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January 15, 2019

Sub-Saharan Africa: PCO Rounds Unpacked

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For those who are wet behind the ears, a PCO Round is essentially when a group of professional conference organisers are invited to bid for an event by an event host city, a government organisation such as a convention bureau, or by an event owner.

A trusted Event source recently came forward to share their concerns on this topic. They wish to remain anonymous due to its sensitive nature. They say that although there used to be great transparency and fairness in the selection of PCOs to present at these PCO rounds in previous years, of late, the same small group of PCOs are being invited. This is worrying, and means that some organisers are left at a disadvantage and cannot procure large-scale jobs in the business-events sector in the same way that they were able to in the past. Having been shut out of their livelihoods, they have been forced to close shop, scale down, or find other avenues of work in order to survive.

Nina Freysen-Pretorius is a trusted industry stakeholder, and The Conference Company is known for its ability to organise events of all sizes. She says that it is imperative that due process, proper procedures and credibility be followed both in the case of tenders and PCO rounds. “Local industry association is important in most sectors, and in the business events industry it is, in fact, paramount,” she says. “In past years the South African Association for the Conference Industry used to have a grading structure that they used for PCO’s. Sadly this has fallen away and now a list exists that has everyone on one spreadsheet. This is a challenge and weakness for our sector. It is important for the client to know and be given guidance on the type of services and experience that a PCO has. The reality is also that without experience and industry knowledge, the event risk profile is elevated. Having a PCO that is new and has no previous experience working on, for example, an international meeting means that the bad experience will portray an unprofessional service and casting doubt on all other PCOs. A huge reputational risk for our country as a destination.”

PCO rounds are an opportunity for the client to meet their service provider face to face, says Freysen-Pretorius. This allows them to get a sense of whether they are compatible. “The relationship between client and PCO is the foundation of a successful event. Without mutual respect, understanding and collaborative engagement the event cannot be a success.”

“Furthermore, PCO rounds need to be conducted in a manner that is compliant with international industry standards and norms. Only PCOs with relevant experience and an understanding of the support needed should be invited,” she adds. “Convention bureaus or convention centres who are the host and maybe the coordinator or introducer of the meeting between parties cannot be party to this meeting or be expected to judge or adjudicate. This will take the independence and impartiality away from the process. In addition, should things go wrong, this will also slant the relationship that they have with the client.”

This concern is echoed by our source, who said they/she has been in rounds where representatives of convention bureaus are part of the judging and scoring process, and as such, this has the potential to create created a deep bias or a perception of bias in who is chosen to organise a business event.

According to the Cape Town and Western Cape Convention Bureau, they take their relationship with PCOs “very seriously” and always recommend local service providers where possible. “Different destinations use a variety of methods on how they manage this process and there is not one standard solution,” says Adriaan Fourie, Business Development Manager: Conventions and Meetings at the Bureau. “Some cities operate on a membership model, others appoint a number of PCOs for a period of time and work exclusively with these or others use PCOs who are members of international associations.”

The process of selecting a PCO in Cape Town begins during the bidding phase and during the first meetings with clients. There are discussions on what needs are, experience, the personality of different companies, and what the clients most prefer. Once the client has received a full list of possible PCOs, a shortlist of companies are asked to present. PCOs first need to submit a written submission to outline services and experience, followed by a short interview. “In most cases, a further shortlist will determine the final companies for selection. Although the convention bureau guides this process in consultation with the clients, the final decision is always theirs,” Fourie says.

Although the Cape Town and Western Cape Convention Bureau is involved at every level to ensure smooth sailing for the client, this does mean that their biases inevitably become part of the process. The Event’s PCO source suggests that a way to create more fairness and opportunities for all PCOs is to reintroduce a previous system, where PCOs are selected on rotation. This means that every PCO who wins a job through these rounds is not included in the following round. It ensures a wider reach and opportunities for organisers. It also means that the smallest segment of PCOs isn’t receiving the largest market share – and if they are, there is still room for others to enter the industry.

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