Inside ICCA

M&C profiles the International Congress and Convention Association

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.

M&C: Several ICCA members interviewed by M&C cited the quality of your research and database. To what do you attribute this asset?
Sirk: We've been tracking international association meetings for more than three decades and currently have 11 researchers who do nothing but verify and update the data, and who train members to use the tools effectively; eight are based in the Amsterdam head office and three in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a department that will grow to five over the next 18 months. Growth will continue, since this is ultimately a skilled, labor-intensive function; without experienced vetting, databases quickly become clogged with inaccurate or nonqualifying data.

Meetings in our database have to take place regularly and rotate between at least three countries. The data comes from various sources: More than 250 of our members -- including CVBs and convention centers -- send us their full calendars of past and future confirmed business. We contact all the associations on the database annually to verify and update their records; we get about a 20 percent response rate. We then conduct ad hoc research to fill in the gaps we can identify, such as where members haven't supplied much calendar information. We also link in all kinds of data from workshops, promotions and congress materials that don't fit into the main data fields. This gives us enormous flexibility to capture and make available "soft data" on decision-making processes, one of the most critical marketing factors.

In September, we debuted an on-the-spot updating report for members, so they can send us corrections and new information while they are working live on the database. A similar product is going to be launched soon to make it easier for the associations to update data, too.

M&C: What trends have you noted in your tenure with ICCA?  
Sirk: Our annual retention rate is running at more than 95 percent, with most resignations coming from mergers, bankruptcies, management upheavals and occasional wars. We've grown more than 35 percent in the past six years, but the progress has been deliberately slow and steady, with a greater focus on benefits for current members and maintaining strong retention rates. We don't want companies to join us for the wrong reasons -- for example, if they indicate they're interested in incentive travel, we steer them to the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives. Nor do we want venues such as smaller hotels that aren't suitable for major association events, or companies that have no international track record or marketing materials.

M&C: Why are ICCA's U.S. membership numbers relatively low?
Sirk: The U.S. market is so massive that very few U.S. CVBs or convention centers have been willing to divert sales and marketing resources to international segments, preferring to have good reactive processes instead. International marketing has been seen as complex and time-consuming.

We've noticed a clear change in attitudes over recent years, as more U.S. destinations and venues are exhibiting at IMEX and EIBTM, and as more senior executives are being given responsibility for developing the market. Once we introduce our U.S. members to the ICCA association database and explain how the decision-making differs from the typical U.S. association's, then they start to understand how we can help them address the market cost-effectively.

We now have high-profile members in key U.S. gateway cities, and we can work with them to improve how the U.S. markets itself to international planners. The challenge now is to get our U.S. members to use our resources as efficiently and intensively as the Australians and Austrians do.

U.S. meeting planners looking internationally are being driven by the imperatives of the globalized economy and the need to network with suppliers, partners, clients, agents, etc., in multiple countries. The trend will only accelerate. Many of these planners don't know how to find trusted suppliers overseas, and this is where we feel we can offer a valuable networking service. At our congresses, we regularly feature sessions on how to deal with the U.S. outbound market, so our members from Europe and Asia can better understand the mind-sets and working practices of U.S. planners.

We are interested in two types of American planners: U.S.-based international association planners and decision-makers, whose events we want on our database and with whom we want to communicate about how to use the network of ICCA suppliers, and the specialist congress-organizing companies interested in expanding their knowledge of international markets. We have plans to expand our influence with both groups.

M&C Web Exclusive: ICCA CEO Martin Sirk looks to the future

M&C: How has the current global economic uncertainty affected membership numbers?
Sirk: We haven't yet seen any direct negative impact in terms of significant lost business, but the most recent doom-and-gloom news on the financial front is sure to have an impact. We'll be surveying members prior to our congress this month, and a number of our education sessions are custom-designed to address issues like crisis management, strategies for dealing with downturns, executive stress, etc.

M&C: How do you determine an organization's track record on international meetings?
Sirk: We ask prospective members to provide details on past international-congress clients. Congress centers aren't allowed to join until two years before their doors open, and they need to have at least three qualifying pieces of business on the books. All members need to show they are genuinely active in the international market. For example, they need to have collateral and websites in English, and an individual or department in charge of handling international business.
As an example, two years ago, the Turkish government changed its specifications for PCO/DMC companies handling government-sponsored international meetings to include membership in either ICCA or the International Association of Professional Congress Organizers. We, of course, received dozens of new applications from Turkish DMCs trying to get these lucrative contracts. All were turned down because none had track records or English materials. One representative even flew over to Amsterdam with cash to pay the membership fee. She seemed somewhat surprised when we told her "no thanks."
However, we are flexible. One new PCO was accepted without a track record because it had employed as CEO an individual with a superb record in organizing international events. That's how they were able to demonstrate their strategy and commitment.

M&C: In what areas of ICCA would you like to see improvement?
Sirk: We're primarily investing in our areas of strength. Asia Pacific has become a center for expansion of our research effort into international associations; heavy investment is always under way in the IT systems that deliver access to this data. One priority I've had since becoming CEO is to make my staff as expert as possible in what is going on in the international meetings market, so they understand the pressures, working environments and objectives of our members.

M&C: What other goals/plans do you see for ICCA in the future?
Sirk:We simply want to be the very best at what we do, and we want to be known on a global scale for that. We want to work with other leading industry associations such as MPI, SITE and Destination Marketing Association International to address the key global advocacy issues our industry faces. We want to ensure that every member company feels valued and like an equal stakeholder in our diverse and dynamic community, and we want to continue to surprise our members at our annual congress, constantly introducing new innovations and taking risks. -- L.G.