by Sarah J.F. Braley | August 01, 2007

Deborah SextonBuilding a strong team,
developing new sponsorship
partners and promoting
greener meetings are all part
of the agenda for PCMA’s CEO,
Deborah Sexton, shown here
in her office in Chicago’s
McCormick Place.

Founded as a society for health-care association executives in 1957, the Professional Convention Management Association is quietly celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In fact, the party took place last year, at the 2006 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, where in 1956 a small group of executives first gathered to discuss creating a formal organization.

Over the years, the society became known as the place for meeting planners from all kinds of associations to network and learn, but as PCMA’s reputation for offering quality, in-depth education grew, planners from for-profit organizations started joining.

The 6,000-member group’s current makeup is about 44 percent planner members and 56 percent suppliers. The planners, who average about 10 years’ tenure in the industry, are primarily from associations (63 percent); however, 15 percent work for corporations, while 10 percent are independents. Association executives and other meeting professionals make up 6 percent each. The current chair of the board of directors is its first independent planner, Sharon DelaBarre, CMP, who runs her eponymous business out of Sequim, Wash.

New partners

So far, the 21st century has presented its share of challenges to PCMA, but the ship seems to be righting. In 2000, the association moved its headquarters from Birmingham, Ala., to Chicago, at the same time adjusting to new leadership as longtime president and CEO Roy Evans Jr., CAE, retired.

The organization went through two other CEOs by March 2005, when Deborah Sexton was hired away from the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau to fill the position. “My initial goal was to stabilize the staffing,” says Sexton. “There had been a lot of turnover for a number of reasons. I had to build a strong team to support what PCMA is all about.”

Another challenge for the organization was the fallout from 9/11, when sponsorship dollars were next to impossible to win. Sexton says PCMA is trying to reinvent its relationship with suppliers with a partnering program, now in its first full year, headed up by chief partner relations officer Sherrif Karamat. By July, 85 percent of this year’s partners had reupped for 2008.

“We needed to examine how we deliver to these strategic partners, because the old sponsorship relationship doesn’t exist any longer,” Sexton says. Individual contributions like coffee breaks or lanyards at the annual meeting no longer are offered to single sponsors. Instead, suppliers can buy into opportunities to help PCMA create new programs and tools to help members do their jobs better.

For example, the Canadian Tourism Commission helped PCMA establish the invitation-only Executive Edge program, offering business sessions created in conjunction with such vaunted institutions as the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

In another partnership, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide chose to launch Meeting-Metrics with PCMA this past February. Developed by New York City-based GuideStar Research, MeetingMetrics is a meeting performance-measurement service that helps planners calculate return on investment.

The new partner program “was a smart way for PCMA to go, because any vendor or supplier is looking for a measurable return,” says Christie Hicks, senior vice president of global sales for White Plains, N.Y.-based Starwood and a 22-year member of the association. “Absent having one-on-one time with customers, there are better ways to get that return than putting the banner up or buying the conference bags. The little-party-favor days are over.”

Member focus

PCMA has 16 chapters so far, the board having approved their formation in 1990. The latest to join, chartered in 2002, is called POWER, for the Pittsburgh, Ohio, West Virginia and Erie Region.

Christine Melendes was hired in June as PCMA’s member relations director, charged with several objectives. “Our goal is not numbers; we’re out for quality education,” says Sexton. “I want to improve the retention percentage. If we can improve it by a few points a year and keep it in the 80s, that would be good. Then we can go out and look for new member prospects.” PCMA’s current retention rate is 75 percent.

PCMA’s bylaws decree that only planners can chair the board. The current slate features 14 -- including Kati Quigley, CMP, group manager of events for Microsoft -- and four suppliers.