How They Survived the Pandemic: The American Association of Airport Executives
A certain mindset allowed this travel and hospitality-connected association to navigate through a catastrophe that particularly impacted their industry. Discover the philosophies that got them through.
It’s been quite the past couple years, and associations worldwide have been impacted in different ways. Just as members get value out of interacting with peers in online communities, it can also be helpful for association leaders to hear how others like them coped, especially in times of uncertainty.
The Guest: Todd Hauptli, CEO of the American Association of Airport Executives. Todd has been with AAAE since 1991, where part of his job was overseeing the association’s interactions with Congress and executive branch agencies. Before joining AAAE, Todd served in multiple administrations, with time spent at the Department of Transportation, the Department of Commerce, and on staff at the Reagan White House.
Our own Beth Arritt chatted with Todd on the Member Engagement Show about the impact of the pandemic and some of the ways AAAE survived and thrived through it.
What the Future Holds
We’re still facing some truly unusual times. What challenges do associations face this year as we hopefully emerge from this pandemic, and how can they meet them?
We have a diversified revenue stream, so that helps a lot. There’s also the Great Resignation and the impact on talent recruitment. People have come to realize they can do other things, or they can do their current jobs differently. So how do you hold onto the talent you’ve got? How can your association make a greater impact with fewer resources? As an association leader, you have to be thinking about how you can do things differently than you’ve done them in the past. If you’re stuck in an old routine, it’s going to be bumpy.
Spotting the Great Opportunities
How do you open your mind so you can see the gaps and opportunities? How can association leaders look at the industry and see what’s not there but should be?
Listen. A lot of my colleagues are better at broadcasting than listening. Listening to your members and the people on your team gives you an enormous advantage. You’ll learn without filters what the needs are. If you ask members a question, they’ll tell you what they’re thinking. Then you can figure out if you’re able to solve some of the problems. On the team, I make sure people know I care about their contributions. If you’ve got a team of people who are aligned around a shared vision and committed to excellence, that can yield amazing results.
Around that question of what associations should do to hang onto their staff, you mentioned listening, but what about finding the right benefits?
One that I think is fun is a vacation bonus. We said, “Hey, if you’ll take five days in a row off, we’ll pay you $1,000.” That’s a great gesture of putting your people first. If you have the right team and they’re properly motivated, they’ll run through brick walls to make members happy. You also need transparent communication. Let your people know what’s going on so they understand the challenges and tough decisions to be made. Lastly, show you care. Reinforce that they’re making a difference in others’ lives.
Technology Powering Great Experiences
What about the technology tools and their impact on the experience for staff and members?
Technology should be a force multiplier in striving for what you’re trying to do. Those tools can help a limited number of people have more impact. The engagement we have on our community is unbelievable. We wouldn’t be able to be as responsive to all that activity if we didn’t have a platform that lets members talk to each other. That stickiness and engagement has been fantastic for us.
We’ve talked about keeping staff, but what do associations need to do for members to keep them?
You can sit in your ivory tower and opine about what you think members should want, or you can find out what they truly want. Harnessing technology and big data can be very helpful in making sure you’re tracking on what it is members want so you can then figure out the delivery mechanisms to give it to them.
Coping With Members in Motion
We’ve already surpassed the record of people who quit their jobs in 2021 over any other year by almost a million. Those members are going to go to different jobs, so you have to keep up with them. How do associations deal with that kind of churn?
We’re focused on impact. How do we get members to say, “AAAE has really done a great job throughout all this. I can’t imagine not being a part of it”? Leaders should spend time thinking about the difference you’re making. It’s not enough just to be there. We put profits back into other parts of the business that don’t generate net income but do provide more benefits for members. That builds a culture that will outlast yourself as a leader.
How to Get the Revenue Back
A lot of associations are struggling with depleted cash reserves right now. They’ve dug into their savings and they’re looking for ways to replenish those. Any thoughts on how to grow those back?
We learned the vulnerability of having 60%, 70%, 80% of annual revenue tied to a big meeting. We have 15 different lines of business. And over time those LOBs will tend to balance out. For existing services, we regularly look for how we can modify them and drop them into other verticals. When TSA took over the security videos on airport screens, we shifted to providing it for the 37 or 38 Amtrak stations around the country. Entrepreneurial thinking doesn’t just mean coming up with new things, it’s applying what you’re already doing for new people.
New Kinds of Memberships
Should associations be revisiting their membership types or completely new membership opportunities?
Coming out of the pandemic, we created an enterprise membership. AAAE historically has been an individual professional organization where people pay $275 a year to be a member. But some airports said, “Let’s just make all our employees a member of AAAE.” I didn’t expect that to come out of the pandemic, but it has. And it lets us go deeper in organizations and help even more people.
The To-Do List for 2022
What are a couple of things you think associations really must do in 2022?
We already touched on them. Foster an environment where talent wants to stay and deliver for the members. And focus on delivery and impact. How do you make a material difference in members’ lives? It could be advocacy, representation, training, accreditation, professional development, scholarships, jobs, mentorships…anything that makes members say, “Wow, this association really delivers.”