During the recent IMEX show in Frankfurt, the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO) held an early morning seminar on what they believed to be a truly controversial subject. The decision to debate such a hot issue emanated from a long discussion amongst IAPCO Council members about the future of the PCO business! This contentious topic of whether to in-source or out-source conference management has always been a constant dilemma for associations and a permanent nightmare for PCOs: There we are!
There is a certain tendency in this global world to standardise everything and to think that we all react, think, eat, drink, etc. in the same way. But no, we don’t; humans are all different and so are associations. There are various models with their own advantages and disadvantages regarding in-sourcing and out-sourcing, and it is therefore not necessarily possible to come up with one hard and fast rule which will suit all takers. IAPCO, however, has a strong single belief: out-sourcing is, in the majority of cases, better than in-sourcing.
But the various players in the industry had their own viewpoint on the topic which was then debated during the recent above mentioned seminar.
One of the common denominators for Associations and PCOs is that of staffing; both have the same challenge: to find suitably talented staff. The success of the organisation depends on the talent of the appointed staff, their abilities and skills and also the business and the support received from the management. In other words, all the “stars” need to be aligned to get the right outcome.
Associations by their nature appoint persons who have their own industry specific knowledge, understanding and networks to the Association but that does not necessarily imply business acumen which is today very necessary in order to organise conferences. And, as everyone knows, conference organisation can be a risky business! Associations, these days, need to evolve constantly and conferences are one of their main revenue streams. They cannot take the risk of potentially losing money nor to be trapped in any kind of financial embezzlement!
Organizing a meeting is not only choosing a venue, appointing a local committee, delegating (or not as the case may be) the programme, or indeed the risk, to the locals, implementing the political decisions from the headquarters, from top to bottom, or satisfying the members requirements for a social experience; no, it is more than that. It is managing the profit (through funding and registrations vs. expenses) and acting in the name of the Association (often assimilated to the “brand”); it is also marketing and communicating (not only promoting), and it is managing a continuity of services when it comes to regular meetings.
Because Associations know of the importance of these current activities, they think, however, that outsourcing such an essential crucial activity falls in the “don’t do category” as one of my friends says. Of course, they believe, who better than their own staff to understand the priorities of their Association and its goal? Who better than the “Owner” to make the right decisions to then grow the conferences?
Whilst Associations are generally smart and committed, the role of conference management requires more than a willing attitude and a ‘pair of hands’. It requires expertise across a broad spectrum, which Associations often lack. Moreover, in our ever developing world, how can in-house staff organising one, or even five, conferences a year, be truly connected to this evolving environment and aware of the latest trends and technology?
The out-sourced service has therefore some significant advantages for the Association to have a partnering company following the dynamics of this world, knowing the latest innovations, regulations and culture as well as the evolution of services provided and understanding of the needs. The out-sourced service has a real value for money and keeps the Association away from day-to-day social regulations, financial burden and communication hassles. The Association is then free to concentrate on its primary goal.
The PCO was born out of the need for an expertise to manage conferences, and conference management is a specific job, involving a number of different skills that are woven together to produce an end effect.
Conference organising requires business management to the level required to manage the risk and demands of all the elements provided by a true stakeholder. All these skills are rarely embedded in one or two people – it takes a team and a lot of training and experience to develop the expertise. The Association, by outsourcing, has then the opportunity to choose a PCO that suits its needs the best way and to partner with a specialist who is a true commercial entity looking for, and delivering, the best out of the request. But of course, not all PCOs are matched to all Associations; the Associations even have the choice!
Last but not least, an Association does not lose control by out-sourcing to a PCO. If the partnership harnesses the combined skills of both parties, then it is a recipe for success. Working across a number of different events, building the know-how and learning curves provides the PCO with an innovative yet professional source of experience shared across many clients. It is answering the Association’s expectations which are thus met. It must be therefore recognised that PCOs increase the quality of an event, raise the bar, develop profit and deliver value for money; this is what attendees and stakeholders expect for their meetings.