Three Lessons for UK Associations from the US

Interested in knowing how our organisations compare to similar ones in the US? Matt Riley, CEO of The Conference Agency, worked for over a decade in US-based associations before founding his conference management service for associations in the UK. Matt shares his insights in a guest blog for memcom below…


Three Lessons for UK Associations from the US…


After 12 years in the American associations industry, I came to London in 2016 and founded a conference management agency. As a newcomer to the UK I’ve learnt the virtues of a good Sunday roast and about a thousand more ways to make small talk about the weather! I’ve also met some amazingly friendly and passionate association execs, and many of them ask me for my thoughts on the UK associations industry. Navigating the cultural shift to the UK has only reinforced my belief that the best outcomes only happen when we share knowledge and best practices with each other. Here are three trends from across the pond that I believe could find fertile soil in the UK:


1. Leveraging Our Members


I’ve noticed that many UK associations seem more staff-driven to me. This may be a by-product of the fact that American associations tend to have larger and stronger chapter/component associations that effectively act as a “farm team” for volunteer leadership. In general, US associations are constantly striving to be more member-driven because they know that leveraging the member base can drive initiatives forward much more powerfully than relying on staff alone. In addition to the extra manpower, getting members more involved in the association’s operations can also increase member engagement across the board. Established practices and governance models also have to accommodate this kind of change. This can’t happen overnight, but in my experience the benefits of embracing a more member-driven approach are well worth the trouble.


2. Embracing Our Own Associations


We could also be doing more to support and engage with memcom and other organizations designed to support our industry. While our friends and family outside the industry might chuckle at the thought of an association for people working in associations, ASAE, which serves this purpose for North America boasts more than 39,000 members. It’s a powerhouse in bringing the industry together to share resources, learn, and collaborate. For me personally, I can’t count the number of professional connections and even successful projects that only exist because of my involvement in ASAE.


In the US, it’s typical for association staffers to be members of not only industry associations like ASAE, but also associations related to their function (meeting planning, finance, HR, etc.). After all, if we aren’t supporting our associations, how can expect our members to support theirs?


3. Shaking Up Events


The typical association conference has become so predictable that it’s sometimes hard to tell them apart. It’s easy to fall into a rut of filling the seminar slots and waiting for the revenue to roll in, but many associations are finding out painfully that today’s delegates won’t keep spending their time and money on the same experience they had last year and the year before. For some time now, US associations have been leading the way in exploring event formats, many of which find their roots in Silicon Valley and the software boom of the late 90’s and early 2000’s.


In April, ASAE hosted its first XDP, or Experience Design Project (, a two-day, business-focused conference for association professionals that doubled as a skunkworks for testing out all manner of new formats, room layouts, and event technology. While there are risks associated with blowing up your longstanding conference program and building something completely new, when done effectively, this can make your event a true milestone rather than just one more new variation on the same old theme.


Matt Riley is the CEO of The Conference Agency, which offers conference management services to associations and others in Europe and North America. His twitter handle is @ML_Riley and his website is

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