Interview with Mark Cooper

As a meeting planner, how to choose the right venue, especially in an unfamiliar region, can be a real challenge. Oliver Kinross is happy to have Mr. Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC (the International Association of Conference Centres), speaking about the solution that IACC has to offer. We are also excited to announce that IACC will be exhibiting at the MICE Asia Expo this November, and Mr. Mark Cooper will be speaking at the event as well.
IACC has 400 members from 20 countries, and the membership includes small to medium conference centres that run meetings and trainings with up to 150 delegates on average. IACC has been established for 35 years, and is very well-known in the industry. IACC is unique for its member selection process, which leads to becoming a IACC Certified Conference Centre. ‘To be a member of IACC you have to be certified’, says Mr. Cooper, ‘and you can only become a member if you meet that certain criteria for membership. We represent only the best examples of meeting venues globally, like an exclusive club.’
Three key areas are measured under the IACC certification criteria: the physical facility, food and beverage, and service. The process is comprehensive, involving an application, physical inspection, and approval from IACC. Once you become certified, however, ‘it is like a badge of honor,’ describes Mr. Cooper. An IACC certification gives meeting planners confidence that the venue they are choosing specializes in meetings and conferences, and is dedicated to provide a superior IACC Meeting Experience.
Apart from providing meeting planners with an excellent resource and reference for selecting meeting venues, IACC also promotes education within the industry, through facilitating the sharing of best practice and conducting its own research and studies. The latest IACC study on the generational preferences of European Meeting Planners when selecting venues shows that different generations do have very different preference. For example, younger generations put greater emphasis on technology capabilities mature Meeting Planners place a high emphasis on business-friendly guest rooms being on-site.
However, one thing is common across generations and across regions. Today, what’s important is whether ‘the meeting room is equipped properly, whether it provides and inspirational learning environment and is it motivating for the delegates? Delegates need to feel privileged to be invited to a meeting at the venue. These are all new priorities and self evident in meeting venue design today,’ says Mr. Cooper.
IACC is currently expanding its presence in Asia, with the launch of its Singapore office last year. ‘We recognize that Asia has a meetings market with different needs and responds in a different way, but we strongly believe at the same time that it is a region which can benefit from global perspectives, from being part of a global association.
We are excited to have new Asian countries joining IACC, to engage with Asian Meeting Planners and to share best practice,’ says Mr. Cooper.
However, Mr. Cooper also believes that it is not only that Asia can learn from the West, but Asia has much to offer the rest of the world as well. ‘Attention to detail, innovation and strong service standards as well as the thought that goes into differentiating venue meeting environments,’ lists Mr. Cooper when asked what others can learn from meeting venues in Asia. ‘Our Asian members care passionately about the products and the services they provide. They are also very open-minded to the rest of the world.’
MICE Asia Expo will be the first opportunity for IACC to publicly engage with the Asian events industry, and IACC is looking to introduce the IACC Meetings Experience to the region and educate about the concept of conference centers. We look forward to seeing IACC at the Expo, and you should too.

See full interview here:
OKL: Can you give a brief introduction to your association?
MC: The IACC, the International Association of Conference Centres, has 400 members from 20 countries. Our members are small to medium conference centres, and when I say small, I mean small in the sense that they run meetings and trainings with no more than 150 delegates on average. The conference centres in our association—we do not represent convention centres and exhibition centers, the very big ones that exist for very big events—we represent the small conference centres and meetings-focused hotels, that work with smaller group size for training, meetings, and smaller conferences. We have been in placefor thirty-five years, so we are long-standing and well-known in the industry. To be a member of IACC your venue has to be certified. You have to be a certified conference center, which means that your facility, your services and your staff and the way that you look after meetings is measured. You can only become a member if you meet Global criteria for membership. Therefore, when you are a certified member of IACC, it is like a badge of honor and you join an exclusive global club of the very best. It gives meeting planners around the world confidence that they can hold their meeting at a venue that specializes in meetings, and is dedicated to provide a first-class meeting experience. And that’s why meetings planners around the world trust IACC conference centres to do that. Our membership is made up of a mix of any independent conference centres which is privately-owned, or owned by global organisations such as General Electric, IBM, or they may be conference centres that are owned by universities, like Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Alternatively, they can be part of a hotel or a group brand like Hilton or Marriott as well as long as they are focused on meetings and not other types of business. They will always be focused on meetings, so they won’t be the hotels that are very much multi-purpose, focusing on transient accommodation. So that’s pretty much the backbone of IACC, our association.
In terms of why people become members, they become members because they are interested in innovating, they are interested in global evolving practices and standards, so they are interested in learning from conference centres operating in other parts of the world. IACC is the only truly global association that represents small to medium sized conference centres.

