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September 30, 2014

Sub-Saharan Africa: The ABCs of PCOs

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Part 1

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. 

A - Accommodation
This is often one of the first things that any delegate queries when they consider attending an event. Will the accommodation be up to standard? Will it be near the conference facility? These are questions PCOs are mindful of when a venue option presents itself. Many PCOs negotiate reduced rates or unique partnerships with hotels in the area. These are usually star-graded places of accommodation where guests are assured of the hotel’s quality. The International Association of Sound and Audiovisuals reiterates the importance of location, saying “Spreading people out over a city is very impersonal and tiring and defeats the main benefits of the conference, which is to have the delegates meet and discuss their mutual concerns.”

B – Budget 
Although the association or event owner will always have ultimate control over the budget, it’s always good to engage the PCO from the planning stages. Most PCOs have flexible pricing structures that vary according to the level of service support that is needed, and some even offer a free needs analysis consultancy as part of their willingness to ‘share the risk’ with other parties. There are several payment models that are commonly used such as a fixed management fee, a management fee per delegate, a fee per abstract or paper handled, a percentage of the budget or even profit sharing. “It is our advice to talk to the PCO and have open dialogue to ensure both parties have a clear understanding of each other’s needs so the most appropriate transparent pricing structure can be established,” says Congrex, a PCO from Holland. 

C – Creativity
After a recent collective response from the LinkedIn events community, the Event Manager Blog reported that a number of clients wanted a creative PCO. Said James Minella, an Events Operations Director, “Be creative and flexible. I think these two go together because in the event business things are always changing, which requires you to be flexible to develop a solution – and solutions come about as a result of your creativity.” Nicole Bennett, Owner of Perry Consulting echoed his sentiment saying that a PCO should “enjoy creative problem solving – no matter how well you plan, something will pop up and you must enjoy being able to solve challenges quickly and with the resources at hand.”

D – Delegates and Registration
It is important for any PCO to determine early-bird and final registration dates before invitations are sent and registration forms are published. A registration procedure should also be decided upon, such as online, paper-based or both, as well as which online registration system will be used and whether it will be hosted on the conference’s official website. Other decisions around registration include accommodation – will delegates be able to book hotels and tours through the event website? Will specific partners, sponsors or destination management companies be involved in this process? Registration forms should be comprehensive and should be created according to the conference programme. Items such as meals and dietary requirements, transportation, sessions and workshops, the social programme and spousal packages can be included and decided upon at an early stage already. 

E – Exhibition 
If the conference has a dedicated exhibition as part of its programmes, this needs to be well-planned and executed as early as possible Not only will the PCO have to reach out to possible exhibitors with a unique package, but they will also have to create contracts, send information to exhibitors on points of contact, conference goals, procedural instructions, final agendas and floor space allocation. The floor space should be mapped out for exhibitors, who should in turn send the PCO their requirements for the booths. 

F – Flexibility
Flexibility is the be-all and end-all of any PCO’s profile. In any event, things will happen that are out of the PCO’s control. They need to be quick on their feet and capable of solving anything with a level head. Planning for the best and being prepared for the worst can also be a great advantage. Anroopa Banerjee Gupta, a Marketing Communications Expert, recently shared a congruous story with the Event Manager Blog. “I know of someone who was working on a tradeshow. She got the entire booth set-up done by 3am and the next day, when she arrived at the booth 30 minutes before show time, she realised that the company president’s profile poster had be put up in such a manner that his nose got chopped off. She actually got a 7ft X 3ft poster mounted before the show – she had an extra poster at hand.”

G – Globalisation 
Globalisation, in a nutshell, is the process by which businesses and other organisations develop international influence or begin to operate on an international scale. In recent years, factors such as low-cost international travel and constant connectivity have drastically accelerated this phenomenon, while the emergence of a new middle class have opened up myriad opportunities. PCOs need to be ahead of the game in this respect, according to MCI Group’s online insights. “Rapid globalisation is also posing a number of complex challenges. Organisations must contend with a volatile global economy, intercultural sensitivity, climate change, resource scarcity and an array of regulatory standards, while increased competition, consumer demand for transparency and the drive towards digitisation is forcing many to rethink their business models.” 

