by Sarah J.F. Braley | March 01, 2013

Founded in 1981 with 22 member facilities, the International Association of Conference Centers has experienced a major change this year, welcoming CEO Mark Cooper after being led for 30 years by executive director Tom Bolman, who has retired. Cooper takes over a group that has stayed very close to its original vision: to support the concept of the purpose-built conference center, designed to facilitate consistently top-notch meetings.

The 278 current member centers are represented at IACC meetings by owners, general managers and on-site conference planners who run the properties. The centers offer a form of one-stop shopping for planners through their complete meetings package, or CMP, product, where the guest-room rate reflects the cost of the entire event, including the meeting room, food, basic A/V and more.

Two months into his tenure, Cooper, who has worked for such center-management companies as Dolce International, tells M&C where the association is headed and which topics are of concern to the marketplace.

When did you first encounter an IACC center?
In 1993, I went to work for Warwick Conferences in the United Kingdom, which at the time was the largest academic conference resort in Western Europe. The passion of the staff and their skills stood out immediately. It felt quite different and something I was immediately proud to be part of. I spent eight years there, ending as group business development manager.

What about the IACC mystique makes it work?
The allure of IACC is centered around holding a shared belief that clients deserve the very best experience when they run a meeting. Our members find IACC is a vehicle to seek inspiration and sometimes reassurance that continually innovating is a recipe for long-term success. You could say we are a community of inventors who are never happy with what we have. We always want to do things better the next time the client returns.

You are charged with positioning IACC as a global thought leader for meetings. What does that mean?

IACC represents the very best small- to medium-size meeting venues. Our initiatives moving forward include conducting global research and reporting on trends. In our own meetings, we will seek to foster innovation by bringing together passionate people who get out of bed every day to improve what they provide for their guests. The outcomes from meetings held at IACC venues and how the environment is created, from the furniture and IACC service to the flexible CMP, make the difference.

Do you have an example of an outcome from an IACC meeting that fits the thought-leader goal?
Gen-X, Gen-Y and baby boomers were all represented at one recent meeting, and it was obvious that different generations want different things from a conference center. The takeaway from that meeting was that technology and connectivity should no longer reside in the business center or Internet café; these services need to be incorporated into every area of the conference center, including bars and other areas. 

You've talked about growing IACC globally. Where do you expect to see that expansion? Is there anything happening in those areas now?
There are many possibilities to add to our membership in other parts of the world. We recently welcomed new members in New Zealand, South Africa and Scotland. We have ambitions to add members in the Middle East and China, as well as other mainland European countries where we are not represented, by being active and building our profile in the meetings industry in these areas.
We will take our events to new regions in the future, too, to help us achieve our goals. The recent formation of an Australia and Asia Pacific chapter is the start of an effort to introduce the concept in the region. [This chapter was recognized officially in January.] As we expand, our hope is to form chapters in the Middle East and South Africa in the next 18 months. A significant number of corporate and university centers already exist, and indications are that the IACC conference-center style is taking hold in China, Korea and other countries. New Zealand is another country where other potential members have been immediately identified.

Will you be traveling to any of these areas soon? Where will you hit the ground first in this effort?

I will be spending time in South Africa, China and Japan this year, with a clear goal of developing membership in these new regions.

What are you hearing from members?
Members want us to provide all of the things that are in our strategic plan. We conducted an extensive review as part of the process of succession planning, and we spoke to members, planners and other stakeholders in order to formulate the future structure and strategy for IACC.

Our members seek more support in promoting the IACC meetings concept in the marketplace and to raising the profile of conference centers in the marketplace. This includes industry representation and education that will lead to greater recognition and understanding that the service meeting planners receive from an IACC facility is the very best available. We are researching currently and plan to create benchmarking reports on a global basis, and these will highlight to planners how IACC members provide the best value.

What are you hearing from meeting planners?

That delivering exceptional outcomes from meetings is more important than ever. Meeting planners and senior global procurement leaders tell us that the flexible CMP is what they want. Planners want us to be flexible, but at the same time maintain our standards.

In which area of the complete meeting package are planners asking for the most flexibility?

The CMP concept of packaging a delegate's charges remains the best value and the best way of planning and budgeting for a business meeting. IACC members have now developed packaging even further to include nonstandard technology, and food and beverage items, to name but two.

How do you survey planners?
We have run a number of customer roundtables. They are invaluable, and we will definitely run them in the future. They are great for hearing what is important firsthand. We have had great success in running customer roundtables both in and around IACC events and also as part of road shows hosted at IACC member properties. Our aim in the coming months is to expand upon this and introduce customer events at the major trade shows.

How is IACC getting the message out to planners about member centers' value proposition?

By promoting the flexible CMP, and by investing in service and meeting environments and the latest technology. We are promoting IACC and our members at trade shows around the world, where the major buyers attend.

Having a presence at industry trade shows is new for IAAC. At which shows will the association be represented?

We will have booths at IMEX in Las Vegas and Frankfurt, Germany, as well as at EIBTM in Barcelona, Spain, and at AIBTM in Chicago, and we will look to exhibit at other smaller shows. We will also be at CIBTM in Beijing and AIME in Melbourne, Australia.