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by Padraic Gilligan, Vice President, Industry Relations, MCI

The Three Musketeers

Nicky McGraneThat’s how the executive host committee of the hugely successful IAPCO Conference which took place in Dublin last week described themselves. It’s worth dissecting the image as, I believe, there are crucial lessons here for success in business and in destination marketing in particular. The combative, swashbuckling efficiency of the Three Musketeers is one dimension to the image that was in great evidence throughout the delivery of the event. From the power and punch of the educational sessions to the joy and exuberance of the social events, this meeting was a full-on sensory attack that challenged conventional formats and provided delegates with new insights and experiences in conference organisation. The Musketeers even engaged the services of their own D’Artagnan in the shape of Maurice Pratt, MC and summariser for the event. With a corporate pedigree as long as the coast of Chile, Maurice ensured that all discussion pivoted around business realities and, throughout the event, provided great context and content based on having served a 30 year sentence in corporate Realpolitik. Thus the business of conference organisation was constantly rooted where it belongs: in the business of business.

One for All

Dublin image 1000x768The other dimension to Dumas’ heroes is, of course, the famous “One for all, all for one”. In this regard McGrane, Evans and Mitchell really excelled and set out a compelling collaborative model for destination marketing. Leveraging their collective relationship with public sector TMOs and DMOs as well as with partner-suppliers on the private side the Musketeers raised over €100,000 in cash and in-kind sponsorship to ensure that Dublin as a destination sparkled and shined before an audience of influential international delegates. They also worked ceaselessly to ensure fair representation throughout the event from each of their respective companies avoiding the ridiculous shape throwing and petty jostling that is so often prevalent when competitors try to collaborate on a destination project. The outcome is that Dublin did deliver and made an enduring impact on our international colleagues that, ultimately, will be to the benefit of all. The rising tide of new destination awareness will certainly lift all boats.

The Association Viewpoint

Richard HolmesThe education sessions at IAPCO were, by and large, powerful and punchy, none more so that the session on “The Association Viewpoint” which featured association denizen, International Director of Meetings at Epilepsy Congress Office and AC Forum founder-member, Richard Holmes. AC Forum, comprised of 9 major association and conference behemoths such as the European Cancer Organisation and the International Diabetes Federation, is known for its less than favourable view of the PCO sector. Thus this session was much anticipated and a full house was guaranteed probably for the same reason that the Coliseum filled to capacity on a regular basis in times gone by – ancient Romans and PCOs share the same blood thirsty schadenfreude of witnessing a massacre.

The Drama of Conferences

Art of warSurrounded on all sides by baying lions, Richard Holmes acquitted himself like Russell Crowe in Gladiator or, better, following the advice of Sun-tzu, author of The Art of War, he employed cunning and guile to avoid all conflict. He narrated the long version of the site inspection joke (in fairness, I fell off a dinosaur laughing at that one the first time I heard it!) and then delivered an extremely comprehensive presentation which provided a fair and accurate account of how associations work, what their purpose is and how his work as an internal PCO serves the overall objectives of the association. One of his PPT slides presented the cast of thousands typically involved in the delivery of a large conference but, in Richard’s world, the PCO played a minor role in the overall drama as a mere member of the chorus, along with print services, on-site transport and hospitality staff. It was as far from the notion of a PCO as consultant as it could possibly be.

It’s all about core purpose

The battle lines appeared to converge around the notion of purpose. Richard highlighted the divergent objectives of PCOs and Associations: PCOs exist for commercial gain, he claimed, their core purpose being profitability. Associations (and, it should be stressed, Richard’s commentary related exclusively to Medical Associations) are not-for-profit entities with a higher, more lofty aim of advancing medical research and thus improving global healthcare. As an in-sourced conference director Richard stated that his fiduciary responsibility was to ensure that his association minimised the fees it paid for conference services so as to maximise the funds available for research. Thus he would always buy as directly and as cheaply as possible, leveraging the scale of his conferences to win concessions, funding and freebies from DMOs, CVBs and accommodation providers and by-passing any “middle man” such as a PCO.

The end justifies the means?

I remained uncomfortable with this analysis for the past week. Ultimately it follows the Machiavellian principle of “the end justifies the means”. Just because associations are committed to improving global health doesn’t mean it’s OK for them to leverage their power and might to drive rates as low as possible. I thought a lot about Maurice Pratt’s comment on the “race to the bottom” where he linked the horse meat scandal in Europe to the tactics of global supermarket chains who drive prices so low that manufactures resort to desperate measures. Maximising funds for medical research is certainly a good thing but is it an absolute? What if it pursues the “win/lose” principle and  is at the expense of destination revenues which, in turn, create and sustain jobs, support local economies, provide fiscal revenues for local and national authorities – all surely equally important for the all around health of the body politic? Most business leaders subscribe to the win/win principle not only because of its intrinsic ethics but also because, in the mid to long term, it’s best for everyone’s business. But enough of that.

The IAPCO Legacy

IAPCO’s present in Dublin in February 2013 highlighted many things about the leading Professional Conference Organisers in the world today: profound commitment to on-going professional education, strong willingness to confront new ideas/thoughts/formats/structures, great collegiality and mutual sharing and a wild, child-like abandon to fun and games:


Padraic Gilligan works for MCI. This was his first IAPCO conference. He can be contacted at [email protected]



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