Thursday, December 17, 2009

About Associations and Events in the Translation Industy

It's that time of the year when we have to renew memberships in associations and decide where we are going to spend our hard-earned dollars, euros, and yens.

I am particularly fond of industry events. Over the years, I have developed friends, won clients, learned a lot (and I have even met my wife at one of these events). I like the camaraderie and the intercultural aspect of events associated with translation and localization, and I regret having to decline so many invitations every year. And this is what brings me to this blog post: There are too many events.

The tipping point for me was the announcement by GALA of their next conference in Prague.

Before I expand on why I think that GALA is making a huge mistake in organizing this event, let me lay out how I view the landscape and how I think it should work. First, when I talk about associations and events, this is what I mean.
  • Associations. The role of associations is to bring together people with common interests to achieve common goals. The assumption is that the group is more powerful than the individual members. Associations can be local, regional, or global, and they assemble individuals, companies or even other associations. Associations elect directors to work on behalf of the individual members and generaly meet once a year.
  • Industry Events are gatherings of professionals or organizations to discuss, promote, educate, and sell products and services related to an industry.
 Now, a little bit about the current landscape:
  • LISA and GALA are global associations that try to attract both buyers of language services and LSPs. GALA was originally founded by LSPs who were members of LISA and were not happy with the treatment they were getting there.
  • ATA-TCD (U.S.), ACCTI (Canada), ELIA (Europe) are examples of regional associations of LSPs. Their goal is to address issues related to doing business in a certain geographic region and to develop the skills of the employees of its members. Some of these associations are involved with standards. 
  • EUATC is the European Union of Associations of Translation Companies and it is an umbrella organization for national associations of translation companies throughout Europe. Its main focus is on quality standards.
  • ALC (U.S.), ATC (U.K.), ATA (Netherlands), FEDERCENTRI (Italy) are but a few of the many local country associations of translation companies. They address issues related to labor regulations, taxation, professional development, and more day-to-day issues related to running a translation company in a specific geography.
  • UNICODE and TAUS are special interest associations addressing specific technology issues like internationalization and translation automation.
  • Localization Institute and IMTT are examples of for-profit event organizers that focus on the translation and localization industry. 
  • ATA (U.S.), TAC (China), Abrates (Brazil) are some of the local professional translator associations that also accept corporate members.
What do these organizations have in common? They all organize events. They all want my money as a member, a sponsor or a participant. Many of them overlap.

Are they all legitimate? I am sure they are. Are they all good? Some are better than others. Do they do what they are supposed to do? Barely.

Here is where I would like to see improvement and change:
  1. LISA should focus on what it stands for: Standards. Unfortunately we see very little movement in that area. The association focuses more on events than on enforcing true interoperability among translation memories, which is a huge demand in the industry.
  2. Localization World is a great event, but it suffers from its own success. LSPs complain that there are not enough buyers attending. The organizers should put in place a true sales organization and attract a larger number of buyers to their events with incentives and promotions.
  3. EUATC and ELIA should focus on lobbying European organizations on behalf of their members. They should work together, as their charters are similar, though their constituencies are different (EUATC gathers associations, ELIA gathers companies).
So where is my beef with GALA and its event?

As I wrote in a Global Watchtower entry in July 2008, "one of the original goals of GALA was not to organize events, but to co-locate them with other associations. That was what made GALA unique. It wanted to promote the industry, it wanted to be an influencer, it wanted to collaborate. Now, it wants to make money."

You may recall GALA founder Hans Fenstermacher talking about a big P.R. effort for the industry, something along the lines of the Got Milk campaign which was hugely successful in increasing the consumption of milk. Where is that spirit? Where is that drive? Is the only way to promote the industry to organize another event?

As I wrote back in 2008 in that same blog post: "The bottom line is that fragmentation creates a problem of choice for members. But what’s worse, it dilutes resources that could be spent towards promoting the business of language or growing the proverbial pie. Instead, associations lose sight of their original goals, non-profits begin to act like for-profit businesses, and bureaucracies develop. The result? Everyone ends up spending more money to maintain countless organizations than in providing benefits for disoriented members who are now unsure which associations offer the best value."

GALA claims that their first event in Cancun was a big success with 86% positive reviews about the location and content. I wasn't there, but some attendees told me that they were underwhelmed. Optimists say that there were 100 people attending including spouses, pessimists say around 70, including 20+ speakers. I would like to see what the 14% had to say about the event. And I would like to see the effort and money placed in hiring a General Manager and organizing another small event go into what the industry really needs: Visibility!

