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October 13, 2014
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Sub-Saharan Africa: The ABCs of PCOs—Part Two


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Professional Conference Organiser is a word that’s flung across the event space quite often. The name itself – better known as PCO – is pretty self-explanatory and needs no dictionary definition. But what exactly does a PCO do and why are they pivotal to the industry? Tamlynne Wilton, Director of Business Development & Marketing at MCI South Africa, says that PCOs are important for the same reason that a professional architect and builder are an important part of the construction process. “The role of a PCO is multifaceted,” Wilton explains, “We are knowledge and technology partners, project managers, creative experts, trend spotters and setters, quality controllers and meeting designers. While you can organise your own conference, it is much the same as building your own house. PCO’s are the experts in this field and ensure that your event is not just a meeting, but that audiences are engaged and energised while ensuring the triple bottom line principles are embraced.” With this in mind, The Event excavated a plethora of information from industry specialists on the subject, from letters N to Z on the subject. This is part two of The ABCs of PCOs.

RELATED: The ABCs of PCOs—Part One

Part Two

N – Negotiator

“Being a black belt contract negotiator is number one on my list of qualities of the successful event manager,” says Kevin R Johnston, CMP – CEO at Advantage Event Group. “Ultimately, the event measurement is two-fold: satisfaction and budget. A great event with superior satisfaction is often viewed as unsuccessful when the finances are all in.” This simply means that among other things, a PCO needs to understand the business case and the financial outcome required for the event. They then use this knowledge to find strategic solutions and provide leadership for the entire team including vendors, stakeholders, clients and staff, whilst negotiating an outcome of fair profits, fair deadlines and fair expectations for all parties involved.

O – Organisation

All PCOs will agree that one of the main elements needed to be a successful conference organiser is excellent organisational skills. “You need to have strong project management skills, financial and business acumen, negotiation skills and a network of phenomenal suppliers, partners and staff behind you to make it all happen,” says Wilton. Bennett gives similar advice saying, “You should know how to multi-task but you should be able to plan your day in a way that gives you blocks of time where you can focus solely on the project at hand. Your end product will be much more thorough. You should also be organised so you don’t waste time looking for things and reinventing forms or files, etc.”

P – Programme

The programme or structure of a conference has a number of characteristics. These include the conference schedule, keynote speakers and related networking events, as well as the exhibitor’s programme, i.e. hosted buyer meeting schedules and when exhibitors need to be set up and on the floor. Dinners, galas and special award ceremonies should also be included on the official conference programme, according to Conference Manager. The company offers this advice: “Put photos and descriptions of social events and tours on your website. Online registration provides flexibility for your delegates and keeps you up-to-date with their requirements.”

Q –Quintessential

According to a recent piece that theSquad’s Owner Kelly McGillivray wrote for BizCommunity, an event manager’s level of creativity can determine its overall success. Quintessential, luxury and mind-blowing events not only help retain current clients, but are key to attracting prospective ones, too. “In essence, creativity means going beyond the brief to satisfy the client by identifying opportunities, running with them and still being able to utilise all available resources within the budget,” McGillivray explains.

Reed Exhibitions’ core values echo this sentiment towards absolute quality of experience. “Everything we do is driven by our customers' needs,” the expo mogul states on its official website, “We want to be their indispensable partner and have a passion for understanding and exceeding our customers' expectations. We are committed to providing demonstrably superior products and services with the highest level of quality and excellence. Plus, we strive to be professional in all our customer dealings and are highly valued and respected by our customers.”

R – Renewability and the Green Revolution

“Exhibitions, by virtue of their temporary nature, tend to be wasteful,” the Event Greening Forum wrote in a recent article in The Event, “However the global surge in the use of smartphones ad tablets has created opportunities for exhibitors to go green.” Although some waste is unavoidable, it is especially important in this day and age that any PCO considers their impact on the environment. This process often begins early on when integrating technology into exhibition stands. Are there ways in which to lessen the electricity load whilst still keeping your event cutting edge? What’s happening to the rubbish? Are there various recycling options in place? Printed marketing material can also be kept to a minimum with alternatives like flash drives, CD’s or regular website updates.

