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HP user group Connect has altered its business organization following the latest HP Technology Forum & Expo by transferring the group's services to its own operations. Connect had contracted with services company Smith-Bucklin for operational support until late June, giving that company the duties of managing a user expo and delivering products to members of the group. Smith-Bucklin manages the services of hundreds of user groups and associations.

But president Nina Buik said the Connect board of directors saw the trends in the user association business and made changes that created two full-time employees while ending the Smith-Bucklin services contract. "Managed services is now our previous business model," she said, "but we will not be a brick-and-mortar operation in the forseeable future. We changed our model at just the right time."

Computer user groups in the  industry are retrenching, adding alliances with other groups as Connect did last year, or expanding user bases such as the IBM COMMON group, which now serves Unix users along with its core AS/400 and iSeries customers. "We looked at a lot of lessons of the past, and what we need to guide us into the future," Buik said. "In our previous model we were getting pieces and parts of different people throughout a given day. In this new model we're getting 100 percent dedication." The group is now relying on its 14-member board of directors for management and tactical operations, in addition to the new employees.

The two full-time staffers are former board president Kristi Browder, who was IT director for Silicon Labs, and member services manager Erin Anderson. Both are based in Austin, Texas, where Browder worked at Silicon Labs. She's a 30-year IT customer of Digital, Compaq and now HP, in addition to years of work on the board of Encompass (one group of the Connect alliance).

But Connect's operations go beyond geographical locations such as local user groups, the national conference in Las Vegas, or 2008's international meeting in Germany. Buik bragged about 30,000 page views a month on its membership Web site, which serves HP users of Windows, HP-UX, Linux, OpenVMS and NonStop systems, along with other HP customers such as services and network management. About the only constituency not served directly are HP 3000 homesteaders, since many migrating 3000 sites are headed for the other HP platforms.

They are heading more slowly, like most of the world's businesses. "This economy has affected us just like any other business," Buik said. Attendance was down this year at the HPTF show -- Buik estimated 4,500 to 5,000 were on hand in Las Vegas, a decline of about 2,500 in part because of reduced HP attendance -- but she said the group plans to expand its product line. It even is considering expanding its printed publication in the future.

The tough news for Connect and other user groups is the decline in travel budgets and IT spending overall during 2009. Booth sales were down by 28 percent for the latest conference. But Connect doesn't rely on the revenue from the Tech Forum as heavily as the Interex user group counted upon its HP World show. By the end of Interex's run, HP World had become the tent pole of revenue for a brick-and-mortar operation with dozens of employees in a Silicon Valley office.

Connect wants no part of brick and mortar for now. Aside from Browder and Anderson, the rest of the work is fulfilled by outsourced CFO and IT services, some third-party publicity from Burson-Marsteller, as well as volunteers from a 13-member board of directors. Buik said Connect has reduced its expenses by 30 percent in dropping the Smith-Bucklin contracts and going to limited direct payroll.

Connect's board searched for an executive director among its membership, even while it reviewed a resume from a former executive director of another user association. Browder "not only was a member, but she understands the issues that an HP customer would face. She was also a leader of the organization, so it was a unique mix of skills she brought to us."

The user group is going to rely on that board for work, but Buik says the tactical knowledge of running a user group is part of Browder's experience. "Trust me, there's dirt under those fingernails," she said of Browder, such as work on event committees. Connect has hired a contractor to do its CFO work, not expecting its executive director to deliver those skills.

Buik asserts that the Connect board members differ from the directors at Interex, an organization that had a good array of technical and customer experience but had to rely on professional staff to service members with products such as conference, publications and Web resources. Each Connect director has "a deep knowledge of what goes on in a particular area of operations." The assignments aren't listed among the director biographies on the Connect site, but the group provided this breakdown of who's in charge of what duty.

Alan Dick – Director of Advocacy and SIGs
Steve Davidek – Director of Chapter Relations
Joe Ramos – Director Member Relations
Chris Koppe – Director of Vendor Relations,
     Chair of the Social Media Committee, VP/President Elect
Jay McLaughlin – Director of Marketing and Events
Brad Harwell –HP Executive Liaison
Scott Healy – Director of Business Development
Bill Johnson – Director of Technical Resource Committee
Johnny IP – Business Development Committee
Heinz-Hermann Adam – Chairman, Connect Germany
Leo Van Schie – Chairman, Connect Netherlands
Kristi Browder – Executive Director and COO
Nina Buik – Director of Media Relations, President
Glen Kuykendall – Director of Finance, Secretary Treasurer

Connect expects that directors will have a network of resources they can bring in to help service the needs in each expertise.The committees are comprised of "people who have done this kind of thing before, and can bring their acumen and expertise."

Management strategies aside, a user group is evaluated on its content and networking opportunities. Connect upgraded to the social networking developer Pluck earlier this year for the group's myCommunity Web site. It's offered Webcasts in 2009, will produce more of those next year with sponsors, and plans targeted events in 2010. "And maybe a targeted publication or two," Buik added, raising the interest of an old reporter who's always included paper in his career. "We have a publication targeted for NonStop users called The Connection. We're looking to expand that to the OpenVMS contingent."

Connect members and directors like Browder have deep roots in that Digital VMS community, and Buik says the group has a good relationship "with the new [VMS] team in India, and we have monthly calls. We'll be working in tandem with them towards our goals."