Robin Lokerman

Witness to the evolution of the American and European association management industry over the past 22 years, MCI Group CEO tells Karen Yue he is ready for changes in Asia

How did you begin your adventure in the association management industry?

It all started when I was a staff member with a not-for-profit organisation and had thought to myself that there must be a more efficient way to run these organisations. So I started GIC Management in Europe in 1991, managing associations on a professional basis.

In 2003, I merged GIC Management with MCI Group. I wanted to grow my business into Asia, and knew it would be difficult to do that on my own. At that time, I had 50 staff members in Brussels, and MCI Group had 200 in France, the UK and Switzerland.

In 2005, Roger Tondeur (president of MCI Group) and I opened an office in Singapore – MCI’s first office outside of Europe. Two years later I moved to Asia to be based in Singapore, a decision I made to show that MCI Group is truly committed to being a global company.

Why were you keen on Asia?

During my career in Europe, I saw the professionalisation of European associations, which were becoming powerful, getting bigger budgets, holding larger conferences and starting to hire more staff and create new value propositions for their members. Associations were being managed like they were mini businesses.

That’s the change that took place in the 70s-80s in the US, and 80s-90s in Europe.

I moved to Asia because I knew that trend would spread to this region. And it is slowly happening now – you see more associations establishing offices, hiring staff and forming more permanent relationships. Before that, a lot of associations were very loose federations, with conferences that rotated in the region but were managed locally rather than centrally. Today, more are centralising their conference management by working with a core PCO to organise (regular, rotating) events, as opposed to using a new local PCO each time.

This change is, however, taking place slower in Asia than in Europe because Asia is so diverse, with differences in culture, language and religion. But we believe that Asia-Pacific associations will grow in prominence because many international scientists want to publish their findings in Asia where there is increased funding for research and healthcare, for instance. So this is a market with many opportunities.

What are the most pressing issues facing Asia’s association management industry today, seeing how it is still in its early stages of growth, and which are hardest to tackle?

Staff competency and employers’ ability to find staff who are well trained and aligned to the needs of the company. In a rapidly evolving workplace, especially in Asia where the economy is growing and a lot of young people are coming into the market, continuing education is needed. Associations will grow in Asia because they are the providers of continuing education for their respective industry. In Singapore, the government leads a lot of that. But in other countries, it is the private associations that are the key providers of education and certification programmes for industry professionals.

Rising costs must be an issue too, I’m sure, as not all associations are hugely profitable.

Well, associations must have activities that are profitable. A well managed conference should bring profit, which will be reinvested in more activities. This is why we believe that centralising conference management is very important.
If conferences were managed locally, profits from the event would go into the pockets of the local association and sometimes (the money) could disappear because of corruption or vague financial structures. Or that profit could get reinvested in one-off events in that country that might have limited lasting impact. And every year, the (local association) would have to reinvent the wheel by finding a new database and sponsors.

When European associations started to professionalise, they centralised their conference management. It was no longer the national chapter, but the international board, that took ownership of the meeting. So the international board would work with both the local chapter and an international PCO year after year, and thus get more consistent relationships with the industry and delegates, making it easier for communications.

For instance, one of MCI Group’s biggest clients is the European League Against Rheumatism. We have been working with it for 15 years. When it first came to us, it had a 3,500-pax conference. Today there are 16,000 people in attendance. Profits from the conference is huge, and that amount goes back into funding a more professional infrastructure, more research and new education programmes. The conference is an important revenue source.

Unfortunately, you don’t see enough of that in Asia. Associations here are still too splintered. Local chapters often have a bigger influence because of the diversity of countries in this region, but I think it is very important that associations start centralising some of their management.

How is MCI Group coping with the diversity in Asia?

MCI Group has 15 offices across Asia, which allows it to be local all over the world.

