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Professional Conference Organisers

© British Association of Conference Destinations (BACD)It is frequently said that change is the only constant in our lives today. It is undoubtedly the case that the role of the professional conference organizer (PCO) has witnessed some substantial changes in recent years. This article, draws on the feedback obtained from a survey of some of the ABPCO's most experienced members, examines a number of the opportunities and challenges confronting the contemporary PCO.

The impacts of technology are apparent in event marketing, event management and production, and in many other ways. One member of ABPCO gave the following illustration: “We no longer need to spend weeks keying in lists from other conferences to put together a comprehensive distribution list for the conference. We now receive mailing lists electronically and can send out electronic brochures or direct potential delegates to the conference website immediately. I remember organising, in 1994, an international conference for 1,200 delegates. The mailing list consisted of 25,000 contact names and addresses which we keyed into our database (this took one person a total of 50 days to key in!) and the postage was £25,000. Today we spend no time keying in contact names and the postage costs are around £5,000.”

The advent of online registration has also greatly assisted the PCO with cutting overheads such as full time staff and, in turn, helped to keep the PCO’s fees lower to remain competitive. The PCO has become a multi-national legislation enforcer in areas such as risk and security. With security matters, and health and safety issues, there can be a whole chain of responsibility encompassing the venue, the PCO, sub-contractors, etc. but it is the PCO who plays a vital role in co-ordinating these various players and producing a coherent risk management strategy.

The PCO is also required to be a financial and tax expert, and even develop strategies to prevent money laundering and minimise fraud from bogus conference delegates. The number of people involved with a conference today is more fragmented. One ABPCO member gave the following example: “I recently was involved with a conference where the convention bureau was organising the accommodation, an exhibition organiser had been appointed, the client’s wife was organising the social programme, the client was responsible for the scientific programme and we were responsible for the registration and abstract administration. We need to learn to be flexible,” she concluded. Clients are also becoming very cost-conscious. Ten years ago most conference budgets broke even. Today conferences are expected to generate additional income for the organisation.
This has meant that clients often ‘cherry pick’ the services offered by the PCO and invariably take a part service. One of the results may well be that the quality of the event is diminished and overall event management standards fall.

What, then, does the future look like for PCOs? If they are to flourish and not merely survive, several key objectives need be achieved. With research and technology accelerating the world's development, there is a much stronger need to meet, establish relations and build partnerships, spark ideas and test them. We in the industry need to promote this more. The PCO needs to become ever more creative and expert in facilitating. Future PCOs will need to be real entrepreneurs, taking more risks than before and developing programmes for new specialities. PCOs will take more of a creator role or, as one ABPCO member put it, be “considered more and more as part of an organisation’s marketing mix, rather than as people who are good at filing!” An imaginative and creative input by the PCO to a client’s business and event aims is the only way forward. Creativity is often the critical differentiation in a bid. We need a legal, regulatory framework which sets down minimum professional standards for PCOs, and has the powers to control who may operate as a PCO. And finally we in the industry must actively promote the role of the PCO and create a improved understanding of the complexity and variety of skills and expertise that the role entails.

This article was kindly contributed by Tony Rogers - Chief Executive of the British Association of Conference Destinations (BACD) and Executive Director of the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers (ABPCO)
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