Elizabeth Rich talks to MCI’s Stephan Wurzinger about his role as Australian MD and regional director for association relations for the Asia Pacific, Canada and the Middle East, the evolving MCI business model, and what other companies can learn from the organisation.
It was no surprise when the MCI Group landed in Australia in 2010. The industry had been expecting it. Founded in Geneva in 1987 originally as a DMC operator, the company is on the march globally. A footprint in Australia was a no brainer.
MCI has now been established here for three years. It chose an existing PCO operation as its entry point, Event Planners, and has since moved on to absorb other industry operators, most recently Offsite Connections.
There is no more obvious example of globalisation and integration within the industry than this expanding organisation which now has 49 offices in 24 countries.
It was Stephan Wurzinger’s dream to come to work and live in Australia. Kenyan born, he is a German national who grew up in South Africa and worked in the industry there before stints in Dubai, London and Singapore. But Australia remained his goal. It was a perfect fit for him when he finally landed the position which saw him move to Sydney.
Ask him if the dream matches reality and you get a taste for the person – charming and frank. “It has been much tougher than I expected,” he admits. Although no language barrier, it’s been a culture shock which surprised him.
“It’s hard to start a new life when work is the only connection. You don’t get cut much slack as an immigrant. Everyone has to earn their stripes.”
But he loves the country: its lifestyle, big outdoors, creativity and interesting politics!
Wurzinger’s background is in the commercial conference industry, working with companies such as IIR, Informa, and Terrapinn. Blooded in the rugged end of the market, he actively pursued a role in MCI and eventually joined the team in Singapore. It was here he was introduced to the world of association meetings, initially in the Asian region.
After the nascent Asian market, he has enjoyed delving into the mature and innovative Australian association meetings industry.
MCI has invested heavily in the emerging association market in Asia, developing its AMC (association management) as well as PCO business, and establishing a research team based in Shanghai which Wurzinger believes has developed a better global database than ICCA’s. It currently has around 5500 to 6000 international, regional and national meetings on its system.
It uses a variety of methods to identify associations and meetings, including tapping the intellectual resources of MCI’s 700 staff around the world, and drilling right down even to dates of board meetings and destination decisions.
Wurzinger’s responsibilities include the Shanghai-based “Business Intelligence Unit” of MCI, where he personally tracks more than 258 Asia Pacific-based associations.
Vertical integration has been de-rigueur for MCI growth as it spreads its global wings to encompass PCO, AMC, DMC, incentive and special event operations along the industry supply line.
Over more recent years, the model has expanded laterally into conferences to offer specialised services on sustainability, delegate boosting, content capture and ROI measurement.
The difference from the norm comes in the segregation of these services into stand-alone revenue streams.
While most PCOs offer delegate boosting as standard practice when managing an association event, MCI feels that this is usually a passive activity involving e-mails or print material, and has taken the offer one step further by actually putting people on the phone.
The delegate boosting service can be accessed by bureaus or association events unrelated to in-house MCI work. It is handled by a hub which oversees boosting activities in-market, using contacts within the targeted countries and marketing in the local language with tactics which work best for that market. For example, they have found faxes work better in China; telemarketing works for India. In Japan it is harder to get targets on the phone, so working through stakeholders is the better option.
This “delegate acquisition” hub is a relatively new step, started in 2011 with dedicated personnel in India, China, the Middle East, and Argentina. Expansion is underway this year to Brazil, Malaysia and South Korea. Results are yielding up to 20 per cent increases in delegate numbers for the clients.
MCI worked on delegate boosting for the last World Cardiology Congress (WCC) in Dubai. It is doing the same for WCC in Melbourne in May 2014 and is contracted to continue this for future cardio congresses. It’s a separate contract from any PCO fee. To date, it has also contracted to supply delegate boosting for two convention bureaus: one in North American and one in the Middle East.
Wurzinger believes this string to MCI’s bow will grow as association events move from more traditional passive marketing to stronger, proactive approaches which drive enquiries and bookings.
“Bureaus’ financial support for events has been historically tied to passive marketing dollars such as speaker support or promotional materials,” Wurzinger says, explaining MCI’s new approach. “If, for instance, $20,000 pays for 10,000 calls, a 10 per cent conversion rate could deliver 200 extra delegates. We look to make a compelling case for the targets to register.”
This marketing approach is not limited to promoting the conference to potential live delegates.
“It’s not just about who attends, but who participates,” he explains. “If the targets can’t make the meeting, there is the possibility of selling proceedings or virtual attendance.”
MCI is also working with associations to capture the conference content in specific sessions, which can then be bundled for later sale to companies and individuals.
It’s not a new concept, Wurzinger says, noting that the US especially has been doing it for years. But improved technologies have meant more possibilities.
What’s interesting in this extension is the risk element and the packaging. Working with the host organisation, MCI takes an incentive-based fee (ranging from 15-20 per cent), which is paid on results based on delegate numbers above agreed minimum targets. The costs of content capture for re-sale is taken on by MCI, perhaps with corporate funding, with a royalty payable to the host organisation.
MCI is driving this new revenue stream, licensing content to corporates who can re-purpose and badge for their own purposes, using it to educate to local audiences back home including staff.
Wurzinger says it’s a win-win-win for all parties, and is upbeat about the potential of these new business hubs. The content capture element was introduced in 2012 with around a half dozen associations in Europe and North America. He is overseeing the infiltration now into the Australian and Asian markets.
“Years of planning go into many congresses for just a few days of learning. Why not capture this legacy for wider dissemination?
“The new Pharma Codes have impacted the funding of delegates to attend medical meetings and this option could better suit some pharma companies, which find it easier to support learning by bringing back the education into their local markets.”
The technology work is handled by Blue Sky Broadcast, a US company MCI partnered with in 2011.
MCI has also moved into the business of event ROI. In 2012 it bought a German-based company called Fair Control which offers ROI measurement for exhibitions and conferences which is setting up offices in Asia Pacific.
Changing association models
In terms of traditional membership models of associations, the system is now outdated, according to Wurzinger.
“The customers want a less prescriptive model where they decide at what price-point to engage for what specific benefits from more of a menu-based offering. Isn’t it preferable to have, instead of 10,000 members, one million buyers of your products and services?”
But doesn’t that depart from the concept of association membership to a more commercial company offering? Wurzinger believes both can work in concert, with core membership remaining alongside a variety of other membership price/value engagements, remodeled depending on the specific association.
“Australian associations have a brand value which can extend far beyond their borders. They have the potential to attract more members under new structures and for their events to deliver greater returns.”
Most of the Asia Pacific associations he saw in Singapore were US offshoots. So why not Australian associations? Wurzinger nominated Engineers Australia as a great example. The second largest membership-based association in Australia, 30,000 of its 106,000 members are from overseas. Could more Australian associations have branches in other countries? Absolutely!
Stephan Wurzinger knows it’s early days still for him in his new home country but he is keen to contribute to the industry and his passion for the associations market is self evident. He looks sure to make his mark. m