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Congress: The Value Propositions

R. Kevin Clark
Editor, APWA Reporter

It was a genuine "deer-in-the-headlights" look.

Sure, we all know how deer react at night when suddenly confronted with an approaching vehicle. But to catch a true deer-in-the-headlights stare in the world of business, you wouldn't have to look any further than my reaction when told that I—new kid on the APWA block—would have to write an editorial on Congress. In truth, it would have put most terrified deer to shame.

Having worked with engineers for the past 15 years, I had heard plenty about the American Public Works Association, and even had a fair idea about its purpose and services provided. But Congress? Not a clue.

So, how to proceed? Well, I come from a culture where promoting the "value proposition" is very important. "This is the value we bring to your project." "These are the benefits we can provide your organization that our competition cannot." And so on.

That said, it seemed fitting to discuss the benefits of attending Congress and the value the event provides its attendees. And, APWA's staff and membership were the best possible sources from which to learn these value propositions. (Their experience with Congress and willingness to help out sure made the headlights less bright.)

According to Dana Priddy, APWA's Director of Meetings, there are a number of benefits that attendees, both members and non-members, can get from attending Congress. "First, they have the opportunity to talk to their peers and find out what they are doing," she says. "It's a wonderful opportunity…a sounding board. You can find out what other communities across the country are doing. The one-on-one networking opportunity is very beneficial."

Another benefit is that APWA's education program has become one of the finest of any educational programs in the public works community. "Attendees can hear top-line speakers talk about cutting-edge issues, and can then take that information back and apply it to their community," Priddy says. "So it's a knowledge-based benefit, but it also has a direct financial benefit to their agency, because they may hear about some new service that's going to be offered, like a new way of doing their snow removal. The direct benefits are very real."

Congress is a show that is designed for APWA's members, according to Dave Dancy, APWA's Director of Marketing. "We basically target it at those people who have multiple functions in their job, which, according to our surveys, is over 95 percent of our membership," says Dancy. "This isn't just a show about one particular subject. It is a show and educational session that tries to deal with everything a public works director or manager may run into. This is a one-stop shop. Everything our members want is here."

For Patricia Kutt, APWA's Director of Education, the issue of shared knowledge is very important. "It's also critical that the information be current, and that's one of the main things we strive for in the program," she says. "Even though the subjects are oftentimes repetitive, there are always new twists."

Well, sure, you say. Of course the staff are going to give rave reviews for Congress-they're the ones putting on the program. What about the people who really matter-the attendees? What do they think?

Jim Martin, retired Public Works Director for the City of Fresno, California, first attended Congress in 1964 in Atlantic City. In fact, he still has a picture of a billboard showing Barry Goldwater's nomination for President. "I've been to quite a few [Congresses], and I've always found it a very pleasing experience," Martin says. "The equipment show, for example, is very important for a lot of people. It was certainly very important to me before retirement."

Martin dislikes the word "networking," but he certainly appreciates the fact that Congress gives people the chance to meet and work with fellow professionals. "There aren't enough opportunities in APWA to meet people from other communities," continues Martin. "You go to Chapter meetings, and that's fine, but you still don't get the chance to get the diversity of experience that you can get by going to Congress. To me that's very important."

Education is one of the key reasons that Larry Frevert, Deputy Director of Public Works for the City of Kansas City, Missouri, attends Congress year after year. "The educational sessions allow me to not only grow as a person, but to grow as a representative of an organization," Frevert says. "The sessions provide me with ideas that will help me do my job better and will help my department. When I return from Congress, I'm able to share with our staff things that our colleagues in public works are doing that either might help us to do something better, or verify that what we're doing is appropriate. So education is the first thing I look for."

Frevert also mentions the importance of what he calls "observed learning," or the experience he derives from the exhibit floor. "That's where I'm having dialogue with the vendors, meeting with the exhibitors, talking about new products, and discussing the products that they're showcasing," he says. "I'm trying to learn what's coming on the market as far as new technology or better technology that will allow us to serve our citizens better."

Frevert concludes by addressing one of the financial value propositions of Congress. "I feel that, for the dollar investment that my association makes to send me, I'm able to bring back some benefits that are going to far offset the cost of attending Congress," Frevert says.

So there, in a nutshell, are some of the most significant value propositions of APWA's Congress. There are a host of others, including CEU credits for those requiring them; small forums, chat rooms, and round table sessions providing additional educational venues; social activities designed for people to get to know each other; and, of course, the opportunity to renew old friendships and professional associations.

The most important value proposition of all? Congress truly is the best show in public works.

Kevin Clark can be reached at 816-472-6100, or at kclark@apwa.net.