OKL: Can you tell us a bit more about the IACC certification?
MC: IACC’s Global Quality Standards are used to measure a venues competency and establish if they are indeed an exceptional conference center, at the top of their game. IACC has over 50 Quality Standards required for membership, broken down into certain key areas; physical facilities, food and beverage and service. Physical facilities as in the meeting rooms and the equipment and the furniture and the audio-visual that is provided. Food and beverage, as in the dining and refreshments you provide, and the hospitality side of things. Does your conference center offer continuous refreshments breaks? do you offer flexibility at lunch time to work around agendas and timetables that don’t go according to plan? Are you focused on providing quality food and beverage ideal for delegates attending a meeting? And the other incredibly important area is the service. Are your staff trained to deliver service at an exceptional level. And that’s actually key. If your food and beverage staff are trained to do weddings, they will do weddings really well. But if they are trained to look after meeting delegates and meeting guests, and that’s what they focus on, then they will deliver what we call theIACC Meeting Experience, which is the very best experience a delegate and organizer can expect.
We ask if the conference center provides good working conditions where your staff stay with you and do not move on after a short period of time? If they stay with you they become skilled; they become experts in what they do. The converse of that is if you don’t provide a good working environment, your staff come and go all the time and they never become good at what they do and they never become specialists in looking after meetings and delivering exceptional customer service. In the customer feedbacks you obtain, do you turn that into positive action to make improvements, that’s important. Whether you take the feedback, learn, and provide a better experience next time. And do you invest in training and development, because often times this is a trigger, a mechanism to tell us whether you are going to provide a good experience. So we look to the Quality Standards as a measure of the facility, the food and beverage, and the service as well. This makes us so unique, because for many memberships, you can become a member simply by paying your annual dues, but that’s not the case with IACC.

OKL: So how does membership work? Is there a fee? Does the certification process take long?
MC: Yes, there is an IACC fee, and we have a process for inspecting a member as well. So when a member makes an application, they make a promise, they complete an application, then we arrange a physical inspection of the venue. After the inspection, one of our board directors ensures that they meet the standards and only then they can become a member. It can happen quite quickly, within weeks.

OKL: I see. Is technology part of IACC’s criteria?
MC: Absolutely, a very important part. Technology, which I already touched on briefly when I talked about the meeting facilities, you install in the meeting rooms and in the public areas, and the quality and speed of the connectivity and free Wi-Fi are all really important. Our members are at the cutting edge in terms of the equipment they install in their meeting rooms. And that’s because the meeting rooms that our members provide are dedicated meeting rooms, as such they can install the latest technology that helps to facilitate meetings, without worrying that the room has got to be turned around to be used as a banquet room the following day. IACC’s Guide to Great Technology is a document that that helps members to understand the best acoustic, lighting, audio-visual facilities and connectivity that they can provide.

OKL: Yes, and I’m sure there is an increasing premium put on technology in conference centers, as your recent study shows the generational preference on venues. Why don’t we talk a little bit about the study, what it is about, and the implications of its findings on the meeting venue industry?
MC: The most important finding of the study is that different generations prioritize venues in different ways. So, to say that technology is the most important deliverable when choosing a venue, may not be correct, because different generations evaluate venues differently. Undoubtedly the next generation are expecting technology to be of a very high standard. They are expecting it to be working and working appropriately, because they grew up with free Wi-Fi in Starbucks Coffee Shops and shopping centres, etc., so they just expect that to be working seamlessly in venues. Whereas maybe a mature generation, a more experienced meeting planner, may well be very aware of, for example, what their delegates like in terms of the type of style of the venue is really important to them or accessibility. Millentials and Gen X generations may not have gone through a bad meeting experience, like the venue didn’t fit or the type of meeting did not match the preferences of the delegates, and therefore they lack poor experiences and alertness to that. The more experienced meeting planners got experienced on this side. So it’s very interesting to see where their preferences differ. But undoubtedly what we see is the type of meeting space, innovative meeting space has as much higher significance now, thank it used to do. A multipurpose hotel may offer a square room, with modest colorful decorations and standard banqueting chairs and tables with a white cloth draped over it. With IACC, what is extremely important, is that the meeting room is designed for a meeting, that it is inspirational for those who will spend often days in it, that it is motivating for the delegates, in order that they feel privileged to be invited to a meeting by their organisation. They need to feel inspired by the facilities and service that the venue offers. All these now are more important than they used to be, at least that’s what the European Survey has told us and we will continue to track this annually.

