Hindsight on 2020 - How AED Adapted During a Global Pandemic

While the world continues to grapple with a seemingly unstoppable pandemic, we look back on 2020, the year when much was canceled, to recall the uncertainties, the mad scramble to survive, adapt and carry on, and the successes AED achieved despite it all.

While the membership was gathered in Chicago for Summit in January 2020, news began breaking about COVID-19 that would change the way the world did just about everything. Making life even more challenging, in the early days, information was scant, contradictory, ever-changing and almost always destructive. "It required quick decisions, flexibility and a great deal of learning on the fly," remembers Daniel Fisher, vice president of government affairs.

To AED's credit, the Association reacted swiftly, mobilizing to assist the members and provide the most up-to-date information available. "We shifted gears," recalls Brian McGuire, president and CEO. AED quickly began educating members about PPP loans: who can apply and how to apply for forgiveness. They created a template letter for employees to identify themselves as essential workers.

But that was just the beginning. AED reassessed how to reach and support its membership in unparalleled times when so much of the country was on lockdown or restriction and so many people were in need.

Zoom: the sound of communication
Timely, accurate information was vital. "AED jumped in immediately with weekly updates on various COVID-related topics," says Robert Henderson, executive vice president and COO. Topics ranged from safety and health care protocols to remote workers.

McGuire believes AED improved the value of membership by providing answers when people were looking for them. "We were a source of real-time information," he says. "Not many trade associations beat us with information."

How do you deliver value when you can't get together? "Virtual conferences," McGuire says. "Zoom meetings." Zoom allowed the organization to share updates with the membership and to meet with members of Congress virtually.

Of the many lessons learned in 2020, Daniel Fisher thinks one of the foremost is that in times of crisis and uncertainty, an association proves its value to its membership. "The first policy-related webinar we held after COVID-19 lockdowns had several hundred participants. It was clear at that point that AED members were relying on us more than ever. The lesson is, when the unexpected happens, swift action and constant communication are critical."

"We went virtual" 
Zoom did more than that, but it was only part of the online experience AED offered. "When things shut down in the spring, the first thing we did was make webinar content open and free to everyone," explains Liz McCabe, vice president of education and programming. AED hosted 25-30 free webinars and offered one free online course to everyone, with a discount on additional courses.  

Familiar events went virtual. At first, McCabe says, they postponed the Leadership Conference, but as they began to realize the situation would last, they pivoted to virtual programming. "We couldn't host live events, so we went virtual."

Learning how to function in the "new normal" wasn't easy; virtual events proved harder to stage than live events due to juggling multiple time zones. But there were benefits for AED members in 2020, such as company registration replacing per-person registration. Allowing companies to share Zoom links with all their employees provided more value, McCabe believes. "Sharable links let the right people attend only the sessions they wanted."

Colin Hockenberger, general manager at Parman Tractor & Equipment in Nashville, agrees, stating that their rental manager sat in on applicable training sessions. 

"Everyone got information for their department online. We never had that option before."

He wasn't the only one who appreciated the change. The engagement was "through the roof," McCabe reports, with many first-time participants on both company and individual levels. Attendance for the Leadership Conference set a record, with 75 companies and 200 people attending. "We introduced a new playing field. The virtual platform enabled us to reach people who can't come in person." In addition, AED offered new material, which McCabe thinks was a big draw.

Connection direction
In August, AED introduced a long-form webcast called CONDEX Connect that provided manufacturer and service provider members an opportunity to share information about their companies and their products and services for the heavy equipment distribution industry. "With face-to-face meetings on hold due to COVID, this webcast brought the same conversations that take place in CONDEX each year at Summit to a virtual audience," says Jon Cruthers, vice president of sales.

The CONDEX Connect sessions were recorded and are available for on-demand viewing anytime through the AED website – another advantage for members.

AED's membership embraced AED Foundation seminars, Phil Riggs, senior director of member engagement, says. "We became the go-to source for everything COVID-related." In fact, he says, AED's offerings were so popular, they had to add space for additional participants at least twice.

Hockenberger says his company is taking full advantage of all the virtual tools and resources AED offers. "Virtual is quick and efficient." He praises both live streams and recordings, which his employees can access at their convenience.

Hybrid model
AED conducted two-hybrid conferences in 2020: the AED 20 group in Fargo, North Dakota, and the Financial/HR Symposium in Las Vegas, with virtual attendance in real-time.

