Dubai Association Conference 2022

Dubai Association Conference 2022: Post-event report


The third edition of the Dubai Association Conference was successfully organised on 21 February 2022 in the brand-new Dubai Exhibition Centre located on the Expo 2020 Dubai site.

A total of 172 registered attendees from 14 countries, including 25 hosted association leaders from outside the Gulf region, attended an intensive full-day education programme on the theme “Associations and the New World: Resilience & Reinvention”. Dubai Association Centre is a Destination Partner to ASAE, the American Society of Association Executives, and as in previous editions of this event, ASAE brought over a VIP group of 6 top association executives, led byPresident and CEO Michelle Mason.

The faculty of 26 speakers and facilitators from 9 countries on three continents led delegates through a mix of plenary sessions and breakout workshops featuring lively interactivity and novel meeting design concepts, with opportunities to exchange perspectives, case studies and cutting-edge ideas between local and international experts.

International delegates and faculty continued to network at a post-event reception and during a VIP tour the following day visiting some of the most impressive pavilions at Expo 2020 Dubai. 

The conference was preceded by a series of online education events held between June and December 2021 on the same theme of Resilience and Reinvention, which allowed Dubai Association Centre’s content curators to test out which topics were of greatest interest and relevance for international associations, and to identify a strong line-up of speakers and case studies.  These ideas and contacts were all brought together for the February conference, together with local input and case studies from within Dubai itself.

All attending delegates were encouraged in their joining instructions to bring at least one big, urgent challenge facing their association, and to search for solutions throughout the programme.  They were also asked to think about one big success story that they could share with the rest of the delegates.  This preparatory step was taken to enable delegates to better achieve a personal ROI from attending the event, by linking the day’s content to their own unique set of priorities and by stimulating interaction with new contacts.  The faculty were briefed to continuously reinforce this output- and solutions-oriented approach during and at the end of their sessions.

Local Dubai thought-leadership

Two plenary sessions provided a high-level connection between the conference theme and the strategic vision for Dubai.  First, Nikki Walker from MCI Group – which is a strategic partner of Dubai Association Centre – interviewed the founders of the Dubai Association Centre, H.E. Hamad Buamim, President & CEO, Dubai Chambers, and H.E. Helal Al Marri, Director General, Department of Economy and Tourism and Director General, Dubai World Trade Centre Authority.  Dubai’s original vision for Dubai Association Centre is progressing as planned, despite the impact of COVID-19 on the world economy.

The distinguished speakers noted that over 20 additional associations, both newly-formed and established, have set up operations in Dubai Association Centre’s world-class offices over the last two years, bringing the total to over 80, but as we enter the post-Pandemic era, it is expected that this growth will accelerate further.

This healthy growth in the association ecosystem is largely because of the strategic alignment of Dubai Association Centre with the economic development priorities of Dubai.  The speakers explained that Dubai doesn’t see associations as valuable for their meetings and employment generation alone, but because they are vital contributors towards capacity building (e.g. through training and certifications), for knowledge exchange, for attracting talent (the largest competitive challenge facing destinations today), and for advancing Dubai’s agenda in societally-valuable fields such as healthcare and sustainability.

This theme was built upon by a chat-show format discussion moderated by conference curator Martin Sirk from Sirk Serendipity and the Global Association Hubs Partnership, who interviewed Dr Mahmoud Hesham Al Burai, Chairman of the Middle East Sustainable Development Institute and senior advisor to the government of Dubai, Ramy Zaki, VP Public Policy at Mastercard and Chairman, Multinational Companies Business Group Dubai, and Hoda Barakat, President of the International Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property, UAE Chapter.

These speakers gave numerous examples of how associations have been playing an important role in influencing Dubai’s policymaking and strategic thinking, especially in areas such as sustainability and the circular economy, why they all believed this role should be further developed and enhanced, and also how they have personally benefitted from playing an active role in regional and international associations.  

They encouraged international associations that are not already active in the region to set up operations in Dubai as part of their global growth strategies, since Dubai is a strategic location not only for building influence and membership in the Middle East, but also throughout Africa and South Asia, regions for which Dubai functions as a central communication and transport hub.

