By Bronwen Largier
Since business events sprang into life in the 1980s as a recognisably professional field, the industry has grown rapidly with little regulation or outside oversight. With no requirement to be licenced or endorsed in any way in order to operate as an events professional, it is often argued that the industry faces a constant credibility threat and a vulnerability to sub-par services. Sitting alongside a lack of recognition of the specific skills of event managers and agencies, disintermediation – the cutting out of the event manager as the middle man – in the information age is seen by some as a real possibility, putting the existence of the industry itself in danger.
Over the years various industry associations and organisations have formed (and occasionally been disbanded) in part to address the issue of industry credibility and baseline standards. These organisations have also provided voluntary codes of conduct and certification for individuals.
We recently caught up with Nigel Gaunt, founder of one such body, the Incentive, Conference and Event Society Asia-Pacific to talk about the need for accreditation for business event agencies and what ICESAP has done about it.
“I’ve been very lucky, I’ve done quite well out of this industry and I felt my last gesture for this industry was to set up something which was truly what I think we needed,” says Gaunt.
What was needed, suggests Gaunt, is an industry body representing and connecting those working in business events space across the whole Asia-Pacific area.
Throughout a career in the events industry spanning four decades, Gaunt has owned two of his own agencies across the region – Forum Organization from the late 70s until he sold it to Carlson Marketing in 1990 and The Mint Organization from 2001, selling it to BI Worldwide in 2006 and staying at the helm until 2012.
“I’ve learned from an agency perspective, the vulnerabilities of agencies is their lack of self-discipline as an agency fraternity. AFTA is for travel agents – what is there for business event agencies?” he asks.
Despite the plethora of associations and industry bodies, both in Australia and overseas, ICESAP, it seems, has brought something unique to the table: an agency accreditation scheme, accrediting companies rather than certifying individuals.
“There’s no accreditation in Europe, there’s no accreditation in North America of intermediary agencies today. We are, in Asia Pacific, leading the world on agency accreditation,” says Gaunt.
“Agencies are really important and I’m a big defender of agencies. The reason we have an accreditation scheme is because we are defending the position of the agency.
“Disintermediation is alive and well across the world in many industries, including our own.
“Instead of going to [for example] George P Johnson, the client goes straight to the Pan Pacific [Hotel]. It’s happening more and more.
“Within five years, if we didn’t start to build an accreditation regime in our industry, there would be very little room for agencies. They won’t exist – unless they’re the really big ones,” he says.
“There’s a huge argument for agency accreditation but I don’t think the solution is [to] have agency accreditation in a single market like Australia. I think the accreditation has to be the way we’ve done it, which is across Asia Pacific.
“And watch this space – it’ll be a global program. PCMA [the US-based Professional Convention Management Association which bought out ICESAP in mid-2017] didn’t acquire ICESAP because they liked the sound of the name – they acquired it because we have intellectual property which we invested a lot of money in to develop and we’re a test bed for a worldwide accreditation scheme.”
The PCMA ICESAP accreditation is specifically for intermediary agencies, those accepting money from clients and then paying it onto third party suppliers. The accreditation process involves a probity check – “checking on the financial wherewithal of the business and its directors. Have any of the directors got a criminal record? Has the company got a balance sheet that’s healthy – that is, that the directors haven’t borrowed all the money and the working capital” – a competency check – “we ask for a management and staff list and their appropriate and relevant experience” – and agreeing to follow a specific code of conduct and a set of prescribed best practices.
Gaunt says the application shouldn’t take more than a few hours to complete, provided all additional documents are already prepared. The cost is US$2,500 for the initial application and the first two years of accreditation then US$1,250 every two years following to maintain the accreditation.
He says the cost of accreditation shouldn’t be a barrier to applying.
“If they can’t afford every two years to spend $2,500, then that agency probably shouldn’t be in the business. If they can’t afford to pay that, they probably don’t have the working capital to actually qualify to be accredited. If it’s Mom and Pop out of the back spare room, they shouldn’t be accredited and we wouldn’t allow them to be.”
“I’m very lucky that I was in a position, personally, to be able to finance the establishment of ICESAP and pay some of those consultants,” says Gaunt, acknowledging that associations like MEA and PCOA may have been prevented from setting up accreditation programs by the costs involved.
“We spent a vast amount of money with KPMG and other consultants and lawyers…I mean this isn’t something you can do overnight – you can’t just stick it up on a website and say ‘we do accreditation’.
“This required some pretty intensive capital expenditure but it’s about helping the industry. It’s my give back to the industry, my legacy, if you will, in years to come will be ‘Hey, that’s the guy who created an accreditation scheme for business event agencies’.”
“I’m very lucky the PCMA saw what I was doing, liked it and bought it. What they did was they gave back the seed capital which I put in to start ICESAP.”
Gaunt hopes the PCMA ICESAP accreditation will do what accreditation did for advertising in the United States in the mid-20th century.
“Here we are in 2018 and we’re just now seeing an accreditation scheme to lift the standard of not advertising but business events, and to regulate the industry to some extent so that we can group together and say to Marriott [for example] ‘No you cannot reduce the commission to accredited agencies. If you want to play with commissions, fine, but don’t touch the accredited agencies’. Because the agencies at the moment have no bargaining chips unless they’re the really big ones.
“But if we had accreditation of small to medium enterprise agencies, they can then have some collective bargaining. But there’s nowhere to go right now with that. You know what – commission could be removed entirely at the moment and they’d have not a leg to stand on unless it was the big agencies.”
When asked, Gaunt says there are no plans for the accreditation scheme to move into the public event space – for owned events such as Byron Bay Bluesfest and Vivid Sydney – although interestingly, because it’s contracted out from the Victorian Government, an event like White Night Melbourne could end up being run by an accredited agency.
“I think what we’ve got to stick to is the fact that we’re the peak body for this sector – business events – and we want to have a robust agency accreditation scheme to preserve the role of agencies, enhance their profile, lift their image, because we’ve been damaged by a lot of small players who will sell on price and price alone and then try and dream up how to solve the problem, which is not the way to stay in business. We’ve got to fix that and accreditation is the only device to fix that.
“Right now we really want to be passionate about looking after these agencies – small, medium and large – and win back the share of spend for the agencies,” says Gaunt.
“Accreditation is the silver bullet, frankly, in that space.”