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Christian Mutschlechner – ICCA President

Q: Would you explain any new trends seen after the 9/11, Iraq and SARS events concerning the organizing and holding of association and corporate meetings? And what future trends do you foresee for the market as a whole?

A: We have seen the resilience of the international association sector, with few cancelled meetings (mostly in SARS affected areas at the height of the outbreak) some more being postponed or rescheduled for autumn, and relatively small drops in delegate numbers, and we anticipate that this sector will recover swiftly.

Corporate meetings dropped off dramatically, not just because of terrorism and SARS, but also because of the general world economic downturn. Hotels have been hit harder than convention centres because of this and will take longer to recover, and we believe the market will remain fragile, but meetings are now so deeply ingrained in companies’ communication plans that we remain confident that if they want to remain competitive, companies will need to revive their meetings programmes – there is simply no better way to build relationships with and to educate customers and supply chain partners, and to motivate in-house managers and staff.

Q: Your latest report ICCA Statisitics for 2002 certainly appears impressive but overall how reliable is this data since basically it relies only on statistics gained from your members?

A: Actually, that is a misconception. We gather the data all year not only from our members, but also directly from the international associations. The international association data has been gathered for many years in the same way, so that past trend information is pretty reliable. Statistics for future years are never quite so accurate because many organisations are unwilling to provide full and complete data on events which have not yet taken place.

Q: Assuming that accurate data is difficult to collect, has your association considered working with organizations such as the World Tourism Organization to make use of its data and perhaps even make use of its satellite accounts methods?

A: ICCA has been approached by WTO to help them to improve their Business Tourism statistics. We have been invited and are joining WTO as an Affiliate Member, which is a recognition that they regard ICCA as one of the leading industry associations on this subject.

Q: As a rough percentage, could you tell us how many meetings are organized by professionals out of dedicated PCO offices compared with professionals or non-professionals that do so part time or out of their home? And is number large enough to be detrimental to the market in general?

A: I don’t think anyone can give you a figure that would stand up to objective scrutiny! What I can say is that the PCO category of ICCA membership is the fastest growing. What is also clear is that a growing number of international associations are turning to our PCO company members to run their congresses in a more professional and profitable manner. In the corporate segment, whenever there is an economic downturn, it is very common for companies to make cuts in their meeting departments, and sometimes the individuals concerned set up their own home-based conference businesses. Their level of professionalism depends of course on the level of their expertise, and we should remember that many of today’s largest PCO’s started out in somebody’s small home office in exactly this way! On average, I would say that meetings in 2003 are organised far more professionally than meetings in 1993.

Q: Is there a trend toward part time professional conference organizers now that we see more and more office companies providing a variety of PCO services, but not the overall organization of meetings or conferences?

A: I don’t see any evidence of a growth in part-time organisers. What is apparent as conferences become more complex is that many PCO’s handle certain core activities, and bring in self-employed specialists or other companies for particular tasks. It is becoming more and more difficult to pay for full-house specialists in every field of expertise. However, the good PCO’s coordinate all the suppliers – in-house and external – so that the client has just one point of contact.

Q: Is it now possible to sell a meetings venue online where most venues are fully promoted, complete with a full photo library of the venue, or will we always require on-sites visits prior to a venue decision, albeit perhaps with a lesser number of on-site inspections?

A: A lot depends upon how many meetings a planner is required to handle. In the case of large scale congresses, on-site meetings are critical and the personal visit will remain a key in the decision making process.

If, however, a planner has to organise 50 workshops across Europe, visiting all the venues becomes impossible, and the online services become much more important.

Q: Does the selection of a conference venue depend more on venue infrastructure, lobbying or even preference for the home of the conference sponsor, e.g. a pharmaceutical company that supports a medical conference would prefer the conference to be held close to its home base?

A: One of the appeals of working in the meetings business is the sheer variety of factors which influence the buying decision. Price and ease of access will always be two of the biggest factors, but everything from a destination’s leisure appeal to the venue’s broadband infrastructure, and from novelty (never been before) to familiarity (good relationship with local sales director) has a role to play.

Q: What have you found to be the best way for a venue to sell itself once the destination has been marketed by a conference and visitors’ bureau or a tourism organization? And how important is a visitors’ bureau and a large conference center (8,000-plus) to a potential congress organizer?

A: As the head of a successful Bureau, I can say that probably the biggest factor is teamwork. Of course you need a large enough venue to handle major conventions and enough hotel bedrooms, but what clients really like is evidence that all the major players in a city work together as a real team to meet their requirements and that the Bureau is the link to this network for the client.

Q: We now see some major Hollywood-like productions at large conferences and congresses, which require expensive, state-of-the-art technology and equipment. How important is this today when it comes to choosing a venue?

A: Most of the productions you refer to are put together by specialist Production Companies, who can work in a wide variety of environments. Even if a venue has extensive technical equipment in-house, the Production Companies will frequently bring in their own gear, because that is what they are used to using. Most important is an excellent infrastructure for cabling and with extensive broadband telecoms access. Again, what the clients are looking for is a flexible team of people to deal with, who are willing to adapt their standard way of working.

Q: We also see an increase in the number of business meetings via phone conferencing and video/Internet equipment. Would this be because of a general increase in such meetings or have these cut into the venue-type business meetings market?

A: Undoubtedly a lot of companies have invested in video conferencing and similar technology over the last few years, and this has definitely eaten into the demand for small meetings. At the moment, the technology is not regarded by the vast majority of industry commentators as a substitute for face-to-face meetings of large numbers of staff or associates. If anything, the technology can be used in partnership with traditional meetings to involve larger groups and to enhance the effectiveness of the communication process. Technology is not a threat but an excellent tool to further increase the quality of the communication process in a meeting.

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