Conference Management and the Professional Conference Organiser (PCO) What do you need to know?

So you are looking at organising a conference and wondering where to start in selecting a PCO, or even thinking whether the organisation can manage this in house? Where to start and what is involved?

No doubt you have been to many conferences and some have been better than others. Some run so seamlessly that you wonder whether this was just good luck or was there just not that much to it?

Chances are, every time a conference runs like clockwork, there are many people behind the scenes making sure that every facet of the project has been carefully planned and executed. Think about the mechanism behind the face of a clock and you get an image of the complexity of executing a conference with clockwork precision.

It is very easy to underestimate the task at hand and many will only ever attempt it once! Never again!

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So how can a PCO help you and how do you get the best PCO for your conference?

Start by defining the objectives of your event and the role of the PCO in relation to the organising committee.  Write up a clear brief with as much detail as possible, including your desired outcomes, the history of the event, the anticipated delegate numbers, the dates, details about the speakers, and break out sessions. Include as much as you know. With this document you can then approach a number of PCOs to ascertain their interest and ask them to come back to you with a proposal.

If you are not sure where to look, the PCO Association or Meetings and Events Association of Australia (MEA) will be able to help you as most good PCO companies are members. Make sure that when you’re engaging a PCO you look for an accredited member as you will be getting someone who has been rigorously assessed, has a great deal of experience and knows what they are doing to make your conference run like clockwork.

The PCO should be able to assist you with everything other than putting together your industry specific program (and often they can help with this as well).  This includes working with your committee and giving them a framework to operate so that everything can be completed in a logical, stress free and timely fashion.

The PCO will be able to help with your marketing, reaching out beyond your core  attendees and put together a sponsorship and exhibition prospectus to bring in industry support, essential to your bottom line financial success. Good PCOs will manage your budget and advise at all stages of planning how the conference is performing to budget. They will manage the intricacies of the contracts with suppliers, such as audio visual, venues and accommodation and advise on how to minimise risk. The PCO will be the point of contact for your speakers and your delegates ensuring that they have all the information they need to participate. The list is long and it goes on and on.

Generally, a national meeting (say 500 delegates) takes 12-15 months to organize and you should allow double this time for a large international event. Do you have the resources in house to manage such a project?  How will this take the focus away from your core business? Do you have the infrastructure such as dedicated computerised online registration systems or abstract management systems that a PCO can offer?

There are individuals acting as PCO’s and there are PCO companies who have experienced individuals in their employ. In evaluating which way you should go, think about the depth of experience and the security that teams can bring.  Don’t be afraid to ask probing questions; such as how will they manage your finances? do they receive commissions? if so, from whom? what insurances do they hold? Ask for references and speak with other groups who have worked with them.

Many people worry about the cost of engaging a professional to assist them with conference management and spend a great deal of time comparing small differences in PCO fees, which are after all, are a small percentage of the overall conference budget.  However, if you do decide to go down the path of engaging with a quality PCO then you will save yourself a great deal of time and money and your organisation will see a positive return on their investment.

However the most important factor of all, far more than the project price, is the culture of the company you engage with and how this fits in with your own culture. It will be a long and fraught road if you select on price alone and do not have a match with style and personal engagement. Make sure you take the time to meet with your prospective PCO face to face before appointment.

With more than 25 years in the industry and founder and Managing Director of DC Conferences, I would be more than happy to impartially advise anyone who would like some assistance.

Our motto is Your Success is Our Success                                  

All the best with your conference!

Dianna Crebbin

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