Hockenberger's company has been part of the AED 20 group for three months. He appreciates opportunities to converse with noncompetitor members and learn best practices without having to travel each time. "Virtual is here to stay."

In addition, 40 distributor members virtually attended the Small Dealer Conference, Riggs notes, and, according to McCabe, five people attended the Leadership Development Institute in person, with twice that number attending virtually.

Modifications weren't merely for members last year. Sponsorship opportunities evolved to support virtual and hybrid events, Cruthers reports. AED will continue the CONDEX Connect series of webcasts and offer some new concepts to support members in sponsoring hybrid and virtual events.      

Summit 2.0
"Last year, Summit concluded prior to lockdowns and widespread restrictions. This year's Summit was first pushed to March and now will be held in May," McCabe says, explaining that they wanted to reschedule early to allow attendees time to adjust their plans.

In 2020, we learned to be flexible, McCabe declares. "This year, we have a plan, a back-up plan and a back-up to the back-up." Regardless of the number of plans, she promises that Summit will continue with a hybrid model.

AED did a dry run at the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas with the Financial/HR Symposium in November, McGuire says. The symposium's success with new safety measures in place at the Mirage provided the framework for a safe 2021 Summit. 

"We won't be breaking any records, but the show will go on."

That's reassuring for members like Hockenberger, who attended as many educational sessions at the 2020 Summit as time permitted. Sessions about how to manage a rental fleet and equipment utilization of a rental fleet were vital to helping this new member, who joined in 2019, understand the business.

"Everything is still new and fresh to us," Hockenberger says. "We restructured our organization to align with other AED members." Restructuring saved money for Parman Tractor. "We learned about the cost of aged inventory and storage." Because of that lesson, he says, they reallocated $1 million worth of aged inventory. They also streamlined their selling process and sell more online now. "We learned to understand better and challenge the OEMs." 

He's an advocate of using tools and resources to improve the business and says, "AED is one of them. It assists with our growth and trajectory." Although Hockenberger enjoyed networking at last year's Summit, he welcomes a virtual or hybrid version this year because he can save time and travel costs without sacrificing value.

Drive time
One of the regional manager program hallmarks is the visits with member dealership professionals in the field. 

"It provides the Association a chance to get to know the membership, their needs and challenges," Riggs states. Many of these visits involved the local member of Congress, arranged in conjunction with the AED Government Affairs office. Last year, AED regional managers shifted to virtual activities, which included conference calls with members and Zoom meetings with members of Congress and others in the workforce development arena.

But because direct contact is such an essential aspect of AED's philosophy, last summer, the AED executive team set out on a 10-day road trip in an RV, dubbed "Driving for Dealers." They traveled to nine cities on their way to Los Angeles, visiting about 40 members along the way who "otherwise would miss this personal engagement and interaction," Henderson explains, and the opportunity to speak about infrastructure issues and other needs.

The team posted updates on social media about infrastructure in every state they visited. "The press picked up the story," McGuire says. "Now President Biden is proposing an infrastructure package."

Political press
AED had to adjust how it engaged with government lawmakers last year; however, while COVID-19 may have changed the Association's plans and lobbying techniques, it didn't hinder their effectiveness. 
As soon as shutdown orders proliferated throughout the country, AED weighed in with state, local and federal governments about keeping member businesses open. "We sprang into action to ensure that AED members are essential workers," McGuire says. He and the team reached out to all the governors to underscore the service that equipment dealers provide to construction projects. "We were successful in all but two states, but Pennsylvania later changed course."

Over the summer, the Association commenced an unprecedented grassroots effort to convince the Senate to take up infrastructure legislation. In total, AED's distributor and manufacturer members delivered nearly 1,000 letters and emails, reaching all 100 U.S. Senate offices. In more than 40 meetings with Congress, McGuire says, AED discussed infrastructure and its role in recovery. The result was a one-year extension of the FAST Act – funding for the Highway Trust Fund to keep projects going. "By the end of 2020, an additional $10 billion was targeted for state departments of transportation to ensure road and bridge projects can continue well into 2021," Fisher adds.

AED's rapid action allowed members and their customers to continue to operate while many other sectors of the economy were completely shut down. But it didn't stop there. When Congress turned to legislative action, AED advocated for the industry, helping AED members understand new mandates and benefits and urging changes and modifications to programs to benefit AED members.

