Monday, April 06, 2020

Diane Forgy of Overland Chauffeur Services and Douglas Schwartz of Executive Ground Transportation have each been NLA members for nearly 20 years, serving on various committees, representing the association at numerous events, and, in Forgy’s case, even previously holding the position of NLA president. When the committee heads were reorganized earlier this year, the two longtime board members found themselves in brand-new territory by heading up the Membership Committee—one of the few committees neither has spearheaded before.

Through their combined decades of experience as operators, NLA Board members, and chairs of various committees, as well as seeing how all committee heads have worked together in the past, they know what the Membership Committee has accomplished—and has been challenged by—in years past. Armed with that knowledge and the fresh perspective they bring to a whole new committee, they aim to boost the NLA’s membership numbers while zeroing in on untapped resources that can offer new benefits to association members while also winning over non-members and winning back former members.

Forgy and Schwartz talk about their hopes and plans for their committee, their own experiences as NLA members, and the misconceptions about the association that they aim to correct by lauding and highlighting its benefits. Read on to learn more.


Chauffeur Driven: What are your responsibilities as Membership Committee Co-chairs?
Douglas Schwartz:
Douglas Schwartz Douglas SchwartzWe’re in the beginning phase of this committee, trying to figure out how to attract smaller operators to the association and how to encourage current members to stay on board. We’ve been focusing on our dues structure and how we can do a better job educating and bringing on new members, especially smaller operators.

Diane Forgy: The Membership Committee has always been the committee to evaluate the dues structure as well as screen things like benefit programs and discount programs that will provide added value to members. That’s always been the constant. We’re also tasked with handling promotions to gain new members—like when there’s a trade show, we can use that to offer one-time deals that we’ll promote to appeal to new members. We tend to have better luck connecting on-site and in-person. That’s our mission, really: Increasing membership and making sure people understand the benefits they get by paying to be a member.

CD: What are some of typical challenges the committee has faced before? Are they current challenges, too?
DS:
There have been a lot of things that have hurt our membership in the past couple of years. One is that our most recent PR campaign was so expensive that we felt the need to increase dues to fund it, which was kind of a turnoff for some people. It is a challenge to woo the operators who aren’t members.

Diane Diane ForgyDF: We didn’t raise dues until we started to take on additional public relations expenses that we felt were necessary to get our message out in the national media. So the NLA absorbed that cost for a while, until about four years ago when we had to make the tough decision to substantially raise dues. The new challenge for the Membership Committee hasn’t been as extreme: How do we get our members back? How do we provide more value so people see real benefits that they can quantify?

We try very hard to communicate with our members and let them know what we’re doing and what the NLA offers, but people are busy and things get lost in the hundreds of emails, messages, and posts that they see every day. I think operators sometimes regard membership as a check they have to write rather than view it as part of the big picture of what we’ve done over the years. Nobody can individually fight some of the battles that the NLA’s fought. Your dues are such a small price for the cumulative good that a large, involved membership can do and afford.

CD: How do you plan to court new or lapsed members while maintaining current ones?
DF:
We have to do a little bit of a better job, hopefully, of getting people to understand what the purpose and mission of the association are and why being a part of the NLA is such an important thing for their company and the industry as a whole.

DS: We have been re-examining the cost of membership and seeing what we can do to shave a few dollars off to be more attractive. So when non-members, especially smaller operators, come to us and say it’s too expensive, I tell them to look at the value, not the cost of membership. If you take advantage of the affinity programs and discounts NLA members have access to—those include rebates and discounts on technology, software, hotels, vehicle repairs, business tools, you name it—you can easily earn your money back from that part of it alone.

I have a lot of faith in the No Operator Left Behind program the NLA has launched with Bill Faeth. I think most small operators are usually one-armed paper hangers who are washing cars, driving to jobs, answering the phone, and changing oil so they don’t have the time or $2,000 to be at every event. No Operator Left Behind utilizes podcasts, so a lot of the education available to members is brought right to you.

CD: What other benefits of NLA membership might not be immediately apparent?
DF:
The cumulative voice and buying power of a national organization is huge for us. We’re a very small niche industry and we do have a lot of very challenging issues that we are always facing: Whether it’s legislative, competing with TNCs, the regulatory hoops we have to go through for DOT and labor, there is so much going on. And if we don’t have a large pool of members to represent the industry in an organized way, then we don’t have the muscle and the influence that we need to at least be heard and relevant.

People have their own circles, but the NLA is always a good starting point for finding solid partners. Being an NLA member for almost 20 years, I’ve received a significant amount of referrals from belonging to the NLA, especially early on. As I’ve grown and evolved and tried to be my best, it’s done nothing but help my company’s profile to be a longtime NLA member.

