by By Lisa Grimaldi | November 01, 2008

icca2This month, members of the International Congress and Convention Association will gather in Victoria, British Columbia, to attend the association's 47th annual congress and exhibition. ICCA, which began on the whim of two travel agents who wanted to network with others who planned large international congresses, has grown into a major meetings industry association that today has 896 member companies, most of them suppliers, and organizations from 85 countries (memberships are not open to individuals).

ICCA, in sum, is an association for organizers of and suppliers to large (several thousand attendees) meetings, congresses and conventions that are limited by their size and/or bylaws to meet in a set number of destinations and/or facilities around the globe. Members typically share information about best practices, venues, suppliers, leads and more.

The association's headquarters in Amsterdam, Netherlands, has a staff of 25, and there are three regional offices: Asia, North America and South America. In addition to its annual convention, ICCA holds numerous educational events and workshops throughout the year, several in conjunction with trade shows such as EIBTM in Barcelona, Spain, and IMEX in Frankfurt, Germany. The organization also conducts extensive research in the industry, including an annual ranking of global convention cities and countries, based on the number of international association meetings held.

In addition, as a free service to its members, ICCA maintains a comprehensive database of thousands of large association meetings for research purposes. It also gives supplier members the opportunity to identify confirmed meetings in a destination that potentially could make use of their products and/or services.

ICCA members are divided into five sectors: venues (convention centers, large meeting hotels, universities and one cruise line); destination marketing (national tourist offices and convention and visitor bureaus); meetings management (professional congress organizing companies, destination management companies, association management companies, etc.); transport (airlines), and meetings support (A/V, IT, consultants, architects, media).

While the association enjoys a high profile in Europe and Asia, it's under the radar of the meetings industry on this side of the pond. Currently, ICCA has just 29 members (including one planning firm) from the United States, a situation Martin Sirk, ICCA's CEO since 2002, would like to turn around. Recently, M&C spoke with Sirk about the organization, its goals, and what it offers U.S. planners and suppliers.

Were you an ICCA member before you became CEO?
Sirk: I attended my first ICCA congress in Cairo, back in 1989, getting to know about 50 colleagues from around the world. After my second congress in Adelaide, I knew more than 100, and soon I had the most comprehensive network of contacts I could imagine. So right from the beginning, I was a fan and understood the foundation of the association.

M&C: Given that most of your members are suppliers and not planners, what's their return on investment for attending an ICCA congress?
Sirk: The foundation of ICCA is the sharing of valuable data on international association meetings. These meetings move around the world and are unlikely to return to a destination or venue for 10, 20 or 30 years, so there is nothing to lose and benefits to be gained by attendees sharing information.

Unlike Meeting Professionals International, which aims for a balance between planners and suppliers, we are essentially a trade association of suppliers. However, our PCO [professional congress organi­zer] members often act on behalf of both corporate and association clients, so there is definitely a lot of potential business.
Also, we bring in many clients to speak at our congresses, not as buyers, but to give strategic insight into the mind-set and objectives of meeting planners in different sectors and from different parts of the world.

We also invest a great deal of time in building long-term relationships with close to 3,000 international association planners and decision-makers in our database. We don't want them as members, but they are critical to ICCA's success.