Of course, the way they went about it had to change. Instead of hosting its Washington Fly-In last June, AED scheduled two virtual Public Policy Briefings – one before the election and the other immediately after. There were teleconferences with political candidates and key representatives throughout the nation. Fisher points out that "AED had an infrastructure in place due to our robust congressional facility visit program, to immediately pivot to virtual meetings."

The first meeting with a Congress member took place just a week after lockdowns and restrictions were implemented. During the first month, there was an average of three virtual meetings a week, in addition to the webinars and other AED programming and education.

There were still some in-person meetings with congressional members, appropriately socially distanced, because "putting AED members in front of elected officials and candidates … has always been a pillar of AED's government affairs program," Fisher explains.

In fact, those established relationships enabled AED members and members of Congress to continue working together as everyone adjusted to working from home and communicating through new technologies. 

"Building relationships, particularly between our members and their elected officials, is vital," Fisher says. "After COVID hit, lawmakers wanted to hear directly from businesses in their districts about the impacts back home."

Although nothing can fully replace face-to-face meetings, in some instances, online communication was more efficient. "For example," Riggs says, "where previously a single member might host a member of Congress at their dealership, via Zoom and/or conference calls we were able to have that member of Congress address several members [at the same time]."

Fisher sums it up: "AED's government affairs program had a very successful year despite the challenging situation." AED's Political Action Committee also had a good year, setting a record for donations. "Thanks to the generosity of equipment dealership executives, AED PAC broke its previous fundraising record set in 2019 by raising $142,600 in 2020," Fisher reveals. During the 2020 election cycle, AED PAC contributed $265,000 to federal campaigns, resulting in 85% of AED PAC-supported candidates joining the 117th Congress.

IRAP and other programs
A pandemic wasn't going to stop AED and The AED Foundation (AEDF) from proceeding with a project it's been working on for two to three years: getting the Department of Labor to acknowledge AEDF as the Standard Recognized Entity which allows the Foundation to recognized apprenticeship programs known as IRAPs. Jason Blake, AED Foundation executive vice president and COO, says adjustments were made to the standards AEDF uses to accredit colleges to include a hands-on requirement for the program to be recognized.

Meanwhile, online industry training has seen a 10% increase this past year, and Blake considers it just the start. In fact, the Foundation is working hard to increase learning across the board. 

"In 2021, AEDF will push utilization of the programs. The industry needs 70,000 technicians, so we need to share our standards and programs."

Because traveling was curtailed in 2020, the AEDF had time to promote workforce development and evaluate more "feeder schools," adding 14 new recognized high schools. This year, if it hits his target, AEDF will have increased its school outreach by 97% since 2018. Some of the recognized high school program's popularity may be related to stackable credentials; students earn a certification for each segment passed. "This shows their interest and focus and helps them get hired."

In addition to auditing accredited programs, the Foundation had time to develop two additional tests; one being the aptitude test for students aged 13-16 and the other being the high school certification test aged 14-18. These test gives students "something to show," he says. "Dealers can use these test as a tool to bring to light of areas that need focus."  

Member engagement has been outstanding through the pandemic, Henderson confirms. He credits the AED staff's "nonstop efforts to communicate, promote and sustain our members during these times of crisis."

Concurring, Riggs observes that AED members turned to the Association in large, consistent numbers during this "recent period of great uncertainty," seeking information and resources to help guide their businesses. He noticed "a palpable comradery" emerge among members who felt that "we are all in this together" and who were receptive to online alternatives to normal business procedures. Citing an 18% increase in member participation, he counts only about 20 distributor members who were not active in the programs and services last year.

McGuire estimates member engagement at over 90%. "We saw participation from members we traditionally don't see," he adds, deeming its affirmation of the Association's efforts.

AED's Canadian members saw the same value and successes in Canada as its U.S. members did. "We did the same things in Canada," McGuire confirms, "except for the road trip."

Looking ahead, McGuire acknowledges that connections will continue to be mainly made online for a while. "The hybrid conference is here to stay," he says, although he regards that as a positive thing because it allows more members to participate, especially with one-company pricing.

"We will no doubt be conducting business and connecting virtually with members for the first half of the year," Riggs says. As the pandemic abates and the population gets vaccinated, he thinks regional managers will hit the road again to visit members and deliver a valuable membership experience.

With 2020 hindsight, McGuire believes last year offered an "opportunity to be productive" and to reset. By acting speedily and introducing solutions through innovative methods, AED successfully provided value to its members. Nevertheless, he concludes, "we look forward to getting together again."

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