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Chief Operating Officer of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), Sherrif Karamat, had travelled from -23 degrees and 26 inches of snow in his home town of Toronto to enjoy a balmy summer week in Australia for AIME 2014.

Among his various other appearances, Karamat spoke of the need to retain integrity and selection when creating our events.

And how better to demonstrate this than to lead by example.

“Today’s meetings executives have to be so much more sophisticated,” says Karamat. “A meeting planner has so many demands on them. They have to know virtual; they have to know face-to-face; they have to know how to deal with an audience; they have to be a brilliant event marketer. They have to be all sorts of things because ultimately they are running that show.”

The PCMA says everything it does is an experiment. One year it didn’t have anything behind the stage. The speakers walked up from the front, and these are high-level speakers like Bill Clinton, very high level. So they would all hang out; no hiding behind the curtain.

“You don’t want to do those things too often, of course,” says Karamat.

The PCMA created its educational programmes itself, and its chapters across Canada, the US and Mexico commission maybe 120 programmes; in his own words: “a significant amount of education”.
Twenty of these are face-to-face programmes, anywhere from 15 to 20 are digital events that are “very lucrative” for the PCMA, emulating as best it can that engagement and proposition online.

“What we propose is an experiment. We are trying to get our colleagues in the industry to think differently,” he says. “We don’t do an exhibition, but what we do is something called the Learning Lounge. This has transformed the way a tradeshow floor can look, where it’s about demonstration and learning on the floor. It is a lot more engaging and I am noticing more tradeshows adapting this approach at their events, which is making tradeshows a lot more engaging.

“We also have a tech zone where you can see the latest and greatest emerging technologies. You cannot pay to get in that zone. It has to be something your colleagues would want to find gathered at the meeting, otherwise you can forget it. We really try to push the envelope, push what is possible in that industry.”

Talent management

Of course to achieve ever higher levels of engagement, you need ever higher levels of talent in your organisation.

“One of the things that keeps me up at night is talent management; how do you find and retain good talent?” says Karamat.

“We might think that unemployment is high in certain regions of the world. But frankly, in this industry, when you need great people you can’t find them. And great people can be poached at any time. So a concern for me is how do you retain great people, and what strategies are you putting in place to encourage and develop your people so that they can become fine meeting professionals.”

The bottom line

Revenues, observes Karamat, are never enough. We can all attest to the fact that this industry is certainly not for loss, and the main associations are run like for-profit corporations.

“With the amount of competition and the ubiquitous nature of knowledge, revenue streams are challenged. So how you diversify your revenue streams is important,” he says.

“Today the PCMA has about eight different revenue streams. It used to be that primarily we had registration revenues and advertising revenues, and to supplement that you might have trade show stand revenues. But we have created a very sophisticated partnership programme that generates somewhere close to US$6m annually for the organisation. With that you need the whole skillset to be able to manage those partners. We have a team of five people dedicated to managing partner relations.

“That’s an area that always concerns us – how we balance revenue and ensure that we don’t put too many eggs in one basket,” he says.

Avoiding undue commercialisation; getting sponsorship right

When the PCMA started its session sponsorship programme 10 years ago it had approximately 170 sponsors, a number it wanted to get down to 40. But how do you do that and not offend your sponsors? The aim, says Karamat, is to deliver value.

“We had to change the way we approached sponsorship. Sponsorship, speaking in terms of brand awareness, is great. But they’re looking for year-round value, ways that would really connect with their customers,” he says.

“Before agreeing any session sponsorship we start out with an investigation of proper brand alignment. Would my brand – PCMA – be elevated if I’m associated with brand ‘X’. A good example would be if a hospital is associated with a cigarette company. It might not be a good brand alignment, it might send mixed messages.

“So we look at that very carefully, who should we be associated with, and then engage those people about what their objectives are. What are their goals? And if our goals can be aligned, and we can ultimately benefit the end user in terms of our membership, then we see that as an opportunity for sponsorship. So that’s where we’re focused.

“So we take sponsorship very seriously. Every sponsor is a customised solution.” Karamat points out that no two sponsors, even if they are of the same level, will look the same. It’s customised based on the objectives of the sponsor, what will satisfy the needs of our membership and what would not commercialise our positions.

“We are planning meetings for people that know how to plan meetings better than us. So it’s always interesting. We do have a planning  committee and year round education committee, along with various task forces. We keep tight control over how our content is going to be. Our general session speakers are largely picked by just a handful of people.

“We have a very knowledgeable education department keeping a tight rein on the content itself. We do not commercialise any content – paid-for general sessions for example. We would associate sponsors with our sessions but we would not allow them to pick a speaker and pass the actual content. That’s very important.”

PCMA also offers a year-round on-demand content tool called PCMA 365, which allows the association to engage with meetings professionals in order to get their credits so they can get into certified professional designations.

“With respect to partnerships and delivery and what that means. PCMA went to a format that was multi-year agreements,” says Karamat. “So with respect to delivery, we are offering more and more sophisticated delivery and service, we didn’t want to focus on the transaction of reselling and sponsorship, but we raised the value of that. So instead of doing the year over year review, we did multi-year agreements.”

And if these techniques work for the PCMA, then they’re techniques that should work for the rest of us. 

This was first published in issue 75 of CMW. Any comments? Email Zoe Vernor

Conference & Meetings World is published for the international conference and meetings industry. It tackles the issues facing organisers of international events. The editorial is independent, fresh and news driven, with a global reach.

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