How Events + Book Publishing Turned an Association Around

Middle East Council of Shopping Centres (MECSC) CEO David Macadam shares how conferences — and a book and magazine — helped grow membership.


Dubai

MECSC is based in Dubai and covers the MENA region.

Editor’s Note: This is the second edition of Boardroom Spotlight, a new series produced in partnership with Boardroom, a Brussels-based magazine covering the work of globally based associations. Each Boardroom Spotlight in Convene will be an excerpt from the magazine, with an eye toward a global association event’s creative execution vis-à-vis its host destination.

In this article, Middle East Council of Shopping Centres (MECSC) CEO David Macadam shares how conferences — and a book and magazine — helped grow membership.

MECSC CEO David Macadam

As I was taking over the leadership of the Middle East Council of Shopping Centres (MECSC) in mid-2013, the organization was in disarray. Financially as an association we were losing money and the member morale was at an all-time low. A common refrain from our low membership base was the question, What is your value proposition? Why should I become a member of the MECSC? Being based in Dubai, branded as a “shopping paradise” the world over, surely helped, but it was not good enough.

At that time, the value proposition for becoming a member of the MECSC was not clearly defined. Reasons to become a member of the MECSC were few. Leading the organization from this unsatisfactory low point was the challenge that I had signed up for. Developing a growth strategy for your association takes time. Hours can be spent on debating the best methods to use to reach prospective members, and days of content creation and campaign management. But what tactics are effective? Member retention? Member acquisition? A balanced, comprehensive growth strategy will include a mix of both.

At the same time, it is impossible to develop successful, sustainable long-term strategy without understanding the future in which your members will live and work. Whether through strategic planning or value proposition design, research confirms that associations must develop strategy based on the anticipated future of their industry or profession if they want to be successful. And this is precisely what we understood at MECSC. As we created partnerships and coalitions, as well as additional products and services, we became successful.

The MENA region is a good arena for the growth of nonprofit organizations because few currently exist in the region. Retail professionals from every corner of the region are looking to become more effective in business. Information sharing, education programs, conferencing, and networking events are all important aspects of international associations. Not-for-profit associations in the region fulfill that promise. With a younger demographic population in the MENA region of nearly 400 million, the opportunity for growth is boundless.

Marching Orders

In 2013, positive financial support from the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) in New York was in place, but [the organization] was not overly patient. The benefit of our relationship was that the ICSC, being a U.S.-based nonprofit, was focused single-mindedly on the U.S. retail industry. Varying forms of support from afar were available but it was clear that we were on our own. The marching orders from New York were simple: We had to make money to become financially self-sufficient and build our membership.

We first had to find the right people on our team. By August 2013 we had a small new team, who were tasked with hosting a RECon Conference in October. None of us had hosted any kind of event in the past of any size. We were anticipating about 300 to 500 delegates at this first event, which, in the end, was a modest financial success. The team did a good job of promoting the event, assembling a strong speaker lineup, and generally just made the event fun. In the MENA region, at that time, we were blessed with a rising economy which was emerging faster than many other areas in the world. Thankfully, the New York leaders of ICSC were pleased with our progress.

The turning point for the MECSC came in the first quarter of 2014. We approached the Motivate Publishing Company in Dubai to assist us in writing and publishing a book about the retail industry in the MENA region. We tied publishing and releasing a new book titled Souks to Malls – Retail Evolution in the Gulf with our celebration of the 20th anniversary in the region. With this, our team at the MECSC reached out to all our members in the MENA region seeking photos of their historical roots and asking about their successes with their modern shopping centers. Retailers came forward and supplied us with many great photos.

We promoted and publicized our new book. Slowly momentum began to build. As more people wanted to become involved and provide photos and written anecdotes of the retail industry over the years, happily we benefitted as our membership grew organically. The MECSC had become more relevant.

Industry professionals from all over the MENA region but specifically from the GCC were sending in photos in ever greater [numbers]. We had earned member engagement in spades.

Member Engagement

For our next RECon Conference in Dubai, held in the fourth quarter of 2014, we promised to gift a free copy of this new book during the event to all attendees. Additionally, we invited industry professionals from all over the world who had worked in the retail industry in the region over the past decade. The book became a must-have for all in the industry. Doubling the number of paid delegates at this conference, the MECSC team was able to establish a financial cushion for our ongoing operations.

In 2015, we launched Retail People magazine, a hard-copy and digital quarterly publication. What we learned from publishing the book Souks to Malls – Retail Evolution in the Gulf was that people love to see photos of themselves in action. Advertisers came forward and from our first issue, Retail People magazine was profitable and remains so. From 2013 to now, we have jumped from 542 members to 1,320 – a number that continues climbing every year. In just five years, the number of staff at MECSC also doubled. As we head into the 25th anniversary of the MECSC in 2018 we are on stable financial footing. Our team is currently working feverishly on writing and publishing our next book, Souks to Malls – Retail Entertainment in the Gulf.

David Macadam is a member of Boardroom Advisory Board. Learn more about Boardroom at boardroom.global.