Change is on the way for PCOs.

More than 340 delegates, 60 exhibitors and 28 speakers gathered in Melbourne in late 2013 for the Professional Conference Organisers’ annual conference and exhibition. It was clear that change is on the way for PCOs.

With a theme of Business Events: New World Management Strategies, the event was, according to conference chair, Peter Sugg, the best PCO conference yet.

Mr Sugg said the industry was on “a journey of change where we learn to adapt and renew old business models to meet the needs of an ever-changing market place”.

Apart from the professional development sessions over the three-day event, most interest was in the economic outlook and trends PCOs could expect for 2014 and beyond.

Dr Frank Gelber, chief economist at Biz Shrapnel, was the first to speak on economic outlook and implications for the business events and tourism sectors. As reported in our December e-newsletter, there’s good and bad news for the industry as Dr Gelber described the lull between economic cycles and a dollar that’s too high, but unlikely to move lower for a couple of years.

He warned the domestic services sector in Australia was starting to be threatened by outsourcing from foreign pools of highly educated labour and that the internet makes overseas labour really accessible.

Overall Dr Gelber said the industry was facing “a tough patch we have to ride through… it doesn’t get worse, it just stays the same”.

Delivering The American Express 2014 Global Meetings Forecast, Belinda Doery, discussed the trends Amex saw in meetings and events, and the global hotel market. Her takeaway: same budget as last year, but deliver more delegates, longer events and overseas travel. One challenge would be complex approval processes increasing by 50 per cent.

She said APAC meeting volumes would be down 1.2 per cent, delegates down 2.4 per cent, lead times down 3.1 per cent, and spending down 3.6 per cent – suggesting “…as an industry we need to get creative…it might be good to focus on a smaller number of attendees”. One bright spot was that US demand for APAC events would increase by 3.6 per cent in 2014.

Futurist Craig Rispin introduced us to the latest hi-tech acronym: MoSoLoGlo – mobile, social, local and global. Of these “mobile” is the fastest growing technology of all time – “a multi-billion device opportunity beyond the number of people on the planet”. By early 2014 there will be seven billion mobile devices sold, he said, adding: “One of my clients just issued 7000 iPads to their employees to replace desktops and laptop PCs”.

Rispin reckons the global open rate for emails is 22.5 per cent, however 99 per cent of text messages are read, suggesting SMS is the more effective way to communicate with delegates pre-event.

He had the whole conference a-Twitter sending selfies to the #PCO2013 hashtag to demonstrate the power of social engagement during an event.

Bryon Merzeo of STR Global, which collects hotel data on a daily basis, said Australia and New Zealand are increasing their revenue per available room (RevPAR) by 2.7 per cent and 6.4 per cent respectively, but occupancy is not increasing locally because of a shortage of new room stock.

Merzeo gave some tips on how to save money when negotiating hotel rates by recognising which cities and which days offer best value. He said contracted hotel rates were up to $135 below transient rates.

Australia currently has a total of 240,000 rooms. In Asia Pacific there are 500,000 new rooms in the pipeline but China is building 300,000 of them. Australia’s pipeline is only 3.8 per cent, which represents 54 hotel and serviced apartment projects that will deliver us less than 10,000 rooms.

“Demand is strong but if we want more hotels then we will have to be prepared to pay for them,” he said.

After the event, Peter Sugg announced the association would pursue a number of initiatives, including setting up a members’ buying group; establishing affiliate arrangements with other industry groups; and the launch of a national advertising campaign to support accredited PCOs.