Surekha Ragavan
Oct 29, 2018

Do associations need PCOs?

A debate about what advantages professional conference organisers can provide, versus what companies may lose when they outsource conference planning.

Do associations need PCOs?

Association meetings—as opposed to brand events—are all about the content. What will delegates and members learn from the experience? How will the content help the association reach its objectives and goals? And how will the content affect communities after the meeting ends?

Some may argue that professional conference organisers (PCOs) or planners do not have the capacity to design and curate content based on each association’s needs. Others may argue that PCOs are more experienced in designing events based on tried-and-tested methods and may very well help associations reach their content objectives.

At the recent IT&CM Asia, both PCOs and associations debated the issue. “PCOs have the knowledge that’s not readily available in capsules,” said Monimita Sarkar, managing director for India-based PCO, KW Conferences Pvt Ltd. “[PCOs] can handle areas of congress administration for which associations may not have the technical resources or time or know-how. We have regional expertise in an area.”

Sarkar also points out that PCOs are well-versed with regional, local and company-wide compliances which will come in handy for associations, especially in tax issues. “If you were to go to a tax consultant, I can assure you that not one of them—even if they were experienced—will be able to tell you anything about the meetings and events industry,” she said.

“It’s such a niche segment. You can see a tax consultant anytime or anywhere but you won’t get the kind of knowledge because it’s too niche. We have worked with [tax consultants] for so many years to garner that kind of knowledge.”

Sarkar said that due process is important when it comes to the operations of running an event. “Whether you’re venue-sorting or accommodation managing, whether you’re doing registration or on-ground logistics or financial management, you’ve got to understand we have the capabilities to deliver each of those elements. We don’t know how many associations have the knowledge or bandwidth,” she said.

“We might not know about oncology in detail or about tax management from an association’s perspective, but we know how to leverage things to get the association the benefit that it’s required.”

Amos Wong, CEO for Kuala Lumpur-based PCO AOS Conventions & Events, mirrored Sarkar’s sentiment: “It is definitely wise [to engage a PCO] where language is a concern. In some countries, they have something called the professional business pass as an immigration law. So if someone is coming in as a speaker, they actually need to have a professional pass. If for unfortunate reasons, it’s reported to immigration that they don’t, it’s a big problem.”

Wong argues that if associations don’t want to hire a PCO for an entire spectrum of an event, it’s good to get external help for just bits and pieces they feel comfortable delegating. “A PCO doesn’t want to own and run your event, it’s a collaboration,” he said.

On top of that, a lack of staff could also hinder associations from doing events on their own. Depending on the size of the association, not all board members serve in their roles full-time, and even if they do, few have the expertise and skills to organise all aspects of event management or marketing.

“Not all associations have a back office,” said Sarkar. “Sometimes that capacity is not known. They might be someone at a more secretarial level.”

On the other side of the coin, Iain Bitran, executive director for The International Society For Professional Innovation Management (ISPIM), has been running association meetings and events in-house for years.

“With all due respect, it’s not about organising the event. You could train a monkey to organise an event. It’s about the content. I can’t see how working with a PCO can help us with the content. The logistical aspects of it, that’s easy. It’s not stressful at all, in fact, I enjoy that bit,” he said.

“It doesn’t take a lot of time or organise the actual conference. What takes time is to put together the programme. The actual logistics of running a conference is easy—and we have the in-house capabilities to do that.”

When asked about logistical aspects like tax compliance, Bitran said that there’s a “wealth of knowledge” from convention bureaus (CVB). For him and his team, a local CVB is the first port of call in any destination they land.

Cost-wise, Bitran finds that he’s able to increase revenue by working with in-house staff. “We want to take ownership of the conference. We’re not going to pay somebody to do that because that reduces the income we get from the conference. For us, 80% of our revenue comes from our conference so why would we outsource that?” he said.

“I would say any association where a conference is a really huge part of your business, you should take ownership of that. Otherwise, what are you in business for?”

However, despite having the capacity to run events on their own, Bitran and his team are aware that they can’t do everything themselves. “Sometimes, you have to take a step back and think where is your time better served. And there are elements of what we do now that we outsource. We certainly work with DMCs,” he said.

“When you’re going to different parts of the world and you’re looking at cultural issues and local taxation issues, you need to know someone who knows what they’re doing. We stick to what we’re good at and we outsource the things we know we’re not good at.”

When asked about keeping up with event trends and being creative, Bitran said: “That’s a bit more challenging. But we go and attend other events, you borrow things from other people and see what works and what doesn’t. I think you’re almost always as good as your last conference but if you continue with the same vein all the time, ultimately, your conference is going to die. You have to keep trying to do new things.”


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