H – Hybrid Events 
A hybrid event, for the clueless few out there, is a trade show, conference, seminar or workshop that combines a live, in-person event with a virtual, online component. A great example of this was the recent Leadercast 2014 that was broadcast live from Atlanta, USA to a number of gatherings across the globe including Cape Town. “Changing consumer behaviour and the development of a collective social conscience, advancements in technology and a volatile global economy has presented various challenges and opportunities for our industry,” says Wilton, “We are seeing a move towards digitisation, an increase in hybrid events and changes in the way that people engage. In addition to this, there is a greater focus on sustainability and legacy building programmes which are so important for the socio-economic development of our continent and its people.”

I – Influence
One of a PCO’s biggest assets is his or her rolodex of contacts. These are the people and services that a PCO needs in order to get an event up and running, and who are, essentially, their bread and butter. This is why it is so important to have rapport with businesses and help move the industry in the best possible direction. “It is important to note that while PCO’s are important, it is even more important that PCOs belong to industry associations which are vital for our own growth as professionals and for the standardisation and professionalism of our industry,” says Tamlynne Wilton of MCI Group. “We are active members in all four international industry associations, ICCA, IAPCO, PCMA and MPI. Our contribution to the industry is through content as we believe sharing best practice is vital for the betterment and professionalization of our industry as a whole. Recognised as a thought leader in the strategic engagement and activation of audiences, our experts are leading the way in diverse industries, from healthcare and life sciences to ICT, luxury, automotive, energy, financials and FMCG,  and in diverse areas, from digitisation to sustainability and regulation and compliance.”

J – Jocund
A cheerful disposition never hurt anyone – in fact, it probably does the opposite and attracts people. A PCO’s disposition is incredibly important as they are dealing with clients, suppliers, delegates, exhibitors, venue owners and many more people leading up to and over the duration of a conference. Greg Ruby, Event Management Specialist at Baltimore Convention Centre says, “Have a sense of humour – we are not talking rocket science here. Have fun with the work and the people you work with, and in most cases they will want to work with you again in the future.”

K – Keynote Speakers
Conferences and exhibitions generally have a certain number of hours and simultaneous events to fill over their running days. These may come in the form of council meetings, plenary lectures or panel discussions. One of a PCO’s jobs is to liaise with potential speakers and manage their travel, accommodation and other logistical issues that may arise. Most speakers are invited a good few months in advance – if not the previous year – so as to ensure their availability and to create some kind of media hype ahead of the event, especially if the speakers are in demand. “When it's your role to choose the speakers for your next annual conference, company meeting, or special event, you wield significant power over its success,” says Nina Spencer, a Motivational Speaker based in Toronto, Canada. “Choosing the ‘right’ presenter can mean the difference between basking in the glory of a memorable event and bearing the brunt of criticism for selecting an inappropriate speaker!”

L – Logistics 
Logistics pertains to the management of all elements of a conference or exhibition. This includes project management, financial management, venue, registration and accommodation management, as well as audio visual production, the handling of abstracts and papers, graphics, printing and sponsorships. Most PCOs offer a comprehensive service that covers logistics on all sides, but they can also be tailored to meet the client’s specific needs and objectives. According to Congrex, conference logistical management includes but is not limited to, consultancy and advice on the structure of an event, supplier contract negotiation, business planning and timeline management, arranging secretariat functions for committees, on-site staffing, and event evaluation. 

M – Marketing and Promotion
Marketing an event begins as soon as possible, which means that most annual conferences have a marketing strategy already in place for the following year before their current event has come to a close. This strategy includes, but is not limited to, creating a comprehensive and easily navigable conference app, creating a website and keeping it updated with the latest event news, images and press releases, and having specific points in the strategy where some kind of media hype is created in the build up to the conference. Using social media to promote the event is an incredibly popular and effective way of both gauging and generating interest. A simple but focused conference message strategy should be developed, says Joseph Oliver, a Technologist for Proxivision. “By being focused and keeping things simple, you will allow your message to stand out against the background noise found through other vendors’ and competitors’ likely ‘unfocused’ messaging.”

There are a number of ways in which to market an event, says Robin Lockerman, CEO of MCI Group’s Institutional Division. These include event branding, creating a customised conference identity, promotional items, print collateral, email promotion, promotion at other events, direct mail, advertising, telemarketing, media relations and of course sponsorships and trade partners. “Finally, the old adage that you have to spend money to make money rings true. Research shows it’s rare for more than 2% of conference budget to be spent on marketing the event. A minimum expenditure of 5% will be more effective in attracting new and repeat delegates,” says Lockerman. 

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