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February 20, 2015

Portugal: IAPCO's Jan Tonkin Talks Lisbon and the New Role of PCOs

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During the Association annual meeting that took place in Lisbon, Portugal, from February 13 to 15, Event Point spoke with New Zealander Jan Tonkin, The Conference Company managing director and IAPCO vice-president.

Event Point: I'd like to know more about how you chose Lisbon as a destination for this meeting.

Jan Tonkin: We have some criteria and the destinations that are interested would, then, submit a bid in the normal way. It is pretty much the process you see in other associations. Those criteria are clear and the bids are received, evaluated and then discussed by the council that makes a decision. One specific criterion we have a lot of interest in is when the members of a country join together. So, you take this particular situation here in Portugal, where we have Leading and AIM who worked together to make a collaboration. That was very well regarded by IAPCO while considering the bid.

EP: What were the strong points of the Portuguese bid?

JT: We took into account that, in the 46 years IAPCO has been holding conferences, it has never held one in Portugal, so that was a key factor in selecting Lisbon, related to rotation and our intention to expose different countries. It also had to do with choosing a destination that is putting together an interesting program. Not only regarding the social side, but also about what happens in the program and how they can contribute with their approach to conferences. The speakers they can draw, the ideas they have for things. It is about what they are proposing, about content as well as a destination. Networking is important for IAPCO, we are a very close group of people, so we need some networking opportunities and socializing. But we are also wanting to get very good value from the facilitated conversations. I prefer calling them that rather than just lectures. When we were considering the program here, they had a way of looking at subjects that had not been addressed in other conferences. There was some imagination, some innovation and a lot of enthusiasm. And those things are important, particularly the enthusiasm to host. We really felt like Portugal wanted us to be here.

RELATED: IAPCO Meets in Lisbon

EP: How was the experience of working with both Leading and AIM?

JT: Very good, because they collaborated nicely, they both had their particular roles and they made sure that the council was kept very well informed. There was a nice mix of bringing some personality and ideas, the two companies coming together and the close collaboration with the IAPCO office as well.

EP: What were your first impressions of the destination?

JT: Well, I had been here before! But when I think about what some of the others were saying, they were very keen to come because this is a country that they might have heard about as a summer destination, but they hadn't thought about it as a conference one. Personally, I think most of the appeal had to do with the fact that, despite being located in Europe, Portugal is so different. I can move across countries and be able to speak the language in France or Italy. But then I come to Portugal and it's got a different history, it's got a different language, it's got quite a different atmosphere and approach. It's got something quite special that makes it stand out. Of course, each country has its history, but this country has quite a fascinating one. Also, its geography and the way it's positioned is quite unique. The Fado music and the food also make Portugal's personality different from its neighbours.

EP: About the conference program, what are the main challenges for PCOs nowadays?

JT: I'd say bringing some standards to a business that, in 40 years, has evolved in different parts of the world and it hasn't come together the ways other professions have. You have different ways of approaching the business in different countries, and the clients in different countries have different expectations about conference organizers. Some expect that it is more a logistics delivery, others more of professional consultants with a strategy.

PCOs are faced with the need to communicate the value of the conference organizers. In these open forums, the mostly asked question is how do we all understand how we communicate that value. If we all start saying the same things, and within meetings and education standards, if we get accreditation or certification, then that will take us where, like other professions, I can say “I'm a certified IAPCO member”. As a buyer of conference management services, you understand what that means. It means the company has made education commitments and that it follows a code of conduct. And we are trying to make this value more and more recognized.

EP: It's a huge task to pass this message to the clients.

JT: Absolutely. You can have accreditation, but if the client doesn't understand that it is of any importance, it won't serve you. I know an interesting case of a national association in the conference management area that has created some accreditation with certified conference organizers, but the clients on their RFP put no value on that. So, when you have accreditation, you must market it so that the clients understand what that means. Interestingly enough, now I get RFPs that say “we will be looking for IAPCO members” or “please advise us if you are an IAPCO member”. Also, we put out a document with guidelines to compile an RFP, and it's great to see when companies use it because we did our job helping the client, also in a format which is familiar to IAPCO members.

EP: What do you expect to be the outcome of this meeting in Lisbon?

JT: This one is always about strengthening the connections between the members, because IAPCO meets once a year and we're spread over 41 countries. It's about getting to know one another better and better, get a depth in relationship and then, from that, we can help one another. Today I met someone on my table who I didn't know so well and now I know that, if I need to work in that part of the world, I can send an email to that person asking for assistance, which will be willingly given.

And this is happening a lot between IAPCO members. In spite of being competitors, they will share valuable information. It has even been useful for me, actually. I've just started working in another country and a client asked me if I would do it. As scary as it was, if I hadn't had the connection in IAPCO, I wouldn't have known how to get started. But because of the relationship that has been built, I was able to proceed.

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