by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
I’ve written extensively on this blog about Destination Management Companies (DMCs) and how the business model for DMCs has been changing almost as fast as governments in Italy and policies in the Trump Administration. Over the past while @Supergreybeard and I have been thinking about the related, adjacent world of the Professional Conference Organiser (PCO) and realising that the business model there has been changing even more rapidly – maybe as rapidly as the weather on Ireland’s beautiful wild atlantic way!
Back in the 90s a key aspect of the work of the PCO was around the sourcing, contracting, managing and selling of accommodation blocks. PCOs made money the same way as tour operators by buying rooms at net rates, putting on a mark-up and selling them on to the conference delegates for a profit. PCOs brought value to the conference and its delegates by the convenience of the one-stop-shop approach – you could book the conference, tours and hotel all in the one space.
The money that was made on hotel and other mark-ups covered the time spent on other conference related activities – logistics, marketing and communications, speaker management, budget management, social programme, pre and post tours, social programme – so professional fees were kept to a minimum – or often not levied at all.
This business model disappeared like the dinosaurs when the internet arrived and the conference industry went digital. Now conference delegates could source hotels on-line all by themselves and, crucially, cross-check prices between the official conference site and the On-line Travel Agencies (OTAs). Fewer and fewer delegates booked accommodation via the PCO, that revenue dried up and a new business model was required.
PCOs then adopted the “If you can’t beat them, join them” approach and turned to digital technology to create differentiation. The registration process, previously a lengthy process of form filling and snail-mailing back and forth, was ripe for disruption. PCOs rushed to create the perfect on-line reg system expanding their offices – and more reluctantly their mindsets – to accommodate pizza eating, bearded, code-writing techies. From a plethora of proprietary systems a few went global and PCOs found a new MoJo as technology experts who could register your delegates for you at €50 a pop.
However, it wasn’t long before this model, too, fell victim to the principle of “survival of the fittest” as technology companies, from outside the meetings industry, suddenly paid attention to our sector and introduced freemium versions of our prized “on-line” systems. Why pay €50 to register a delegate when you could do it for free with JoinUp or RegJob or FreeSign? Another new business model was required.
Many PCOs then re-positioned themselves as marketing experts trying to convince their clients that they had the secret sauce to make delegates turn up at their conferences. Again some prevailed while many failed. Some PCOs were natural marketers who knew about demand creation and had expertise across the various channels. Others, however, were fish out of water with as much understanding of marketing as the average accountant.
Also for larger city wide events the PCO as marketer was, potentially, in conflict with the Destination Marketing Organisation (DMO). As a privately owned commercial enterprise the PCO lacked the official status and objective impartiality of the DMO and wasn’t always able to convince a client of their credentials.
Then PCOs looked to the world of Associations and tailored service and product offerings to the evolving needs of this sector, a sector itself in need of innovation and renewal. With an overall erosion in volunteerism – the beating heart of the association world – and, for many, radically declining memberships, Associations and PCOs fell into each other like two scorned lovers, partners in that great existential search for meaning. This, in turn, led to growth in association management companies (AMCs) where an association out-sources much of its management and administration to a professional services firm. And who better to provide such services than the PCO?
Some PCOs found rich pickings too in the area of content management and distribution. If conferences take place, primarily, to facilitate knowledge sharing and exchange then technology now offered almost limitless scope as the brave new instrument of facilitation, taking the conference content beyond its natural spacial and temporal limitations. Ever increasingly reliable live streaming ensured you could be in Dublin, Detroit or Delhi and still participate at the live conference in Dortmund (providing you’re willing to get up in the middle of the night) while multiple specialist platforms now allowed content to be prettily packaged, distributed and, of course, monetised after the live event. All of these innovative services brought to you – for a fee – by your friendly, local PCO.
PCOs, of course, have also ghosted into the areas of insurance, risk management and health & safety especially when dealing with large scale events of several thousands and some have followed the plus ça change principle staying pretty much in the one-stop-shop space. Overall, however, not unlike the DMC world, there’s a crisis of identity and purpose at the heart of the PCO universe leaving us with a key industry segment that doesn’t quite know who or what it is, who or what it serves and, crucially, whether it’d be missed if it wasn’t there in the first instance.
As former PCOs, @supergreybeard and I are utterly convinced that without PCOs there would be a very large PCO-shaped hole at the heart of the meetings industry. But we also acknowledge that it’s pretty difficult to describe a hole in so far as its presence defines an absence – so what is that absence? But before I get totally lost in abstract philosophical musings let me end this post with an invitation to anyone out there who “gets PCOs” to share some thoughts on identity, nature, purpose of the PCO as we move relentlessly into the twenty first century.
So what’s it to be: PCO as one-stop-shop? PCO as technologist? PCO as marketer? PCO as content expert? PCO as out-sourced partner for small to medium associations?
If you’re in Ireland or nearby then be sure to sign up for AIPCOs annual industry conference – here you’ll meet the entire Business Events industry in Ireland all drawn together by an amazing association of Irish based PCOs.
Pádraic Gilligan (@Padraicino), Patrick Delaney (@Supergreybeard) and Aoife McCrum (@AoifeMcCrum) run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training.