Their big takeaway was that policymakers increasingly view associations as one of the most important sources of expert advice, not only in Dubai but worldwide, but that associations can do a lot more to fully exploit this role.

Inspiring keynotes

Delegates enjoyed the electrifying stage presence and insightful business lessons from three tremendous keynote speakers: Jason Thomson, “Content Supernova” from Jigsaw, who acted as early morning wake-up speaker on the subject of effective communication (“all your best business plans and investments will be wasted without world-class, mission-centric communication”); innovation and creativity expert Bo Kruger from Moving Minds, who led delegates into the lunch break with plenty of food for thought (“we live in an era of radical uncertainty and existential imagination – what can we do to take advantage of this?”); and BBC broadcaster, trainer and keynote specialist David Meade, who closed the programme with an entertaining but urgent call to take action and make smart decisions about all of the content that delegates had absorbed over the day’s programme (“it is psychologically proven that taking these small, simple steps makes it 500% more likely that your proposals will be accepted”).

Delegates were left under no illusions that reinvention requires them to embrace all three of the messages advanced by our speakers.

Learning Labs

The day’s programme featured nine very different breakout education sessions, run in three concurrent time-slots, and using a variety of formats and styles.  All featured experienced, expert moderation and advanced preparation work by the speakers, to ensure the sessions were engaging and interactive.

Risky business for risk-averse associations
This session was moderated by Martin Sirk and featured Dianna Steinbach from ISSA, the Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association, Magdalena Mook from International Coaching Federation, and Dean West from Association Laboratory Inc. 

Featuring theoretical explanations of how to categorise and measure existential and essential forms of risk, alongside anecdotes about how risk perceptions and behaviour have changed for specific associations during the Pandemic, the panel challenged delegates to re-evaluate how they and their Boards understand and manage risk, and stimulated a series of round table exchanges looking at both the negative and potentially valuable side of the risk equation, to enable delegates to share their own experiences.

Membership or Community or Customer
This panel featured speakers whose organisations have adopted very different business models: Amy Hissrich from ASAE, the American Society of Association Executives, Ella Robertson McKay from One Young World, Nikki Walker from MCI Group, and Marjorie Anderson, the Founder of Community by Association LLC.

The session was moderated by Genevieve Leclerc from #Meet4Impact, and concluded that whilst business models may appear very different on the surface, and use the very different terms “member”, “customer” and “community”, many of the core principles for building engagement, trust and long-term business viability are in fact universal.  It is not mutually exclusive to focus on building an authentic community whilst simultaneously adopting a more commercial mindset & flexible business approach.

Falling in love with the problem
This unique workshop was designed and delivered by Marc Mekki, digital innovator and UX/design-thinking expert, with the assistance of moderator Tracy Bury from World Physiotherapy, who ensured that delegate feedback and queries were all given voice.

This session included a friendly-competitive team creativity-building exercise involving strands of spaghetti and marshmallows (!), and explained the processes behind the concept “empathise-ideate-experiment”.  One key takeaway: “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

Getting inside leaders’ heads
With Nikki Walker from MCI Group moderating once again, this session brought together the CEOs of the world’s top two leadership coaching associations, Magdalena Mook from US-headquartered International Coaching Federation and Katherine Tulpa from UK-based Association for Coaching.

After first asking delegates to identify their priority challenges in this area during small-group discussions, the two speakers shared insights gained from personally interacting with hundreds of business and association leaders, along with the institutional wisdom from the ranks of their global coaching memberships.

Key issues included overcoming obstacles and advice on how to drive institutional change, but the overall objective was to ensure each delegate obtained clear professional advice on leadership issues that were most important for them personally.

Overcoming barriers to innovation and change

This session led by Martin Sirk featured four co-facilitators: keynote speaker Bo Kruger from Meeting Minds, Alaa Al Boali from Middle East Facility Management Association, Marjorie Anderson from Community by Association LLC, and digital innovator Marc Mekki.

Adopting the “two free consultants” meeting design, delegates were split into standing triangles of three people, with each taking it in turns to describe a major challenge their association was currently facing, after which the other two brainstormed potential solutions, followed by a short review/feedback stage; this process was then repeated for each person in the group.