Eco-friendly event apps have become a hit with conference goers, with the IMEX Group and Quickmobile recently releasing their first annual mobile event technology research study. It revealed that 63% of meeting planners say visitors expect a mobile app at the event, while 60% of event planners have already used at least one app for their events. EXSA also predicts that apps will soon take over the distribution of exhibition contracts, exhibitor manuals, newsletters and invitations, with email becoming a thing of the past.

S – Sponsorship

Official event sponsors and partnerships can be incredibly beneficial for PCOs wanting to bolster the budget through trade deals. “Whether you’re hosting a trade conference, wedding show or even charity event there’s a good chance that, in order to be profitable, you will have to get sponsors involved in proceedings,” Kelvin Newman writes on Event Manager Blog. “Typically when organising events it’s easier to think about your end customer being the attendee, delegate or whatever the nomenclature of choice is in your sector, but whether sponsors are you main source of revenue, or secondary to other streams, you need to see them as your customers.” He goes on to say that this will have an impact on how you programme events and will ultimately affect both the sponsors’ and the delegates’ experience. Knowing where you add value will also ensure you don’t sell yourself short. “Leverage sponsors and partners by encouraging them to contact their clients but do not depend too much on them,” Lockerman concludes.

T – Translation Services

Part of a PCO’s job will be to assess whether the conference, exhibition or event is local or international and if translation services are needed. Ludovic Béchard of IEBE, an interpretation service located in Johannesburg, says that there are a number of different categories of services under language translation. “Interpreting services involve highly competent professionals (simultaneous interpreters) who provide language translation simultaneously – in real-time or at the same time the orator is making his or her speech,” says Béchard. “Conference simultaneous interpretation requires acquired academic skill and an ability to be able to work under considerable amount of pressure. It is important to note that this is a spoken exercise! Often clients misunderstand there is a difference between translation services and interpreting services.  One is written and the other is oral or spoken.”

Simultaneous interpreters usually work in teams of two in a sound proof ISO booth. There are also international criteria that conference organisers should adhere to. “For instance, according to these, there should always be a booth for the floor language and an additional booth per additional language required,” says Béchard. “An orator should not exceed 120 words per minute and all documents, especially speeches and technical presentations that are read aloud should be provided to the interpreters in their own language beforehand.  But it is not well known in South Africa and certainly not consistently adhered to.”

Brian Prowling, also of IEBE, says that it is extremely important to work with PCOs that are able to meet clients’ needs for interpreting services. “One of the PCO’s roles is to understand what is required for every service provided. Ours is not a complicated service but it is often misunderstood, we can’t just provide a system without knowing what the client wants.” He goes on to say that as a country and destination, South Africa has to compete even harder for international work. “This then presents us with the challenge to also deliver at the same or at a higher standard than what is offered internationally in order to bring in the business.”

U – Utilities

Although this topic is closely connected with venue sourcing and renewability, much can be said about the utilities department. Most large conference venues have their own specified instructions on which utilities are available and how to use them. In the Cape Town International Convention Centre’s client manual for instance, it states that there are several power systems available for use. This includes normal power, UPS power, which is used to drive all essential equipment and control evacuation lighting during emergencies. Then there’s emergency power for electric failures and a clean power system with a separate earthing system for all audio visual power supply points. Finally, there’s the exhibition power which can supply approximately 250 exhibitors with 2KVA per stand. The CTICC’s water systems are also impeccable, with dual water flushers in the toilets for conservation and additional facilities available for sourcing and installing if needed. Ultimately, each venue’s utilities will differ slightly, but it is a PCO’s job to know exactly what is available – often with a thorough site check – and what their clients are looking for before making final decisions.

V – Venue Sourcing

“The venue for your meeting is key to the success of your event,” The Association Specialists shared in a recent online piece. One of the first items on a PCO’s agenda is sourcing the perfect venue. Venue research and evaluation needs to take place before final decisions are made. After this, the PCO will manage the negotiations until an agreement is decided upon between all parties involved.

