Sherrif Karamat, chief executive of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) based in Chicago, tells Keith Chan about the challenges and key issues affecting the business event industry and organisers as well as the evolution of business models.
What are the key challenges and opportunities affecting the meetings industry, and how can members of the industry prepare themselves to cope with the developments?
This is a very interesting question as very often challenges are opportunities depending on the context in which they are viewed. Frankly, we are all still dealing with challenges such as terrorism, an unstable economy, our environmental footprint and currency fluctuations, all of which require greater emphasis by our members on risk mitigation.
In addition, our members and our industry are dealing with the speed of change, competition, a globalised business environment and changing learning styles driven by technology, multigenerations and time deprivation. To attract the right talent for their teams is also a challenge in a competitive employment market.
Many are looking to data as a potential holy grail to get their arms around trends and to make better business decisions. Smart organisations are getting better at monitoring weak signals through data, as well as what is happening in parallel industries to give clues as to what may be ahead for the business events industry.
With the uncertain global economy, meeting organisers face the problems of decreasing budgets and increasing expectations from participants. How can event organisers cope with this situation?
One could submit that it has already been a decade of global uncertainty and over the last decade the number of meetings held worldwide has increased, which tells me that meetings, or business events as I call them, are still one of the best investments an organisation can make to achieve its strategic objectives and financial goals. I think now is the time for organisations to invest more in their business events, and if they are indeed considering cutting these budgets, they might need to investigate how they are measuring return of investment on their events.
At the same time, it is true that participants' expectations are changing and will continue to do so, but it is also true that participants are willing to pay for an experience that brings them value and thus it is important for organisations to understand they need to up their game and deliver memorable experiences that drive value. Great experiences will increase value, which will increase participation, which increases revenue.
The popularity of the internet has made it easier to access information and make contacts. Has this lowered people's motivation and needs in attending international conferences?
It is true that information is ubiquitous but transforming information into knowledge is done by humans interacting with each other. There is no question that some meetings can be accomplished by technology; they should have always been that way but we just did not have the means to do so until recently. However, my experience has been that the internet and virtual meetings have been the greatest marketing boost for face-to-face meetings. Attendance at PCMA's events has grown yearly and so has its virtual audience, opening up new markets for PCMA. Again, the experience at face-to-face events must evolve and provide value to participants or they will not be motivated to attend, which has little to do with the internet.
In terms of business models, have you observed any differences between international conferences held in Asia and the rest of the world?
In the association world, many societies still derive most of their revenue from two sources - membership and conferences. This leaves an organisation extremely vulnerable if one of its revenue streams falters. Revenue diversification is critical, not just in Asia but around the world. In an effort to mitigate risk, some organisations partner professional conference organisers or others to share the risk and rewards of the conference, but this is in no way limited to Asia. In some parts of the world and especially Europe, cities are establishing conference hubs based on the economic sectors in that location.
Unique to certain Asian countries, it is not customary to pay to attend a conference; it is either complimentary or funded by government or another entity, so organisations look to sponsorships, advertising or other sources to drive revenue. Regardless of whether you are in Asia, you have to employ multiple approaches to increase revenue and mitigate risk.