‘Community is the way forward’: we chat to ABPCO’s new chairs

The Association of British Professional Conference Organisers’ (ABPCO’s) new chairs, Barbara Calderwood and Michael Smith, are developing a roadmap for the association.

Their two-year tenure as co-chairs began in June and the pair immediately signalled a focus on supporting the association’s professional conference organiser (PCO) community through Covid-19 with a 40 per cent reduction in membership fees.

Significant online education since March will be enhanced moving forward with a focus on business resilience and the changing needs of associations through the coming months.

Calderwood, associations director at MCI UK, said: “We’ve shared our vision for the work ahead of us in a very broad term and we’re about to delve deeper into that. We have a lot of ambition for ABPCO, at a time when our PCO community needs us more than ever. It’s up to us to empower members to help them deliver alternative solutions.

“We became co-chairs at a very difficult time for a lot of people and we’re very sensitive to that. We represent small and large PCOs, in-house and agency and we’re committed to upskilling members. We’ve got 125 PCOs in the membership. They’re unable to operate in the near future – we need to get back to doing what we do best. It’s going to be a change in format to enable their businesses. There’s a lot of people out there that have not done things in this way before.”

“For a lot of associations, a lot of income comes from events,” says Smith, who is also head of events at RenewableUK. “If they’re not meeting face to face their revenue is challenged. In order to save that for 2020 it’s going to have to be a virtual event.”

As congresses get cancelled and postponed, hybrid is bound to be the format of choice going forward, says Calderwood. “Why wouldn’t you have a virtual solution?” she asks. “I’m talking to a range of clients that are looking in-house to generate revenues that keep them in business. We want members to be fully equipped to help clients be agile and resilient at this time.”

Making sure the association is future-fit is also top of the to-do list for the incoming chairs.

“We’ll have a focus on thought leadership, making sure we’re representative of all views,” says Calderwood. “We want to be externally focusing outside of the industry – while we fully want to participate in the industry, our customers are associations. We need to find avenues to engage with our customers. It’s all well and good being part of a collective industry, but as PCOs we have a duty of care to associations to make sure they can have events in the virtual place.
The vast majority of revenue comes in through their event portfolio – without events they’re dead in the water. It’s up to us to support them and be resilient.

“It’s going to be a massive challenge and we need to make sure we understand,” agrees Smith. “It’s very important for us to explain the value proposition. We want to make sure our voice is heard not just in the short term but in the medium term as well. It might be an opportunity to go to a community model.”

Calderwood also sees potential for change within the structure of the association itself.

“I’m not convinced that the membership model is futureproof,” she says. “You don’t have to be paying subs to be part of a community. We want to welcome all those who want to benefit from the ABPCO community.

“I’m thinking about a volumisation model. The more members of a community you have, the more attractive you are to sponsorship, partnership agreements… We want to consider what we look like in the future. We don’t want to turn people away that need us most.”

And it’s that community that Smith and Calderwood are looking to foster during their tenure as co-chairs.

“Our role is to equip our members to be the best,” says Calderwood. “We’re keen to attract new talent and understand the digital landscape. It’s going to be a really important place to get skills. Collaboration is at the heart of everything we do and we want to celebrate good practice.

“We want the government to take notice of what we do. We want PCOs to be understood. We want to make a difference to people’s lives. Community is the way forward.”