“An adequate number of rooms must be available for the conference in order to accommodate large open sessions and smaller limited interest or working sessions,” the International Association of Sound & Audiovisual Archives (IASA) says in their conference guidelines. How much exhibition space and how many meeting rooms are needed will vary from event to event, but the PCO should always be on top of this. Other factors that are considered include delegate accommodation locality, if the venue is in a safe, attractive area and whether there are places of interest nearby – not everyone will be at the conference all day, every day.

According to Wilton, PCOs in Africa need to be in tune with the fact that the continent is a long-haul destination for the most part. “Destinations for scientific conferences should be selected based on relevancy of subject matter rather than convenience,” she explains, “and it is for this reason that I think Africa has so much to offer. We are however, thought of as a long-haul destination for many of our source markets and we urgently need to address visa issues that are negatively impacting travel from these countries. In addition to this, we need to shift public perception around crime and corruption on the continent. Challenges aside, we have first-world infrastructure, award-winning venues and suppliers, strong convention bureaus and highly skilled, friendly personnel.”

W – Website Design and Maintenance

An official website is often the first point of call for anyone who might attend an event. Because of this, it is imperative that the website is well-managed and constantly updated to attract traffic. According to Conference Manager’s guidelines, a type of online conferencing software, there are 10 must-haves for an event website. These include meeting dates, venue and contact details on the opening page, the agenda and information on the speakers, registration information and online registration forms. It’s also good to include a page on who should attend and the benefits of attending – as motivation for potential delegates – as well as the meeting’s goals and objectives. The website is also one might find information for sponsors and exhibitors, accommodation, local and travel information and a call for papers if applicable. There should also be a dedicated news hub for both delegates and media, while social media links and hashtags should be easily visible.

X – Xenial

The definition of ‘xenial’ is of, relating to or constituting hospitality or relations between host and guest. Although it is used especially in connection with the ancient Greeks between persons of different cities, it can just as easily be applied to a PCO’s context. The PCO plays host to an innumerable amount of both international and local delegates – not to mention the many other people they have to host and accommodate throughout the duration of the conference as well.

Y – Youth

Youths are often ignored in the Meetings, Incentives, and Conference and Exhibition industries but in recent years, so-called ‘millennials’ have become an obsession for businesses in this sector. One of the main reasons for this is that about 65% of Africa’s entire population are below the age of 35, while over 35% are between 15 and 35 years of age. Tapping into this market is difficult but doable, and even PCOs need to be cognisant of the fact that today’s youth are essentially the next generation of conference organisers. Because of this, the industry needs to begin thinking of innovative ways to attract Africa’s youth.

TEDx has a brilliant model for incorporating youth into events. TEDxYouth events are designed and organised by youth for youth and through this, young adults are empowered and inspired. “It was amazing to see how engaged youth team members were with the whole event and how thankful they were to be given such an incredible opportunity as being part of a TEDx event,” said an organizer.

Social media also plays a key role in attracting millennials, Jeff Barrett, President and CEO of Status Creative told Meeting Minds. “It’s important to recognize that this is the first generation that grew up immersed in social media,” he explained. “There are more options than ever, so if you’re trying to get the attention of the millennial, you have to do something that’s loud enough to rise above the noise.” Another important thing to note is that millennials are looking for peer interaction at conferences. Recent research done by the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) Education Foundation found that one of the primary drivers for youth to participate in events was if it provided career networking opportunities.

Z – Zealous

Having a zealous attitude is a necessity in the conference industry. “A successful event manager needs to be enthusiastic and passionate about what they do. Enthusiasm and passion bring about creativity and generate excitement,” says Chris Catoggio, an Independent Event Services Professional. Kevin Johnston agrees, “If it’s just a job or a pay check, any event planner will be viewed as average. The passion to make it more productive, more exciting, more, more, more is what drives this business. Otherwise we’d all be eating on white table cloths with votive candles and parquet dance floors.”


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