That’s the view of ASN Events boss Mike Pickford – an industry veteran who has seen many ups and downs in the industry in a career spanning over a quarter of a century.
“When the dollar was stronger, overseas visitors said visiting Australia was expensive,” he said. “Our accommodation is far from cheap by world standards. When the mining boom was flourishing, there was a lot of non-conference sector demand.
“New rooms are coming on line in many cities now and the increased supply is wonderful from an organiser’s perspective, but not from a hotelier’s point of view.”
Pickford said most of the hassles faced by organisers are about contracting venues and accommodation – and then transitioning from sales to operations.
“There still are some providers that believe the contract can legitimise dubious practices such as charging clients for room attrition or cancellation when they are fully booked. It’s not as bad as it used to be and not limited to Australia. There are many account managers who are challenged to maintain a positive relationship with our sector, because of the contract templates they have to work with. Visas and flight availability don’t give us any particular grief, In fact working with DFAT and IMMI is – in our view – easier and more productive than ever.”
According to Pickford, dramatic macro changes such as exchange rates, regional recessions, mining booms, SARS and so on always present challenges for events in long-term planning. “Catastrophe insurance cover can provide some protection, but generally our planning approach is to have conservative expectations and hedge. International clients can defend against exchange movements by maintaining funds in two currencies and paying expenses accordingly.
“Sometimes we pick up projects started by clients and bureaux that are based on wildly optimistic targets and expectations. These projects can struggle to shake the burden of such expectations. It’s another reason conference convenors’ first step should be to appoint their PCO,” said Pickford, who’s a councillor for the Professional Conference Organisers Association and its nominee on the Business Events Council of Australia.
“The business now is much more professional at so many levels. Clients expect more than someone to hand out name tags and many take advantage of the experience their PCO brings to the whole planning and gestation process. ASN has clients who say to us – this is where we want to be in four-five years, how do we get there? Twenty years ago, clients basically thought they could do it all themselves. And many did. Now they are time poor and so much more ambitious. PCOs are making a difference.
“I believe the introduction of GST triggered this change. GST meant associations with meetings were looking at an immediate new layer of accountability and administration, problems that tipped the balance from doing it themselves to using third party support. We provided a solution and it became a broader springboard into consultancy.”
Asked what further changes he’d like to see come into force, Pickford said the growing professionalism of the market demanded that “we as providers get our own levels up top speed.
“We need to educate our staff and would-be clients. Too many stories circulate of associations swearing never to use a conference organiser again, because they believe they were taken advantage of. Mark-ups on third party supplies, hidden commissions and delayed surplus refunds – they all need to disappear. As a councillor of the PCO Association, I hope to help that process of improving professionalism and expectation of the industry,” he said.
Talking of competitors, Pickford added that Australia’s main competitors on the international stage are in Asia. “There are a few reasons: Some countries offer incentives and have low wage costs; they also have excellent service levels; delegates from Europe and North America can travel there faster and, finally, the exchange rates are usually favourable.
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