OKL: How would you say that the leading trends in meeting venues differ between Asia and other regions?
MC: My view is that certain parts of Asia’s MICE business have grown very quickly and have become established as major meetings destinations very quickly. As an example, the hotel sector in China, has developed very quickly in the last 5 or so years, supported by entry into these emerging markets by the larger global hotel brands. It is interesting to look at the Middle East as an example of a maturing market that has also experienced rapid growth in the past. We see some signs of the Middle Eastern venue developments and owners now looking around and seeing a lot of hotels and meeting venues that are all very similar because they all went up at a very similar time and in similar ways.
As this market matures, the venues may need to start to differentiate themselves. What do they specialize in? Business Travel? Banquets? Tourism? Meetings? They all want to have unique selling points, which demonstrate that they are specialists and better than the venue just down the street. What we have observed, for instance when look at Japan, our member in Tokyo operates two conference centres, soon to become three in 2017. Benchmark Conference Centers have been operating for a number of years, but they still remain unique in Tokyo and offer a comprehensive and unique meeting experience, with everything built in to a inclusive easy to budget for, delegate package, In their meeting rooms, they have taken inspiration from traveling around the world, attending IACC meetings. They sourced furniture from Canada, lecturns from Belgium and a sound system from Germany… so they created a venue that is very popular and they now have the confidence to expand the concept in other parts of Japan and they are about to open a third venue. So I think what we see are all excellent examples of long-standing venues in Asia where the IACC Meetings Experience is proven to work and are popular with Asian meeting organizers and delegates.

OKL: So what does the demographics of IACC’s membership look like? And how do you see it expanding in the future?
MC: The most important decision that IACC made last year when the association restructured was to have a dedicated team and office in the region, rather than to try and grow that marketplace from another part of the world. So we have an office in Singapore, and we recognize that Asia is a different market and responds in a different way. But we passionately believe that it is a region that can benefit from global perspectives, from being part of a global association, and we are excited to have members in countries like China soon to join IACC, to get exposure to global Meeting Planners who are looking to run meetings in Asia. We are excited about delivering best practice from Asia to other members in other parts of the World. Recently, we had our members in Tokyo, presenting their innovation and best practice at our conference in Los Angeles this March, and that I see this as one example of how innovation moves in both directions. It is not just about Asia learning about what’s happening in the West, it’s also about how the West learns about what’s happening in Asia.

OKL: What would you say is one thing that the West, or the rest of the world, can learn from Asia?
MC: Attention to detail, meticulous planning, and the thought that goes into delivering differentiation are the three areas that I would say that are most important. Our Asian members care passionately about the products and the services they provide and the pride that comes from creating a exceptional IACC Meeting Experience in their region. They give time to researching developments and they think it through, in order to provide something special. Our Asia members, like others in other parts of the World are also very open-minded to what is happening on the rest of the world.

OKL: Yes, I do agree with that. Now coming to Asia, coming to the MICE Expo, what are your expectations?
MC: We are excited that this is our first opportunity to engage with Meeting Planners from Asia and to introduce them to the concept of conference centers. To educate and explain the why they exist, how they operate and why are they different from traditional venues. So our expectation is very much that we are here to educate, and we are here to introduce IACC to the region for the very first time.

OKL: So this is the first time that IACC will participate in an Asian event?
MC: Yes, it will be the very first time, and we are very excited to be involved in MICE Expo in Singapore!

OKL: I see, we are very excited to have you too. Thank you very much!
MC: Thank you!

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