PCOa concerned hotel occupancies and high CBD rates will drive meetings offshore

DELEGATES attending the annual Professional Conference Organisers Association meeting in Auckland (02-04 December) can expect to hear both sides of the meetings and conventions market data ‘divide’, with conflicting views on the industry’s health.

“We have regular reports from many government and private agencies saying business is booming and Australian hotels are showing good occupancy levels, but this is attributable to growth in the corporate sector, not necessarily the MICE sector,” said conference organiser Peter Sugg.

“I have anecdotal evidence from several Association members that the International business meetings market is a lot softer this year with  the downturn tipped to continue in 2012

Personally, I believe international conference business is well down on the same period in 2010, due to high accommodation demand, higher venue costs and the high Australian dollar.

Although the domestic Association meetings market is still robust, we are now competing with the corporate sector for space in the CBD, and they will pay considerable more to secure availability.

Room rates in Australian capital cities are a concern for the PCO Association, which could lead a switch to regional or offshore venues for meetings and conferences in 2012/13.

“I was quoted rates of A$800 per night in Melbourne and between A$650 and A$750 a night in Sydney in November,” said Sugg.  “These rate levels.  Combined with the high dollar will not sustain the international meetings industry going forward”

We will be forced to find alternatives. The demand is there but is being driven by the corporate and resources sector.”

Simon Pryor, president of the Society for Association Executives says even the usually-reliable association sector has cut back on budgets for meetings and conferences.

Sugg said: “I agree with Simon that the association sector like other meetings businesses are reviewing conference budgets and cutting back on some aspects such as the grand conference dinner in favour of alternative options. This is just a consequence of global economic problems. A conference for 500 people over four nights might now be reduced to three nights, for example. What is more concerning is the possibility of self funded association members cutting back on actual participation in annual meetings.

The association market is still buoyant and reasonably reliable but it also is changing. It is harder to find venues to fit budgets in the central business districts of capital cities. I personally believe there will be more business for the regions and increased business going offshore.”

As well as the above insights into the market, delegates in Auckland also will have access to research data on the impact of the high Australian dollar, carbon tax, escalating venue costs, new IT applications, the impact of the internet and the fall-off in international meetings business to Australia.

Sugg, also MD for Brisbane-based AST Management, said the meetings and conference sector has had to cope with significant changes since the PCO Association last met in Hobart in December 2010.

“The pace of change and the way we have been doing business has changed substantially in the last year,” said Sugg. “We aim to provide members with new knowledge and understanding so that they can adapt to these changes. There are positives to come from the changes and new opportunities, but we still need to know how to best handle those changes and how they affect business going forward.”

Delegates also will be provided with the case studies on recent successful management practice as well as analyses of new opportunities becoming available in the market in Asia for Australian PCO’s.

The Auckland conference will also see the debut of the PCO’s own phone application, which is currently in final development stage.  All delegates including exhibitors will be able to download the app and log data into the system, allowing them to manage their own profiles.

The PCO Association is also reviewing its training and education programs to provide members with relevant programs in what it sees as an over-serviced market.

“There are far too many companies now offering training courses of varying degrees. It can be very confusing and costly if members commit to a course that is not suitable. Perhaps it is time to leave it to the professionals at the colleges and universities to provide a high standard of specialist training. We are looking at one-off training modules and moving to webinars to keep members up to date on issues and developments. The future of PCO education and training will be discussed in Auckland, which should result in  new guidelines on training courses.

“Training to a certain extent has been overtaken by technology,” said Sugg.

“There now are systems and programs that provide conference management literally at the push of a button. The whole process has been simplified, which has resulted in expansion of people calling themselves conference/event managers just because they have access to the tools. Also the development of internet programs and services has provided a whole new range of simple-to-use tools such as websites, social networks, email etc. No one medium is producing bulk results. There is also a cost factor on social networks that is not taken into account and that is the servicing, monitoring, writing content and constant updating. To maintain a social network conferencing site for say 12 months could cost anything up to $25,000 in staff  hours. This is often not economical or practical, especially when the service is perceived to be “free”.”

Keynote speakers scheduled for Auckland include Alan Trotter, chief executive Convention and Incentives New Zealand (CINZ); Anthony Wong, Malaysia-based president of World PCO Alliance, who will update members on the burgeoning Asia market; Inge Garofani, executive manager of the Business Events Council of Australia; Sarah Mitchell, chief executive of Content Marketing Institute, who will speak on managing content in relation to electronic messaging; Jane Fullerton-Smith, managing director of Greenshoots Pacific, speaking on managing sustainable systems and what going green really means and Luke Mason, a communications architect who will be explaining the world of ‘app’ technology and how to make best use of these services in relation to the meetings industry.

From 2012, future PCO annual conferences will be held in Australia for three years. Final dates and venues are still being discussed and will be announced in Auckland.