After participating as a speaker at Pro Landscaper LIVE Kent, James Scott considered the value of being a member of a professional trade association. Here, the managing director of Hertfordshire-based The Garden Company shares his thoughts.
Last month I was invited to take part in a seminar discussion at a Pro Landscaper LIVE event. Our theme was ‘the real value of trade associations’. Along with fellow speakers Wayne Grills of BALI, Rod Winrow of the APL and Ramon Lawal of Outdoor Creations, we had a lively debate with our audience, ably chaired of course by Jim Wilkinson of Pro Landscaper.
In preparing for the discussion, I reflected on my own experience of belonging to both the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) and the Society of Garden Designers (SGD). I joined BALI about 20 years ago and served for some time on the North Thames Committee. I joined the SGD more recently (about 10 years ago!) and since then have spent a period of four years on the council, with responsibility for the annual awards process. Looking back on these experiences, it struck me that – with regard to both professional associations – there have been many benefits to me and to my company. Some have been more tangible than others, but overall I have gained a lot more than the one or two benefits that attracted me originally.
So, with all of that in mind, here is my personal viewpoint on the benefits of joining a professional trade association, which I believe fall into three broad categories:
1 Practices – staying up to date with best practices
As owner-manager of a small business, it is vital not to be left behind regarding best industry practice, but also a challenge to find the time and resources to focus on improvement opportunities and industry trends. Statutory requirements and regulations are in a constant state of flux, along with developments in new products, new technology and ever-expanding client expectations. Professional trade associations help me to stay up to date and to ensure that – along with my management team and staff – we remain competitive and we continuously improve our own working practices. For example, last year we took part in a BALI Quality Standards Review which helped us to focus on our systems, skills, resources and controls. Both BALI and the SGD provide access to relevant professional information and expert advice, and the professional development opportunities over the years have been invaluable to me personally and to my management team too in terms of high-quality conferences, open days and other professional events.
2 PR – getting help with PR and marketing
Landscape design and build clients are (rightly!) discerning and in search of the best quality services and value that they can find. Winning work in this environment is not a ‘quick sell’ and – in simple terms – I want The Garden Company to be at the front of peoples’ minds when they have a need that we can meet. We market ourselves of course, but this activity is boosted significantly by our membership of both BALI and SGD via their websites and other marketing tools including newsletters and publications. Prospective clients are naturally reassured by our certification with a professional trade association. Evidence of winning awards at regional or national levels also provides a type of quality assurance and confidence in our services. Marketeers refer to this as ‘social proof’ – a phenomenon whereby people pay attention to and copy the actions of others – so boosting our own direct marketing effort through our association with BALI and SGD is very helpful. At the Garden Company we can trace referrals from both the BALI and SGD websites to our own website, and we know that our membership boosts website traffic. We can analyse this traffic further and know that visitors arriving via this route tend to spend longer browsing our site.
3 People – making great contacts with people
Numerous benefits arise from meeting and getting to know fellow trade association members. In some ways these people-related benefits are less tangible than others, but that doesn’t make them less valuable. Trade associations are basically ‘mutual interest groups’ which can lead to excellent business opportunities. Networking with new contacts, potential colleagues, business partners and clients is much easier when events are organised and communication channels set up for you. Such networking can help your business move to the next level and become more prominent in your industry. I believe that this access to a business community is hugely valuable if (like me) you run an SME, or like many others you are a sole trader. Face to face contact still has a big part to play in developing positive working relationships, alongside the role of social media and phone calls/emails etc. Many of us work largely alone or are ‘the boss’ at work, so it’s great to build positive social relationships with others in similar positions and sometimes friendships that can last many years.
Personally, I have found my membership of two professional trade associations to be very rewarding. Both organisations provide a great forum for members to share ideas and develop new ways to improve the industry. Over time, and with more experience, I have enjoyed playing a part in supporting the objectives of both organisations, for example by helping to recruit new members or by representing the group (e.g. representing the SGD at RHS Shows). Some of my colleagues in the industry commit huge amounts of personal time to mentoring and coaching others through forums such as GoLandscape. Others commit their time to council and committee work at national and regional levels.
For those of you reading that are also members of one of our industry trade associations, I’d be really interested to hear your perspective on the value to you and your business. For those of you considering joining (and maybe weighing up the membership fees), I would definitely say ‘go for it’ – and be aware that, just joining up is only the start of things. To gain maximum benefit and ‘real value’, you need to be prepared to engage fully (e.g. run a cluster group, give a presentation, host an event, write a blog post) and then the benefits will start to multiply.
This blog first appeared on The Garden Company website.