Calling the professionals

Angela Antrobus

Publicity Officer for the International Association of
Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO)

If your conferences are humdrum and your meetings have no direction, why not consult a professional?

The economic sense of outsourcing to outside specialists is understood nowhere better than in the senior management offices of large companies and conglomerates. You would be hard-pressed to find a managing director who expects his marketing department to come up with a world-class advertising campaign or develop a global public relations strategy without enlisting the help of an advertising agency in the first case, or PR consultant in the second. Both are specialist areas where expert advice is sought and practical assistance gladly paid for.

But what about conferences and meetings? They are increasingly seen as a significant part of the marketing package, as well as essential for educating or motivating sales teams and distributors, passing on important management messages, informing shareholders about performance and plans, and generally ensuring corporate identity remains solid. Yet there is still a lingering resistance to bringing in outside specialists who can advise on the best way to run these events and provide professional, logistical support.

These people exist under a variety of names and in several different guises. But some of the more enlightened firms have found that the skills and know-how they require, as well as the technical back-up and human resources, are all available in the offices of a professional conference organising company.

The professional conference organiser (PCO) has been around longer than you might think. IAPCO celebrates its 30th anniversary next year and several members have been running international events for at least that long. They founded companies in the 1960s because there was an obvious gap in the market for professional management services. Traditionally linked to association meetings, particularly scientific, medical or professional, many PCO companies are now widening their scope in the corporate world as both the demand for professionalism and the need for meetings and incentive travel programmes increases.

For a long time companies have seen the advantages of bringing sales teams together. There are similar needs right across the business spectrum. Staff motivation, communication of messages, product information team building and reward can all be achieved effectively through a conference or specially targeted programme.

Teleconferencing certainly has a role and this will grow larger as techniques improve and costs fall. But it has its limitations. People like to be part of a group, to compare notes, to learn, to share the company ethos. They like the structure of a meeting, the bringing together of like minds and common interests. Conferences combine three of the major growth sectors in the world today: travel, technology and information transfer.

With increasing competition in every area of consumerism, wider international markets and more company mergers, there is growing recognition that face-to-face communication helps to achieve better results and keeps a company one step ahead of its rivals. Combine this with a proliferation of professional conference services plus cheaper international travel, and the whole proposition becomes much more attractive and feasible.

None of this will come as any kind of revelation to the well seasoned meeting planner attached to a dynamic corporation. But if you have taken on new meetings responsibilities with instructions to improve company communications, you may be wondering where to begin.

One of IAPCO's British members tells the story of a potential client who came to her offices saying he would like to hold a company conference, because a new conference centre had just opened in town and it seemed like a good idea to try it. This is not a good reason. You need to have clear-cut objectives, even if the brief is to brighten up regular meetings that have become routine and therefore boring for the majority of attendees.

A PCO will look at those objectives with you and examine ways of achieving them within your budget. You will need to identify the best type of venue and the most suitable location, eg, city centre, country retreat, resort or airport hotel.

Assuming you have a choice in the matter, the timing and duration need careful consideration. Decisions need to be made about the format, the speakers, audio visual equipment and the extent to which other technological aids or special effects might enhance proceedings, the ratio of working sessions to entertainment/recreation/social events, the extent to which other technological aids or special effects might enhance proceedings, the ratio of working sessions to entertainment/recreation/social events, the extent of printed material, gifts, handouts and staff of site. Accommodation and travel arrangements may be another part of the equation. They can be fairly straightforward if all participants are based in the same country but no so easy when you have a lot of people flying in from different countries and time zones.

Once you have agreed what needs to be done, the PCO protect team will look after as many of these details as you want them to, acting as an extension of your company. Negotiating with hotels, venues, banqueting managers and a myriad of other suppliers is a part of their day-to-day duties; they have specially developed computer software to record and monitor every aspect, and they can arrange access to offbeat places or private buildings which would not normally be open to the public.

For an offshore conference in a city or country with which you are not at all familiar, finding a reliable local PCO is often the first wise step to take. The alternative is to choose a PCO closer to home with whom you build up an ongoing relationship. That way they get to understand your aims on a long-term basis and can represent you anywhere in the world, dealing with local suppliers and sorting out any potential problems. Within a network such as IAPCO they are in an even better position to acquire reliable insider information or hire top-quality services available from local member companies.

I said at the start that professional help comes in several different guises. If you look at the different sectors within the meetings industry - PCOs, incentive travel houses, production companies, destination management companies (DMCs) and, indeed, some travel agencies - there is a growing tendency for their roles to overlap or one to be contracted alongside another. Acting as a consultant, making creative input, taking responsibility for the project from beginning to end and having full control of the budget, if the client so wishes, are the regular functions of any experienced PCO. Perhaps, in time, all types of company working in a similar capacity will be called simply 'communications specialists'.

IAPCO is a professional association for PCOs and in-house meeting managers based all over the world. Its aim is to raise standards in international conference management by studying related problems, finding and publicising solutions, and providing education for conference executives of the future.

The annual IAPCO Seminar on Professional Congress Organisation is now in its 23rd year.

For details of the full IAPCO training programme, information on the association's activities and how to join, or for a list of members, please apply to:

IAPCO Secretariat
40 rue Washington
1050 Brussels
Tel: 32 2 640 71 05
Fax: 32 2 640 47 1
World Wide Web site