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Growing ILEA Portland

By Kevin Molesworth, CSEP

It’s no secret that association membership has been in a steady decline for more than a decade. This is true not only for event professional associations but for associations dedicated to virtually every industry—from agriculture and aerospace to landscaping and legal. While many will claim this decline is due to cost-cutting, a deeper survey will show that it is the perceived lack of value of the association model and its offering. In spite of these facts, the Portland chapter of the International Live Events Association (ILEA) is defying the downward trend and reinvigorating the city’s event professionals.

When I relocated to Portland a couple of years ago, it was clear that the chapter was facing some difficulties. It had not produced any educational meetings or events for over 28 months, and as of July 1, 2018, the chapter had only one member: me. Fast forward to one year later, and we had grown to 43 members, including an 11-person board of directors.

Our journey was hardly the result of a magic wand. When I first arrived in Oregon, I had a list of only three names and no real personal connection to any of the local event professionals. I knew that if the chapter had any hope of rising again, that I would first need to get the buy-in of the best-known and most respected event industry stakeholders. With a bit of research and persistence (bordering on stalking), I was able to schedule several meetings with some of the city’s top venues, caterers and production companies. It was in the early stages of this process that I met Kathy Sobotka. Her contribution to the chapter’s resurrection cannot be overstated. For you “Game of Thrones” fans out there, she was (and still is) my Brienne of Tarth.

Kathy has been an influential member of the Portland event world for more than a decade. Before forming her own production company nearly two years ago, she had worked for a large catering company, and through that experience, she seemed to know everyone in town. Her network combined with her enthusiasm were essential in laying the new foundation for ILEA Portland.

Prior to moving west, I was part of the ILEA Austin Chapter. I served on the chapter’s board of directors in several roles, including president. In my time there, we grew from just over 50 members to nearly 400 in only four years. We were honored with 12 Spirit of Excellence Awards and named Chapter of the Year by ILEA International for three consecutive years. Utilizing all that I had learned while in Austin, the plan to rebuild ILEA Portland was simple: Kathy had the connections. I had the strategy. And together, we were determined to make it work. Our focus would be on community and education.

Through social media channels and a quick Google search, event professionals can now access unlimited information and training that one could only access through associations some 10 years ago. With the next generation of workers moving away from traditional means of relationship building, we set out to encourage our members to engage with our community of professionals who shared common goals and values. Basic behavioral science clearly shows that we create stronger bonds with the individuals that we meet face-to-face, shake hands with and share a laugh. Email and social media might be a more efficient means of connecting, but they are rather hollow when compared to real-life interactions. By providing a welcoming, safe environment, one in which their voice was demonstrably encouraged to join the conversation, our community flourished.

Next, we set out to provide the best educational content possible. We offered high-level, relevant presentations on creativity, leadership, marketing, event safety/active shooter scenarios, fire  codes,  alcohol  and  marijuana/CBD  regulations from some of the most distinguished thought leaders from all over the globe. In the past year we have hosted Richard Foulkes, CSEP (Paradise Experiment, UK), Dustin Westling, CSEP (OneWest Events, Calgary, Alberta), Melissa Jurcan, CSEP (Microsoft/Compass Group, Seattle), Meryl Snow (SnowStorm Solutions, Philadelphia), Kevin White, CSEP (XPL, Boston), Jodi Collen (Augsburg University, Minneapolis) and Ingrid Nagy, CSEP (By Design Collective, Denver). In the coming year, we are planning to host Sarah Grauf, CSEP (San Francisco Giants, San Francisco), Jennifer Trethewey, CSEP (JTG Global, Melbourne, Australia) and Barb Harris, CSEP, DMCP (CTC Destination Management, Chicago).

If you are interested in learning more about ILEA Portland’s programs or membership, please email me at Kevin@