PCOs and the human factor

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Some consider themselves too big for one, others too small. Some can’t imagine living without one, others wonder why anyone would bother living with one. The role of the professional congress organiser (PCO) in the affairs of international associations has never been bathed in consensus.

I have met association executives who claim hiring a PCO was the best thing they ever did, a transformational decision that saved not only their congress but their entire organisation. I have also met association executives who claim PCOs are a money-draining luxury you’re better off without.

The vexed subject rears its head once again in the latest edition of AMI Magazine, in which consultant Inbar Caspi argues that, in outsourcing their annual congress, associations are sabotaging the chance to maximise returns on the most important meeting in their event calendar.

Often the argument boils down to money. Is it worth hiring a PCO (in purely monetary terms)? But much of Caspi’s argument centres on the importance of direct, human contact between an association and its members –  and the central role of congress in making this possible.

“Congress is when you get to meet your members face to face,” she writes, “…your one chance to ‘touch’ your audience and increase their sense of loyalty and belonging to your community.”

“Professional congress organisers are middlemen,” she adds. “They have their place – they always will – but they are not you. Something always gets lost in translation, and you lose a precious opportunity to make the strongest possible impact.”

But it’s not just in their relationship with members that associations risk losing the human touch by employing a PCO. Caspi says bringing a congress in-house can boost staff and volunteer moral, giving jaded and cynical team members a renewed sense of purpose and camaraderie.

“Within the medical associations I have worked with, I have seen gradual transformations in the attitude of staff members, as they take more control over their congress. I’ve seen growth in their connection and loyalty to the association and its mission.”

Caspi is not an idealist. Her article is hedged with caveats. She counsels associations to first ‘look in the mirror’ and partake in some serious self-analysis before discarding their PCO. Neither does she advise associations to get rid of their PCO completely, but retain them for certain ‘labour-intensive’ functions and plan for a transitional period that might last up to three years. But her argument, that associations are ultimately better off going alone, is sure to reignite a debate that will burn so long as there are associations, professional event planners and not enough hours in the day.

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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