DS: I look at the membership fee as a negligible amount for what you gain. An association membership is a lot like a gym membership: You can join and pay, but if you don’t actually use it, there’s no value. But if you participate and use what’s offered to you, I think the value is tremendous. I’ve been a member for something like 20 years and I have really found an incredible educational and networking value in it. I don’t think there’s another industry like this: We share information with our competitors, and we work so well together that it doesn’t take long for us to start sharing our tips and tricks and secrets.

CD: What kind of misconceptions about the NLA do you typically encounter, and how do you set the record straight?
DF:
You don’t join the NLA on day 1 and then find by day 50 or even 100, your business has suddenly doubled. It can’t just be “What’s in it for me?” You have to prove yourself, you have to properly and professionally promote yourself, and you still have to vet the partners you choose to work with.

There are politics and other things that not everyone is going to agree on, which keeps some people away. But guess what? As a member, you can vote for change! You can voice your opinion. If you’re qualified, you can run for the board. You can serve on a committee. Your voice matters to us. We’re not perfect but I think we all try very hard to do the right thing, which is why it’s a little disheartening when people stay out of the association but still expect things to change. You have to show up, you have to listen, you have to be a little involved, and you have to ask questions. And volunteer. Be a part of things. If there are committees you want to help on, if you want to learn about the things you can do, people need to be willing to volunteer their time and their money. We’re not going to be able to get that from everybody, but we’re certainly going to be stronger and better and more educated by more people being involved and being a part of the conversation.

DS: When I first joined the NLA, people would say that it was cliquey, but I didn’t find it to be that way at all. The board and the operators up the food chain welcomed me with open arms and were willing to share in any way, shape, or form the information that they thought would help me.

I think most people who don’t belong don’t understand it and don’t see the value in it, and we’re trying to help them see what they get back from their membership. No question about it, I joined for the endorsement. There aren’t many things in this industry that operators have as qualifiers of their reputation, and I certainly think belonging to the NLA is perceived to be an important thing. I think it means a lot because plenty of people will only work with other NLA members, and the work you can get from just being in the NLA directory can pay for your membership. It’s a terrific resource and it’s put me and my little business somewhat on the map, which has been great.

I recently posted a short video interview that I did with Mary Onstead [of Compass Limousine]. She’s also a small operator, so we were talking about NLA membership at the Limo Anywhere Academy. She told me that someone looked her up in the NLA’s member directory and sent her a $13,000 job, just because she was listed in the directory.

DF: Membership is an investment. There are a lot of people who look at the NLA membership to at least start looking for partners. If that’s not enticing enough, you have to just go down the list of benefits a potential member would use and the programs and discounts we have available to them. Something like our Verizon discount program or the show discounts we offer members can shave off quite a bit from your general operating costs. Those little things do add up.

CD: How can members get more involved with the NLA?
DF:
Only a board member as a rule can be a committee chair but they always need committee members. And even if you don’t want to serve on a committee regularly, I know there’s a lot of need for help at the shows—even just being at the NLA booth helps. It could even be going to Day on the Hill in D.C., that’s a big one. Think about your background, and reach out to see where your strengths can be used. DS: Once I did Day on the Hill, which I thought was really interesting, it helped me understand what the association is all about. I got to see firsthand what the NLA’s lobbying efforts involved and were focused on. I was so intrigued by it that it made me want to get more involved. I think it’s really important to participate and be part of things. We’re always looking for people and will welcome anyone who wants to be a part of it.

CD: What does the future of the committee look like?
DS:
I’m hoping that we’ll be able to attract those members who are struggling with their businesses and are looking for inspiration and ideas, because we can help them find their direction again.

DF: Our biggest mission is to be able to show the real value in being a member. We have to grow our membership. It’s a been a tough few years, and plenty of people have gotten out of the business. But we add new members every year—now, we just have to retain our numbers and get people back in. I do think, as a group, we are trying to save the perception of the NLA and we’re working very hard to prove its value. People want to feel that there’s a benefit. We’re work hard to find more affinity programs we can add. It makes a whole lot of difference if we have a bigger membership with more buying power when potential service providers consider offering things like new affinity discounts to our organization.

DS: People who want to ride in luxury will always be there, and I think we as an industry have made some tremendous strides in the past six or 12 months in reaching out to those people. You’re starting to see that the public is moving way from TNCs. I think we’re heading in a positive direction, and we can see that there’s a lot of younger operators coming on board. I’m confident that we’re going to have some growth, as long as we all do a good job advocating for the NLA.    [CD1019]