The local chapter has a key role to play in organising a conference. For instance, a conference in India will have a distinct Indian feel, with Indian professionals being more involved in the programme. You need to have a small team in India to work with these people, but at the same time have other teams in Singapore or Hong Kong to manage other aspects of the conference.

MCI Group has teams that are close to both the central and local offices, ensuring a mix of localised and centralised efforts. Delegate registration and project management can be managed centrally, while hotel reservations can be done locally. Sponsorship management is often a mix of both, depending on where the sponsors are located.

To be really effective in attracting new audience, you have to localise marketing efforts. So we have set up a delegate boosting team in China, India and the Middle East last year, and in Brazil, South Korea and South-east Asia this year. We have locals to take the marketing messages of our international association clients and localise that content and distribute them through popular and relevant local media channels.

One event that has benefitted from our delegate boosting effort is the World Congress of Cardiology, which we have worked with for the past three shows. It was held in Buenos Aires in 2008, Beijing in 2010 and Dubai in 2012. It will go to Melbourne next year. It is a big meeting with 13,000 to 14,000 cardiologists. We did delegate boosting in the Middle East, India and China by localising marketing messages and working with local partners such as hospitals. The target number of delegates from these three countries was 1,500 but we got more than 3,500.

I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to localise some aspects of conference management in Asia because the countries in this region are so diverse.

How else can associations grow profits from their events?

By milking the content of their events and using it before, during and after the conference to gain maximum reach. Associations can repackage and sell the content to people who were not able to travel all the way to the conference or who were unable to afford the registration fee.

Some clients are still afraid of repackaging content and selling it to people who were unable to attend the conference, thinking that once you do that, more would skip the live event.

Now, consider a soccer match played by Manchester United. Although the game can be caught on TV, many people want to experience the match being played live at the stadium. To some people, attending a congress is a premium experience. Associations just have to enhance that personal experience offered by their events, by bringing in greater content and making it sexy.

Let’s talk about Asian MICE sellers that want to attract association events. What should they be mindful of?

Too many sellers tend to see association meetings as a tourist activity. Tourism appeal is becoming less important in this sector, as people chose to attend a conference for its content.

Not all Asian CVBs are mindful of this too. I’ve attended fam trips that put incentive buyers and association secretariats on the same programme, touring tourist attractions and fancy resorts. But I was impressed with Northern Territories’ industry-specific fams – in July 2011 it brought buyers from the emergency response sector on a programme that included a health forum and visits to hospitals and a kidney dialysis centre.

Compared to some European cities like Barcelona and Vienna or Australian cities like Melbourne, the CVBs in Asia are still immature and sometimes too focused on leisure tourism. That may be due to the fact that many Asian CVBs are part of the national tourism authority, so their focus is naturally on destination promotion.

CVBs need more active ambassador programmes, more subvention and a bigger vision to build the association business, and to understand that the objectives of an incentive buyer are very different from that of association buyers. They need to pay attention to client needs, and that need is not to see yet another hotel, yet another bathroom. The client is more interested in the scientific development in the country, for instance, so the Northern Territories is very smart.

Differentiation of market by type of buyers still has room for refinement in Asia.

Which Asian destinations are doing it right and will be hot for association conferences this year?

Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and South Korea – the latter especially. The South Korean government has made the MICE industry in general one of the 12 or 14 economic priorities of the country. It realises that MICE, especially association congresses, is a fantastic way to generate economic wealth and stimulate local industries and professionals through learning from global thought leaders who come to the country to share their knowledge. The government is also building congress infrastructure across South Korea and providing subvention support for association congresses coming into the country.

Having said that, Singapore will still be the major centre (for association events), although it is becoming very expensive. Kuala Lumpur is promising too, due to good infrastructure that are priced a third of what’s offered in Singapore. Hong Kong is also still popular, but very expensive and facing limited capacity.

Chinese cities, not just Beijing and Shanghai, but also the second- and third-tier ones are starting to attract the attention of associations. However, they (second- and third-tier cities) require more destination promotion and infrastructure improvement.

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