Velvet Rope or Come Party with Me?

I don’t often write posts that start with, “I was standing on line to buy at cantaloupe at Harris Teeter the other day when I had this profound insight into association management…!” mostly because you don’t care about my cantaloupe purchasing habits, nor do I often think about association management at the grocery store (I’m usually busy wondering why I ALWAYS seem to pick the slow line and whether I can trust the bagger not to bag said cantaloupe on top of the loaf of bread or if I should just bag my own groceries).

But I did have two contrasting non-work-related experiences lately that really did get me thinking about associations.

Experience one: we’re in New Orleans on vacation wandering down Frenchmen Street in Faubourg Marigny looking for a good place to hang out and hear some tunes on a Wednesday night.  First stop: the Spotted Cat.  It was so packed we couldn’t get in the door (literally), so we hung out on the sidewalk with a WIDE mix of characters (and nobody does “characters” like NOLA) for a while enjoying the music…for free.  At the band break, we decided to move on, and down the street, we heard the sweet strains of Shamarr Allen’s trumpet pouring out of Cafe Negril.  There was a short line, as the guy at the door struggled to keep up making change for the $5 cover when everyone kept handing him $20s.  When we got inside, the crowd ranged from middle aged+ white people to hipsters from the neighborhood to Jazz Festers to a “professional hugger” from Austin (yes, really – Keep Austin Weird!) – all ages, all races, all styles of dress, everyone just grooving on the Underdawgs. Vibe? Awesomesauce, even before the generous pour, very cheap cocktails.

Experience two: one of my spouse’s co-workers moonlights as a DJ in DC.  He was spinning at the POV Lounge at the W Hotel on a recent Saturday night, and we thought we’d swing by and see him. So we roll up 15th Street NW only to spot a velvet rope, two scowling bouncers, and a LONG line. And I’m WAY too old to stand on line with a bunch of overly made up 20-somethings in cheap shoes hoping to be deemed hot enough to merit being allowed in. Vibe?  B-A-D BAD.  And totally unwelcoming.  And definitely *not* groovy.

So what’s the connection to associations?

What does your organization look like to an outsider?  Not someone on staff, not someone who’ s been a member for a million years, not someone who’s served on your Board – someone who doesn’t know you at all but might be interested in what you provide?

Are you welcoming to everyone or only to the “right” people? Do you make it easy for people to get access to what they want and need, even if they aren’t an “insider”?  Do you let people participate at the level they want to, even if that’s standing on the banquette outside the club just grooving to the great tunes for free?  What’s your barrier to entry? What’s your image in your industry, profession, or community?  Are you affordable to people with lesser means who might benefit from what you offer? Are you groovy or snooty?

2 thoughts on “Velvet Rope or Come Party with Me?”

  • I can certainly empathize with your personal reactions to the two scenes — mine would probably have been about the same — but the impression from your last paragraph is that you think one route is intrinsically preferable over the other to an organization, and I don't agree. There is value to an exclusive strategy (that's why clubs have them) and there is value to an inclusive strategy. They are two different approaches with their own pros and cons (and in fact, it's possible to practice both — with an inclusive organization creating “snotty” interior groups with higher standards and subsequently higher fees). Also associations do not have an inherent responsibility to make themselves “affordable.” Maybe an association could have that as part of its mission, but it's a mistake to assume that all associations must have that mission. Good post!

  • @Kevin – I get your point, but I think a lot of associations define our audiences far too narrowly. And even within our well-defined audiences, there are too often “in” crowds (and everyone else). And then we wonder why we have problems with retention of new members.

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