Jack McGrath: Hi and welcome to another in our series Ask the Experts. My name is Jack McGrath. Today we’re going to be talking with Mark Dorsey who is the CEO of Professional Ski Instructors of America an American Association of Snowboard Instructors. Welcome Mark.
Mark Dorsey: Thanks. That’s a mouthful too, isn’t it?
McGrath: It is, it is. So, a few questions for you.
McGrath: So we continue to hear that one of the biggest issues facing membership is the membership model changing, with more pressure on associations to think outside the box in terms of recruitment, non-dues revenue. So, what advice do you have for associations who are looking for new ideas surrounding product offerings, affinity programs, that sort of thing.
Dorsey: Sure. Well, I think it really is taking a true marketing mindset, understanding why, whether its members, customers, however you want to define them. The transaction or the interaction. Why do they come to you? How do you go out and meet them, and those members, and those customers where their needs are? And sometimes associations have tended to say, “Membership is more like a barrier to entry. You have to buy this before you can try our goods.” And there are not many retail models, think of Safeway, where you’re going to pay twenty-five bucks for the privilege of going out and shopping at Safeway. Costco, Sam’s Club, they’ve kind of gotten away with it but it’s not the mass market. So, being really clear about who you’re serving, why you’re serving them, how does it fit with your culture is really critical so that you don’t overreact because even in a couple of books where they talk about the death of membership as we know it the key word is “as we know it.”
Dorsey: And that shift. It’s not a dead model by any stretch of the imagination for some associations. For others, it might be and it all depends on the competitive environment.
McGrath: So I guess it goes back to taking a look at marketing to see what can the association offer that’s super relevant to potential members?
Dorsey: Yes. There’s a really great book by a guy named Mitch Joel called Control Alt Delete.
Dorsey: And he really talks about being very utilitarian in terms of what you offer. You’re trying to help someone solve a specific problem and one of the things that often gets lost is we’re the members’ association, not the other way around. You may make business decisions that might change the membership model and if you do that advisedly then, sure. Why not, you know? Same thing with working with partners and sponsors, which is something we’re pretty good at doing. But, it increases the value of membership. It’s directly linked to that. It’s consistent with mission. It’s not just something we decided one day to walk off and go do.
Dorsey: We have to make sure that it fits within the culture and it really gets those people who are spending hard earned dollars with us to get even more excited about doing it again next year.
McGrath: Sure. Another question we had: the Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors they’re known as non-profit educational associations. They established certification standards for more than thirty-one thousand snow sport instructors. Obviously, education is mission-critical for your association. How has the advancement in technology helped you deliver this training to members and advance their careers as professional ski instructors or professional snowboard instructors?
Dorsey: Well, what it is is it’s taking something that used to be tightly held as kind of the, the only knowledge was with the gurus and the gurus were those people who could translate the information from a book to you on snow. And now what happens is members can see what’s happening all across the country. So, technology has changed the pace of communication, the quality of the communication, the access to information. Our challenge is to keep it, and continue to keep it, in a useful context. So, it’s not so much about, you know, being secretive of the information because now that’s freely available. It’s ensuring that it’s in the right context. So, if you’re learning to ski as a consumer what we’re trying to provide is the how-to manual because consumers can also find information about how to learn how to ski. So they come, like WebMD and in other industries, they come in with a certain amount of what they believe to be expert advice and if we can continue to position the member and do so through our certification programs that our members are the experts and they’re the ones who actually have a positive impact on the bottom line for ski and snowboard areas and we’re getting more people learning how to ski and snowboard then we’re focused on a mission that makes use very different than anybody who’s just putting up material because that’s just information. If we can curate it, keep it in the proper context, our information is the most valued. We’re good with members getting information from wherever they can and should. They’ll be better instructors. But as long as we’re part of the core, then we’re fulfilling our mission and our job. So, that’s why education is so critical.
McGrath: Right, perfect. That makes sense. A question: In a down economy with more and more associations reporting declines in memberships, your association has managed to grow its membership for the past three consecutive years to an all-time high of nearly thirty-two thousand. That’s even after implementing a dues increase. What do you think has contributed to your success and what advice do you have for other association executives?
McGrath: It’s paying attention to the core. You know, what do people expect? Because you have to deliver that first. So when I first started, nearly twenty years ago, we were at about seventeen thousand members. My predecessor walked in and we were delivering magazines three months late, we were delivering education materials sometimes six to nine months outside the cycle, and once we started to deliver on time and consistently then we could deliver what we promised and more and more members started staying with us. During that period, by the way, our industry, the ski and snowboard industry, has grown nine percent. So, we’ve grown about sixty percent in that period of time. The second has been not being afraid of trying new technology, but you still have to remember that members come to you for certain things, continue to go back and ask what they value, and don’t get too distracted by the cool shiny thing unless it really adds value. And that’s not always what the leadership says adds value. It’s what the leadership says adds value because they’re the ones that are paying the freight.
McGrath: So it sounds like the takeaway is, stay true to your core, stay true to your core members and what they need, and then also stay true to providing the value that’s needed in the industry.
Dorsey: Absolutely, because associations have a mission to fulfill. That’s why people join, that’s one thing that attracts really good employees is they want to be part of that mission. And if you remember the mission and you can fund that successfully, whether it’s through dues, or corporate relationships, or other non-dues sources, then I think your future’s pretty bright. And that also helps fend off would-be competitors and we’ve had those over the years as well. So, the advantage to us is changes in technology and education have allowed us to not only expand the market but the other thing is not being afraid or too defensive about how your market is going to change. So, we used to be primarily alpine skiing. That used to be ninety-five percent of our business. Now it’s two-thirds of our business. So, our growth has actually come from those small sectors that sometimes associations are reluctant to invest in because they’re looking at cash flow first, rather than investing in the future.
McGrath: That’s great. Well congratulations on your success.
Dorsey: Thank you.
McGrath: And thanks so much. And thank you for watching and please look for others in the episodes Ask the Experts.