Whether you do it regularly or not, conference organising is either something that you look forward to, take in your stride or it brings you out in a cold sweat. Either way, you have probably thought at some stage about hiring a Professional Conference Organiser (PCO) to give you a helping hand, or indeed make the whole thing go away while you concentrate on your real job.
So is working with a PCO always worthwhile, and can you justify the cost of bringing in outside help? People who do so regularly would undoubtedly say ‘yes’ because it’s a bit like your mobile phone – you can remember a time when you got by without one, but you can’t quite think how.
But are you getting real value for your budget? If you are just hiring someone to do the administrative stuff, you are probably better going to the local temp agency and paying for a bit more in-house help. It’s often cheaper and you keep control of the whole thing. However where a PCO really adds value goes beyond just doing the leg work for you. An experienced conference organiser will provide ideas and initiatives that can bring your event to life and you will end up with a result that exceeds your (and your delegates) original expectations.
Organising a conference is the perfect example of teamwork, and to get it right you not only need a good team, but you need to know how to get the best from them. Think about where you yourself can make a difference – your knowledge of your business and culture puts you in the perfect place to act as a facilitator and co-ordinator, working with your senior management to plan the agenda, choosing the right speakers to deliver important messages and deciding on who is to be invited.
Your project manager from your chosen conference organiser can provide you with a package of management services, venue liaison, delegate registration, fee collection, guest hosts, technical and AV support and teambuilding. You can choose to buy in whichever services you need and your budget will stretch to. But a word of caution – good teamwork relies on trust and having confidence in your agency. Don’t fall into the trap of buying the service and then trying to make all the decisions yourself – a PCO worth their salt will have organised hundreds of events and you can benefit by being guided by their experience. They will know instinctively what works, and more importantly what doesn’t.
Finding a good PCO is all about asking the right questions. A Google search for conference organisers will provide plenty of names, but a good looking website won’t tell you about who’s behind it.
Don’t be tempted to include more than 2 – 4 agencies in your selection process. Reduce your list by making some preliminary calls to ask how long they have been in business, the kind of work they do and their resources. Don’t just ask about their clients, request references as well. An unbiased opinion from an existing client tells you much more than a sales pitch.
Pick two or three agencies you feel you could work with and send them a brief in writing, giving as much detail as you can and telling them which services you want to buy in. Ask for written proposals and costs, giving at least a couple weeks for questions and responses.
Make your final choice based on how confident you feel, what benefit you will get from working with them and whether they can add real value to your event. Look for value for money, but don’t instinctively pick the cheapest.
What matters ultimately is the success of your conference or event. Using a PCO is not the answer in every case, but if you find the right partner you’ll never look back.