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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

With the generous support of Fáilte Ireland, Ireland’s National Tourism Development Authority, the Association of Irish Professional Conference Organisers (AIPCO) has been running a pan-industry Business Tourism Conference each year for the past 5 years. Rotating around Ireland’s regions, this annual occurrence attracts over 200 meetings and events professionals to an event that fuses destination showcase | exhibition | networking | education, sending participants home renewed, reinvigorated and refreshed, ready to take on the challenges of the year ahead.

A Constellation of stars

A key success factor for the educational side of the event has been the presence, over the years, of veritable meetings industry giants for overseas who have selflessly shared “best practice” with us across the full spectrum of areas that make for a successful MICE destination. This year was no exception. We had Andrea Weidinger, Head of the Conventions Division at Hamburg Convention Bureau, Roman Muška, Managing Director at Prague Convention Bureau, Ben Hainsworth, Executive Director at K.I.T. Group and StaceyLynn Hoaglan, Lead Internal Events Consultant for Dell EMC EMEA. A stellar constellation, indeed, of thought leaders across the Business Tourism industry.

Associations & PCOs

In a striking and wide ranging presentation, Ben Hainsworth of K.I.T Group touched on many PCO-related themes previously aired on the pages of this blog. Gamekeeper-turned-poacher (or vice versa?), Ben spent the bulk of his time in the Business Events industry on the client side in the sunny South of France with the European Society of Cardiology (ESC). In 2014 he moved to the agency side, joining K.I.T in the gritty urbanity of Berlin, immersing himself in the rather more turbulent waters of the PCO world. This rather unique client / agency perspective made Ben’s intervention at AIPCO17 particularly compelling. Here are 5 key learnings I took away from his speech.

Associations are in flux – 1

In their seminal publication on Associations, Race for Relevance (ASAE, 2011) Coerver and Byers outline the urgent need for radical change in the Association sector in the US. Hainsworth’s presentation  at AIPCO17 highlighted this need within the European context, citing 7 trends impacting EU associations, particularly those in the medical field. Associations in Europe are dealing with seismic demographic shifts, changing attitudes amongst the membership, issues around employment, heightened public scrutiny, massive compliance issues, questions around digital literacy and crushing competition for time. All of these trends are forcing Associations to alter their business model and this, in turn, is having a huge impact on the traditional support structures, particularly those provided by the PCO sector.

Associations & PCOs

Associations have new strategic priorities – 2

The turbulence and turmoil unleashed by the trends mentioned above is causing the Association agenda to re-focus and re-set. Now Associations are concerned with governance and accountability, creating structures for their own professional management, defining and articulating their value proposition, understanding compliance and regulation, exploring diversification, engaging in advocacy and PR. Face to face encounters, annual conferences, regional meetings, symposia etc while still vital to the Association, are no longer necessarily front and centre and thus the relationship between the Association and the PCO as professional conference organiser is less important unles the PCO can provide advice and input on the new strategic priorities.

Associations & PCOs

New Opportunities for PCOs – 3

However, if the relationship between the Association and the PCO is diminishing with regard to logistics, it can increase in other areas, provided, of course, the PCO is nimble and capable of evolving with the changing needs of the Association. In fact AMC – Association Management Consultancy – might just be the “evolved” PCO as the needs of the Association transition from tactical transactions to strategic considerations. Many PCOs have already transitioned into this space and provide a full service, outsourced management and consultancy for the Association that permits leaders and volunteers focus exclusively on the core purpose of the Association. But, of course, this too is an area of specialisation and requires dedicated, experienced staff.

Associations become corporations – 4

With or without the support of an AMC, Associations, increasingly, are being run like commercial businesses taking their lead from the corporate world. Hainsworth sketched out 7 ways that Associations are now doing business and the striking thing is how similar these are to mainstream commerce. Like big global brands, Associations are more and more risk averse, more prone to in-source than to out-source, more likely to use external consultants for best-in-breed advice, more process driven and, overall, more financially focused deploying procurement, strategic meeting management and ROI principles. The traditional Association / PCO relationship – we’ll do the scientific content / you do everything else is clearly unfit for this brave new purpose. 

Associations & PCOs

Regulations and Compliance – 5

Regulations and compliance in the healthcare space have by now pretty much squeezed all humanity  out of medical conferences by imposing ofttimes absurd limitations around the entire process of destination and venue selection. Driven almost exclusively by “perception” – how would this look if it was on the front page of a national newspaper? – to be Medtech and EFPIA compliant everything about the conference has to be “appropriate” and “reasonable” (except, of course, the regulations themselves which are not reasonable at all!).

If an effort to keep conferences “reasonable”, the regulations have succeeded in creating another industry (agencies specialising in compliance etc) and adding cost to conferences because, frequently, the best value destination cannot be selected as it is beach facing or has an adjoining golf course and, therefore, is non compliant.  These regulations have been in place for many years now so the industry has adapted and the shock to the system 10 or 12 years ago has been well absorbed.

But, of course, we needn’t have worried about our doctors and consultants losing the run of themselves in the honey pots of Amsterdam or Berlin or Canberra. When questioned by Ashfield in a wide ranging survey on their motivations for attending a medical conference, the vast majority highlight wholesome educational reasons – “Find out about latest scientific content for my disease speciality” (85%) [v “Visit a new city” (29%)]. And what about falling under the influence of those Iago-like Pharma sales guys? Well they rated lowest amongst the reasons for attending a congress.

Associations & PCOs


Huge thanks to Ben Hainsworth for this immensely thought-provoking material and for Noel Mitchell and the AIPCO team for bringing us all together, once again.

Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training for the MICE marketplace. 



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