Now my full disclosures: I am a member of the Board of Directors of ELIA, I have participated on the Board of Advisors of Localization World, my company is sponsoring the IMTT event "Think Latin America," my company just rejoined GALA as a member. I have voiced these concerns in person to almost all the GALA Board members.


  1. The one benefit I do see for GALA conferences is that I think that they could be a better forum for defining real LSP interests and develop more compelling content than Localization World which has been very disappointing of late. This, I think will depend on the process by which they define and select content for the conference. People with different opinions have to be working together to get to real issues and get new people engaged. It needs to be more transparent and open, I think. I found the GALA content superior to Localization World even though the Cancun attendance was truly disappointing. Also I saw no real sign of outreach beyond the LSP world and a few buyers. I saw no spirit of the Got Milk drive but at least there was an attempt (feeble though it was) at some dialogue with LISA, ATA and TRF.

    What about translators? Why don't they attend? Does it not make sense for them to also engage to improve dialogue and collaboration? Does it not make sense to have events that

    All the associations have become fiefdoms and the same insiders decide the key editorial decisions. I think this prevents real expansion of the community and also limits the possibility of real dialogue with people who are not insiders. It would be great to see either real collaboration between associations and unified events or see actual
    consolidation between the associations.

    The best conferences I attended this year were IMTT, LRC and LTBKK (I admit I had a hand in organization of the last) in terms of compelling content and real dialogue between different constituents in the professional translation eco-system.

    Apart from basic education and networking purposes I think these events can also help to evolve the state of the art and process of translation. They have not been especially successful in drawing people in who want to undertake large translation projects. I think because the people considering this (like Gartner, McKinsey, Lexis Nexis, Tripadvisor, Expedia, Theh White House, CE companies, The Health Insurance Industry and many others) need to hear about more than TEP, inconclusive discussions on quality, TM tool reviews and L10N 101 presentations.

    The biggest buyers of the future have barely entered the market and my sense is that most of them realize that these conferences are not useful in helping them understand how they can do what they need.

    It is our job to change this and make the real decision makers, i.e. people who make the decisions on global expansion strategies (not the head of L10N departments)want to come to these events. Until we do I think we as an industry will be faced with customers demanding lower prices and faster turnarounds for more volume.

  2. Good way to articulate the difference between the ALC and TCD. From the outside, they look very alike, but once you get inside of them, they suit different purposes.

  3. Well said, Renato. I see that too may associations are either in the moneymaking business or in a sort of "political" business, not here to serve the needs of their members.

  4. Renato -

    I'm a little disappointed in this post, I must say ... especially to the extent that it seems inconsistent with some private conversations the two of us have had. Furthermore, it looks like you have GALA directly in your sights, even though the title of the post is more generic. Even as a relative newcomer I can think of a half dozen valid reasons behind GALA's decision to hire a director and sponsor its own events. (I don't intend to speak for them here; I only make the point that you must surely be aware of at least some of those, yet chose to ignore them.)

    Back to the point, though, I think your comments about Localization World are good ones, but it would have been helpful if you had placed them somewhere in the landscape preceding. A recommendation like ...

    "GALA should seek to collaborate more closely with XXX in sponsoring Localization World, leading to greater attendance, greater variety of presentations, larger buy-side participation, and increased revenue with which to fund association initiatives"

    ... might have been a nice inclusion. Of course, it might also be that something along those lines was already tried in the past.

    As for the Cancun event, I think attendance suffered from the economy, the swine flu scare, and to some extent the perception of a "boondoggle". That said, those who stayed away really missed some excellent and very practical presentations. The breadth of speakers and topics along with the relevance to member companies was unsurpassed. Personally, I expect that a more business-like (but still very attractive) venue will combine with the positive feedback from this year's event to draw a much larger group in May. I know I am planning to "repeat" (and am working on a presentation proposal that I hope will be accepted).

    And that brings me back to your (apparently) primary complaint ... there has been no "Got Milk" campaign. I wonder where the funding would come for that? Or the creative energy to develop the program? Or the project management to execute it? Is it possible that the GALA Board has been struggling with exactly those issues as they considered hiring a Director and establishing a premier event that could serve to raise funds? As an ELIA Board member, you should know that there are no easy answers to these kinds of questions.

    I have served for years on the Board of a non-profit educational organization, and there is a continual struggle to provide value to the membership without raising dues to a prohibitive level. In our organization, we started with an annual event that struggled the first year and broke even the second. Since then, we have funded the organization's activities (including an Executive Director and a small staff) through proceeds from the annual conference. The conference itself has become a "must go" event for member schools. Proceeds have also helped to raise awareness of the educational approach, leading to greater adoption.

