Who is PCO – Professional Congress Organizer? What is the key factor for the specialization and excellence of these types of companies on the market?

The organization of congresses is a special profession and demands specific knowledge and trained and experience staff. PCO is a company that has an entire series of specialist knowledge and skills necessary for the organization of national and international congresses, conferences and other meetings and support to clients in the organization and implementation of meetings. The project managers in these types of companies need to reign in various areas: creating programs and the coordination of orators and their summaries in cooperation with the client, managing the budget and finances, gathering sponsors, organizing the exhibition part, registering the participants, the organization of accommodation and transport, social events, marketing and public relations and all other areas necessary for a quality event. No other company – marketing or public relations agency, congress office or tourist agency – has such a wide spectra of knowledge. Therefore, PCO will for certain business meetings arrange a tourist agency or a PR agency, but it is the one that conducts the orchestra, a symphony orchestra at that, not a band of four men. PCO has under its control the entire organization and all other suppliers and guarantees a quality performance of the entire meeting. It could be said that it composes the music of the entire event at the request of the client.

Vergaderhamers – The Dutch system of quality suppliers in the meetings industry

Do the Netherlands have a legal regulative that defines the status of PCO companies?

There is no legal regulative connected to the standardization of PCO and DMC companies in the world, and therefore not in the Netherlands. Even in the early 80’s of the last century we came upon a problem: all types of companies were calling themselves PCO or DMC agencies and many tourist agencies wanted to take over exclusive rights to this region. But they are only a part of the story in the professional organization of congresses, such as PR agencies, translators or suppliers of audio-visual equipment. Therefore we have decided to gather within the industry and within the professional association VNC Vereniging Nederlandse Congresbelangen we independently set the standards of quality of service providers in the meetings industry. We developed an independent body, an Association for measuring the quality of congress centres and PCOs and established a system of quality under the name Vergaderhamer which we have developing for one year, under the model of IAPCO standards which we adapted to the Dutch market. Today, approximately 90% of leading congress areas and PCO companies are included in this type of evaluation system and they are evaluated with one to five hammers depending on what level of quality services they offer. A PCO agency must have a minimum of two experienced project managers for at least three years; have experience organizing at least 5 international congresses with at least 500 participants and 10 national congresses with at least 200 participants. Companies pay a membership fee or an evaluation independently and often for “secret” consultants who can see at the spot of the suppliers are following the set standards, and as compensation they receive market support from the association. This type of system is well accepted and among clients who arrange suppliers for their events because in this way they are guaranteed quality services and it is easier for them to choose a real partner because they know what they could expect. Therefore, it is on the members of the industry to organize and bring for themselves the rules of the game because they best know their market and possibilities.

Are Dutch and Belgium clients obligated to arrange PCO companies for their event even if they have experience and knowledge for an independent organization of a meeting?

If you are the organizer of a business event, nobody can force you to arrange a PCO agency. That is the free will of the company or individual if they want professional help in the organization. Therefore, it is their risk whether they will successfully organize a quality conference or if the conference will fail due to their insufficient experience and knowledge. Furthermore, they can decide to arrange a PCO company only for part of the work, for example for accommodation or billing the registration fee. Usually the organizer, or the organizational board leaves the most under their own control – creating the program for the conference and arranging a lecturer and control over the budget, and everything else can be outsourced.

Let us be honest, in order to organize a smaller conference, you do not need to be a rocket scientist or in some cases a PCO company is not necessary. On the other hand, you should have in mind that organizing a conference covers many details and an experienced PCO company can help in a way that it organizes things in a shorter period of time and with less costs because it has good relations with other suppliers, they know where they can additionally save money and how to negotiate with hotels and alike. A PCO company that offers the complete service in organizing congresses leans on a series of skills such as management, communication, marketing, finances, logistics and so on. The concept of PCO emerged from the need for professionally led conferences and an event manager includes various skills that are imbued in order to receive a good result. The PCO increases the quality of the event and raises it to a higher level.

Often it happens that the organizer of meetings does not want to arrange a PCO company in order to save money. In what way can PCO companies deal with this and how can they keep their competitiveness?

In order for success, it is necessary to have a good partnership and an honest relation between the client and PCO companies. Be open and honest because clients are not stupid. Today, everything thing can be checked on the internet, from the price of rooms and so on. In the Netherlands there are some tourist agencies which have a bad reputation because when they see a larger congress being prepared, they negotiate allotment prices with hotels who then resell them to the clients for double the price. This was maybe possible during the beginning of the 90’s, but not anymore. Do not fool the clients, be transparent. Tell them at the beginning: we do not charge a provision, but we do charge a smaller hourly fee / we charge a larger hourly fee, but we do not take a provision.

Do not sell a destination from the tourist point of view. Start selling it as a centre of knowledge. Find universities, hospitals, research laboratories, scientific institutes which are leading in their sectors. Support their members in order to mutually attract conferences in destinations. Do not only look at your own interests. Cooperate with the congress office in order to mutually promote a destination. Have faith in each other. Embrace new technologies. Answer to the needs of the clients. Give them free internet access if this contributes to the result. Create innovative and more favourable ways to a similar or better result.

Talked: Daniela Kos

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A long-time meetings industry addict, Gorazd is the Founder and owner of marketing and event agency Toleranca Marketing. He has many years of experience in planning, preparing and carrying out large international meetings and exhibitions. As the founder of the "Power to the Meetings" methodology, he still firmly believes in the power of live events and human to human communication. He is also the author of numerous articles and editor-in-chief of the meetings industry magazine Kongres Magazine.