Following this exercise, delegates participated in a discussion about the importance of innovation and experimentation in meeting design, and the facilitators acted as an expert panel to provide answers for any delegates who needed additional advice on their personal challenge.

The legacy conversation: going back to basics
This session combined an interview between Remi Deve, Chief Editor of Boardroom Magazine and Genevieve Leclerc from #Meet4Impact, a specialist consultant in this field, together with group work by delegates to identify how they can identify and improve the measurement of the positive societal impact of their association’s own events, including the legacy value that they can leave in host destinations.

Genevieve introduced some of the very latest legacy measurement tools, and how associations are linking their meeting outputs and impacts with the UN SDGs. 

Roadmaps for reinvention 
This session moderated by keynote speaker Jason Thomson and featuring an expert panel of Alessandro Cortese from European Society for Radiotherapy & Oncology, Tracy Bury from World Physiotherapy, and Dean West from Association Laboratory Inc, addressed the major reinvention approaches of monetisation, collaboration, and experimentation.

Delegates worked in small groups to share their most successful reinventions from the last two years, then the panel ran a substantial Question & Answer session.  Highlights amongst the advice given: move your Board from a supervisory culture to an outcomes culture; systematically introduce decision-making based on insights, don’t wait for “complete” data; reinvention can usually be more effectively achieved by frequent, fast, incremental change rather than revolution.

Reinvention & the role of destinations
Association leaders Senthil Gopinath from ICCA, the International Congress & Convention Association, Ella Robertson McKay from One Young World, and Dianna Steinbach from ISSA, the Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association were joined by Dubai Association Centre’s Steen Jakobsen, who is also Assistant VP in Dubai’s Department of Economy & Tourism.

Leading the discussion, moderator Genevieve Leclerc asked each association to briefly outline how they aim to obtain truly strategic support from the destinations that host their meetings, what they look for in terms of creativity, risk-sharing, access to local intellectual or business resources, and the types of questions that associations should ask to develop a deeper partnership with destinations.

Steen shared some of the most innovative ways Dubai has connected associations with local leaders in cutting-edge scientific and healthcare fields, and how they consistently aim to do far more than simply host a great meeting.  A lively Q&A session ensured that delegates had the opportunity to obtain comprehensive answers to their personal priorities on this topic.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and what this means for globally-engaged associations
In this session delegates were privileged to hear from Michelle Mason, President and CEO of ASAE, the American Society of Association Executives.  With moderation support from Martin Sirk, Michelle defined the key terms and the differences between them, outlined how the debate on this critical issue has evolved in the USA, and initiated a discussion with delegates on how these concepts are relevant when running a global association or when attempting to gain membership or influence in new regions of the world.

Delegates worked in small groups to address both the challenges and the positive opportunities from creating effective DEI strategies, followed by an open discussion for all.  Key issues included managing differences in national cultures, how to evolve more balanced and diversified Boards, DEI within different countries for multi-country events and activities, vaccine apartheid and visa restrictions, and exclusion caused by lack of a multilingual approach.

Most international associations’ missions aim to advance societal progress in some way: delegates concluded that DEI should be fully integrated into these missions and organisational cultures.

Final words & thanks

Following David Meade’s inspiring closing keynote, delegates were briefly addressed by Michelle Mason from ASAE, ASAE, the American Society of Association Executives, Steen Jakobsen from Dubai’s Dept of Economy & Tourism and Dubai Association Centre, and this year’s conference content curator Martin Sirk.

Michelle shared perspectives on the day on behalf of the ASAE delegation and the other international hosted association leaders, highlighting the importance of two-way exchanges between associations from different regions of the world, and encouraged everyone to continue fighting to promote the positive differences associations make in the world.

Martin expressed hope that every delegate would leave the conference with at least one new valuable contact from another country, one fresh insight or creative idea, one new solution for an important challenge facing their association, and most importantly, at least one concrete, association-reinventing action to implement once they returned to their offices around the world.

Steen Jakobsen brought the curtain down by thanking all the partners who helped make Dubai Association Conference 2022 a great success, including all the speakers and of course the delegates themselves.

See more useful resources »

Sign up to our newsletter

Sign up to our newsletter to be updated on new resources, news and future events.

* Indicates required