by Lisa Grimaldi | April 01, 2010

The International Association of Congress Centres -- best known by its acronym, AIPC, is the Brussels, Belgium-based association representing convention and exhibition centers throughout the world. (Centers must meet a set of standards and undergo a site inspection by an AIPC official before they can join.) With 650 members from 165 convention facilities in 52 countries, the association celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009. In light of that milestone, M&C spoke with Edgar Hirt, AIPC's president (as well as managing director of Congress Center Hamburg in Germany), about the organization's mission and goals.

What is AIPC's mission?
To support and recognize excellence in convention center management. Our programs are directed toward enhancing the profile and performance of members, whose primary purpose is to accommodate and service meetings, conventions, congresses and exhibitions at their purpose-built facilities.

What do you offer members?
One area that stands out is our ability to capitalize on the huge reservoir of knowledge that is reflected in our global membership, via meetings and educational programs and research. While our members come from all over the world, many of their challenges and opportunities are essentially the same, which means we can look at addressing common issues from many different perspectives.

These activities are supported by our annual conference as well as a specialized International Sales and Marketing Summit, a counterpart Facility Operations Summit, a series of educational seminars at major trade events such as EIBTM in Barcelona and IMEX in Frankfurt and ongoing industry surveys [a full list is available at], as well as the exchange of research information with other industry organizations.

What challenges are your members facing now?
Many of our member centers have seen significant impacts to their corporate meetings as well as to trade and consumer shows that rely on either corporate or general public attendance. Most association meetings have remained stable, but as some of these will take place years in the future, there may yet be cancellations. With all events, the big question is what attendance will be once the meeting or exhibition actually takes place, and this will depend on the state of the economy at that time.

I think that more than ever, our priorities are defined by the global conditions we are dealing with. This is a time of great transition for the industry, and there are many changes taking place, not only because of current economic conditions but because of underlying changes that are being accelerated by the global recession. As a result, we will emerge from this recession as a somewhat different industry rather than simply going back to "normal."

I want to make sure AIPC does everything possible to support members during the recession but also develop the programs and activities that will ensure they are ready to take full advantage of a recovery when it comes. That means looking beyond the immediate challenges -- not always an easy thing to do when you are facing them on a day-to-day basis -- and anticipating what we will be dealing with next year and the year after that. In my view, this is the only way we can serve our members properly.

Convention centers are not going to go away because of a challenging year or two. They will adapt and survive, and in doing so, be ready for the increases in business activity that will inevitably accompany future economic recovery.

How is AIPC tailoring its offerings to members, based on current market conditions?
First, we have been using our conferences, seminars and sector meetings to full advantage by bringing in outside experts, such as global economic, marketing and innovation leaders, and recognized experts in emerging economies, to help clarify the issues and solutions to current conditions.
At the same time, we have been doing ongoing research on impacts and what members are doing to address them. We have also shifted the emphasis of our programming to create new and better opportunities for the exchange of experiences and ideas amongst members themselves, as this is generally where the best ideas come from. In fact, almost half of our programming is in the form of seminars, workshops and industry-partner exchanges that are directly interactive.

We also have accelerated our interactions with other industry organizations, including the International Congress and Convention Association, Meeting Professionals International and the Professional Convention Management Association, in order to make sure we are all working as effectively as possible in areas of common concern.

Finally, we have been holding the line on any charges associated with member participation in AIPC training, networking and educational programs and making concessions for some of our more distant members who have proportionately higher travel expenses, in recognition of the fact that budgets in many centers are tighter than previously, and we don't want to restrict the breadth of international participation on account of cost.

Do you think there are too many convention centers for today's market?
That is a question that only the market itself can answer, and it will do so over the long term, as centers that cannot compete will simply be eliminated from the equation. However, there can be some real problems in the interim as this gets sorted out. For example, if a center is not competitive, it may resort to predatory marketing -- offering deep discounts and "buying" business by giving the planner or organizer financial incentives, for example -- in order to survive, and that harms everyone in the long term.

We emphasize to our members that a center should be built only where there is a strong and demonstrable business case for one, and where all the other parts of the meetings business equation -- air access, good hotel accommodation, etc. -- are in proportional supply. It is far better to make the correct development decision in the first place than to have to deal with it once a building is already completed and entering the market.

Does AIPC promote green practices and sustainability?
Sustainability is an area that often moves to a lower priority when business concerns are highest, but that has not happened with centers, for a number of reasons. First, sustainable practices may actually be cost-effective, particularly when building expenses are a critical factor. Secondly, many centers see a market advantage to being able to demonstrate sustainable practices, and that is of increasing interest when the market is more competitive.

Finally, centers have many different stakeholders -- including the local community and/or government -- who also want to see good environmental practices. For these reasons, our research shows that 89 percent of convention centers now have significant sustainability programs and policies in place.

What are some emerging markets for international meetings and conventions?

Certainly the areas with a growing economy -- China, India, Latin America and Eastern Europe -- would be the places to look on both counts. As more people become able to travel, and as they look to expand their markets, conventions and exhibitions will be a part of their planning.

But there are also limitations. Many parts of the world have identified the benefits that meetings and conventions can bring and have invested accordingly, usually in the development of convention centers. However, just having a center is no guarantee of business; a city must also have all the other parts of the equation, including hotels, transportation access and area attractions, that make up the rest of the convention package. The success of any new emerging destination will depend on how well it understands this and responds accordingly.

How is AIPC relevant to the U.S. market?
Our industry is increasingly international, due in large part to the forces of globalization and the expectations planners develop through their exposure to a variety of facilities. Still, we find that many U.S. planners are not sure what to expect when they interact with a center in other parts of the world. AIPC has been very active in helping to bridge this gap, both by setting standards [details at] that ensure a degree of consistency and educating our members about varying conditions and expectations in different markets.