    I don't know what GALA's specific plans are, but it seems to me that they are positioned well to serve their members. Dues are reasonable, there is a (small) full-time staff to execute the vision (leaving the Board to set the vision, but spend most of their time on their own businesses), and there is a nascent event that is both part of the value they bring and a potential source of "voluntary" funding.

    I'd love to interact with you more on this topic, Renato, and I trust we will have such an opportunity at one of the many (perhaps, as you suggest too many) events that are out there. I hope that one of them will be the GALA event in Prague.

    - Bob Donaldson

  5. As the "instigator" of the Got Milk idea in the industry, and as the only person mentioned by name in Renato's blog, I feel compelled to add a few short comments.

    First of all, I really do appreciate the blog and the comments from Kirti, Bob, and others. Healthy debate is fundamental to progress, and the exchange of ideas should always lead to better ones. I founded GALA in that spirit, and I believe that spirit continues in the association to this day.

    Since its inception in 2002, GALA has reached out to every association and constituency in the industry and collaborated with most of them in attempt to do exactly what Kirti says - unite resources, unify objectives, and serve the entire industry. (But let's be candid: the desires and objectives of all associations and constituencies in this industry are not always ideally aligned.) GALA continues to espouse a philosophy of collaboration and inclusion: The collection on stage of the leaders of LISA, ATA, Tekom, LRC and GALA (an industry first!) in Cancun is testimony to that spirit.

    But, as Bob points out (and Renato will surely learn when he takes the reins of ELIA next year), you can't do much of anything without funding, least of all an industry-wide PR campaign. The Dairy Association took years to develop and fund the Got Milk campaign, which cost millions of dollars and required the participation of every single dairy producer. If we're going to do anything even vaguely resembling Got Milk, it's going to take a lot of effort, organization, and funding.

    A historically successful way to create funding is to host a professional and extremely relevant event. Funds from that event are then funneled right back into PR activities for the members (GALA was founded as a non-profit on purpose :). That is what GALA has set out to do. The approach needs to be innovative and inclusive, and I'm sure it will be.

    - Hans Fenstermacher

    Full disclosure: I am one of the founders of GALA and was its first Chairman. As of January 1, I will be on the Board of Directors of GALA once again.

  6. It's Friday and I am running late on almost everything, I will come back with more comments. But since I have heard this from three other GALA members, I would like to set the record straight. Bringing associations together was not a first for GALA. ACCTI, the Canadian association, through Marise Benhoff, hosted three or four "Meeting of the Minds," where everybody was present. Even LISA hosted a "Meeting of the Minds" in San Francisco. The end result: Zilch! Because instead of trying to do something together, the group (which included EUATC, but not Tekom) decided to create another bureaucracy.

    In fact, I just Googled the event and found a nice description of what happened in the McElroy's website (Bob's previous company):

    So, let's not create false illusions. I will come back to this in time with more details about my position.

  7. As an LSP owner (Schreiber Translations, Inc.) who has long advocated for cooperation among companies to serve the greater good of the industry and as the current President of the ALC, I jump in here with my two cents. Renato is correct that various efforts have been undertaken over the years to bring all groups together and in fact one of the latest is the TSAC (Translation Summit Advisory Council). At the last summit in October many of us came together, including ALC, GALA, ATA, TCD, LISA, AILIA, NAJIT, ILR and more to discuss the exact issues, and others, raised in this post. All of us agreed with the sentiments expressed here, namely that there are too many events, we must cooperate to address this fact, and most importantly that to achieve any progress in terms of industry recognition we must pool efforts. None of this will happen overnight, but the ALC for one will continue to work with others towards this common goal. So far I am disappointed to note that while GALA has been talking this talk as well, they have not been walking the walk, most notably with their latest announcement of their conference to be held just one week before the ALC's already scheduled annual conference taking place in Miami, May 19-22, 2010 (this despite specific requests made by the ALC asking them not to schedule their event at a conflicting time with ours). However, I am optimistic that the incoming board of GALA will usher in a new era and that henceforward they will demonstrate their goodwill in addition to talking about it. I hope that I'm not just being naive.

  8. Anonymous3:57 AM

    We've had those discussions 1000 times over the last years... I do agree with you Renato. This industry is much too small to have the luxury of having so many associations, interrest groups and so on... I was not a founding member of Gala, but well of LSN (LISA SME Network), which was the GALA starting point. The original objective was to give a voice to the SME's of our industry. GALA rapidly turned out to be another platform trying to attract as many member as possible. What is the real added value of GALA today? Is still try yo understand...

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