James Rockall, CEO, shares with us how WLPGA has anticipated the digital shift and the opportunities it has created for the organisation, with some recommendations along the way.
How is WLPGA impacted by the digital shift?
WLPGA is truly a global association. With member companies operating in more than 125 countries. Our model was based on a mixture of face-to-face meetings for which our teams had to travel a lot, and beyond that we had to be ‘virtual’, but virtual in the ‘old world’ which was a lot more difficult than virtual in the ‘new world’. About a third of our total revenues were coming from events and particularly our flagship event the world LPG Forum, now part of LPG week. It got massively hit by the pandemic and the financial impact was quite severe on the association.
In terms of membership value proposition, it was less impacted because it was not quite so immediate as an event. We were able to shift a lot of our member engagement online and this over a longer period of time.
Did you have to make some adaptations to your membership model to respond to member needs and expectations?
We haven't changed our membership model in terms of pricing structure or value proposition. Membership fees are due on an annual basis. Every member is invoiced in December of the preceding year. For 2020, our members were invoiced in December 2019 and most of them had paid before the pandemic started, so all of them were on board with us. When it came into this year (2021) we didn't feel the need to change the model that much because generally, I think our members were very satisfied with the way we managed the year 2020. And we did monitor this. However what we did differently is shift to online activities, away from the face-to-face activities, and we realised our members, our clients and stakeholders were going through the exact same transition.
We started to conduct a lot more of our normal day to day activities virtually. There was a learning curve of course but we managed to put much more emphasis on the digital side of our business. We revamped our website completely, we recruited someone to help with us on the digital side of the business, and we are much more active on social media. We are creating new groups on LinkedIn and other platforms to respond to the way people are working differently.
Our membership pricing model has not changed. In fact, we have put the price up this year by 5%. That was already part of our strategic plan, which we presented to members in 2019. We wanted to focus on adding greater value to the LPG sector. And to do this, we needed greater support from the membership to provide more resources and funding. We reviewed this in 2020 and decided there was no reasons to adjust as the industry needed to respond to the current challenges and opportunities it is facing, like climate change. We needed, as an industry, to be more active than ever. So, we put the prices up and so far we haven't seen any negative impact of that on our membership.
Has the digital shift been an opportunity for WLPGA as an organisation and the LPG community in general?
We saw, from the outset, an opportunity in this change. Digital transformation has been ongoing for years, it's not something that just happened because of the pandemic, but the pandemic has accelerated us to five years into the future. From the outset, we decided to see this as an opportunity and not a threat. We felt we could access more people, more quickly than before, and today people are more receptive to joining you online than they were before.
With digital we have enlarged our community, we have increased our reach and we have developed a new network of virtual interest groups. They are not new members, they are not paying, but they are accessing our content and we are managing to influence them, which is one of the main objectives of our organisation.
Can you name three key criteria for a successful digital transformation?
As far as WLPGA is concerned, we were very reactive as we saw immediately the impact of the pandemic coming, how it is impacting everyone’s life and how businesses had to change. We didn’t wait. We didn’t sit back and carry on with business as usual. It was important we anticipated the trends, and the challenges and opportunities. We were on it from the beginning, and we were very reactive. It takes courage. You need to have the confidence to do something different even though there are risks associated with it. It is a matter of trying to quantify those risks as much as you can, but then take action, and you need to be courageous for that. You need to do things differently, and we certainly did; and it was ultimately for our benefit. Not that we didn't make mistakes, but the world was much more forgiving of mistakes in the last year because everybody was changing. Everybody was trying to do things differently, so it was not the time to sit back and be risk averse, it was the time to do things differently. It hasn’t been easy, and we have been pushed out of our comfort zone on so many fronts, but we had to keep on going and that was something that, as a team, we demonstrated. Reactivity, courage and resilience are the three criteria that were important for us.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned this year and you can share with other organisations?
The most valuable lesson that I have learned in terms of association management, is that you need to be prepared to do things differently and you need to communicate very well with your stakeholders. They need to understand that you are going through a transformation and there are risks associated with this transformation. There is a huge element of transparency here. You also need to get the buy-in of your customers and you can only do that by being transparent and communicating well.
The 2020 edition of your world forum was 100% virtual, how did you ensure ultimate delegate experience and highest engagement?
Firstly, it is important to identify the best partners out there, like MCI, who can guide you through this transition because it is not our core business. We needed advice, we needed to be led in a certain direction, and we needed to trust our partners that they understood what they were doing. It was important for us to select not just the right partner in terms of congress organiser but a partner in terms of solution providers, and make sure we had the best platform for our virtual event. I didn't want to compromise this. We needed to have a system which was best in class. We didn’t go with the cheapest system but we went for something which would give value to our clients.
The virtual event can not be the same as the physical event as you are working with people on different time zones, from across the world. We adapted the programme to try to get as much engagement as we could. We also managed to increase the quality of our content because no longer were we relying on people flying from around the world and taking several days out of their agenda for a 15-minute presentation. With the online format, we could get people who are still sitting in their office or who pre-recorded their message. In doing so, we were able to get a higher level of contributions than we ever had before, which also gave very valuable content to the delegates.
We recognised that people wouldn't be prepared to pay the same amount for a virtual event as a physical event, and we had a lot of competition from free content from other companies. My sense was that people who are interested in the content would be prepared to pay a significant amount of money for the virtual event. Those that did not normally attend our events would not be prepared at all to pay for the virtual event. This may be something that changes overtime, but that's the sense that I had.
What were your KPIs in this transformation of your event?
Moving to digital was a unique and original thing we've never done before, so it was really hard to set up KPIs as we didn't know whether they were realistic or not. The Board wanted to make sure that the downside risks were managed. Their interest was to make sure we didn’t lose money. There was a financial KPI, which was an estimate, considerably less than a physical event. Under that we had some KPIs in terms of the number of delegates, the number of exhibitors, sponsors, or partners we wanted to achieve. We came under in terms of the number of delegates, but we were better in terms of the partners that we’ve got.
How are you anticipating going back to F2F and/or hybrid format?
I don’t think we will ever go back to ‘normal, or what we considered ‘normal’ before. And I don’t think it is a bad thing either. We have accelerated five years into the digital transformation the last year, a lot of that is now ingrained in the way we work, and I don't think it is going to go away. But clearly, our clients are very keen to return to face to face. Whatever the benefits of the digital, replacing physical interactions with digital is not that easy. But digital has allowed us to extend our network. We have created new online communities and new groups of stakeholders, and we need to try to maintain that. For this, the virtual element will have to stay, and we are now looking how we can combine the physical with the virtual as we go through.
One of the challenges that I see though is that we sometimes run faster than our clients. It is all very well us having the systems in place but if our clients are not being reactive, adapting or pivoting, and if they are waiting to go back to what we considered to be ‘normal’, it is hard for us to have that interaction. If we could help lead our clients, provide them with solutions and advice, to me, that is the next dimension that is missing from our trajectory.