misunderstanding or an eagerness to support the sector. It is worth acknowledging these positive intentions, while politely referring people to clear and transparent guidelines.
  • Communication: A global association speaks in many voices – different languages, cultures and temperaments can make for both challenging and enriching experiences. It is important to understand and acknowledge these differences, and to invest enough time in creating a mutual understanding on key issues and objectives. UITP has decided to have one official working language – English – but provide translation for key events.
  • Membership Contributions: Currency exchange rates, different levels of economic development and different economic practices can make challenging to set, enforce and collect membership dues. The same applies to registration fees and other payments for association services. Most globally operating associations are factoring in economic differences when setting their fees. For instance, UITP decided to set different membership fees for different member categories (e.g. industry, public authorities, operators), and then differentiate by economic size, determined by category-specific indicators (like annual turnover, GPP, operating expenses). In general, the key to ensuring regular income through membership is to ensure that their perceived membership value is equal or higher to the contribution charged.

Lessons Learned

Global expansion should answer the two objectives: serving the existing members and develop membership in other regions.

Expansion is not a one-way export of knowledge and selling of existing services, but a dialogue that creates a lasting impact on both local and central level. Expansion is a long-term investment that requires passion, dedication and resources to continuously reinvest in your associations mission.

Long-term success very much depends on the relationship between the association and its new partners and potential members. It is imperative to build strong partnerships, offer local partners the forum and exposure they are looking for, and co-develop the services and products for their specific needs.

Going global is a step into unknown, so it’s important not to take this step alone. Learn from regional partners, make use of the services offered by GAHP and other local association bureaus, and talk to associations who have already taken this step successfully. ESAE – AssociationExecutives.EU is one forum in which such an open an honest exchange is possible.

Further Reading

• Business Daily News: Going Global: How to Expand your Business Internationally

• Associations Now: Growth Strategy: Do you Know How to Grow?