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The following article has been written with a view to providing some helpful guidance in what to expect when choosing a professional conference organiser. PCO selection doesn’t have to be a nightmare.

People

Always choose an organiser that you get on with.  You will be spending the next two years, or maybe longer, working together and likeability should be an important factor.

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If you are buying multiple services then you will come into contact with a number of different people throughout the lifecycle of your event.  If this is the case you should also expect to have a nominated project manager and/or account manager who will be your main point of contact throughout.  This person should ideally have a minimum of 3-5 years working with organisations similar to your own.

Experience and Expertise

There are many different types of organisations that make a claim to being a professional conference organiser.  It is a business that requires specialist skills and not every event management company will be able to supply this.

Buyers should look at the overall experience of working with associations that the company has.  The best companies will be able to share case studies with you and introduce you to previous clients who you can speak with about their service.

There is something to be said for favouring those conference organisers that have experience of working within your subject matter area. This is particularly useful when it comes to sponsorship and event marketing as they will already have developed many relevant contacts.

Location

Nowadays the concept of a core PCO makes sense to many associations who need to maintain consistency. Their location is less important.  However, you may require different expertise in different locations depending on the nature of your event.  A good PCO will be able to suggest organisations to partner with in order to achieve this.  This might include registration or local sponsorship and marketing support.

Business model

There are three main business models to look at during PCO selection.  You should decided your best approach before sending out any RFPs (Requests Dor Proposal).

Licensee

  • The client will license the PCO to run the conference on their behalf for a fee. The PCO then absorbs the full risk of the conference.  This has the advantage of protecting the client from any potential losses, but the strong disadvantage that they may lose control of the content of their own event.  Moreover, fewer PCOs than ever will now work with this business model because they follow a “risk averse” approach to clients.
  • The fee the association charges may vary depending on the financial success of the conference. One common example I have seen is a fixed fee plus a share of profit once it reaches a certain level.

Share of Risk

  • The client and PCO share the risk and profit. From the outside this looks like a good deal with both parties in a win-win situation. However in this scenario conflict can arise between the commercial objectives of the organiser and the educational objectives of the client.  In addition the PCO will need to retain a larger proportion of the profits to pay for resources, which some associations may find difficult to accept.
  • In this instance, and if working on a license basis, you should expect the PCO to offer an “open Book” accounting policy where there are no mark-ups and commissions are declared.

Professional Fees

  • Paying for services consumed may be a novel concept for some organisations but it comes with many advantages. All of Brightelm’s clients work with us in this way.  As well as keeping full control of content clients are able to control what money is spent on resources by the organiser. Amongst other things, this helps to focus the client on the important services and buy only those that are necessary.
  • For this reason we suggest steering clear of fees that are based on a percentage of turnover or percentage of sponsorship sold (typically 10% and 15% respectively).

Cash flow

In many cases the cash related to the event (income and expenditure) is run through the PCO.  This will always be the case if you have licensed your event and typically also if you are running a profit share, where the PCO will account for all income, expenditure, and VAT.

If you are working on a professional fees model this is still possible.  The PCO will become your “disclosed agent” and all monies will be collected and paid out on your behalf.  Your organisation will still be responsible for accounting and tax.

Your chosen supplier should have the capability to advise you on these matters. In all instances it is best practice for client funds to be kept in a dedicated client account separate from other transactions of the PCO.

In conclusion

PCO selection doesn’t need to be tricky.  Work with the people you trust who best fit the profile of the event you are organising, whether that be geographical reach or experience in your subject matter.  Ensure you negotiate the best business model for you and your membership.

Further reading:

https://www.iapco.org/app/uploads/2013/08/How-to-Choose-the-Right-PCO.pdf

By Rob Eveleigh

First published 12th June 2018

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