EDUCATION, training and accreditation are now burning issues in the conference and business events industry as it grows, diversifies and becomes ever more complex.
With increasing commercial opportunities come the pressure for improving transparency and professionalism. Events specialists tend to agree that education is vital to prepare trainees for the industry, to maintain and improve standards, upgrade the skills of those already in it, and militate against rogue operators.
However, there are mixed opinions about the form it should take.
With its sights set on expansion in Asia, the PCMA (Professional Convention Management Association) in collaboration with Singapore’s MICE industry body SACEOS and ICESAP – the society founded four years ago to represent corporate buyers of MICE services – has added a new dimension to the issues of training and accreditation.
PCMA chief executive Sherrif Karamat says the organisation is committed to raising professional standards.
“We have always centred our efforts on education, experience and the channels these are delivered through,” he says. “We are committed to raising the level of professionalism in our industry and how our industry is viewed in line with other industries and economic sectors.”
Karamat says the PCMA “will look specifically at how we can increase opportunities for on-demand learning and the ICESAP accreditation scheme”.
Nigel Gaunt, the president of ICESAP – which was last year acquired by PCMA – is in no doubt about the importance of not only training, but also accreditation.
“Every year the industry has to attract and induct a lot of new people, whether they are in-house planners, agency staff or working for suppliers, and the need for training is significant,” he says.
“Add this to upskilling existing staff, who are rapidly gaining promotion and given new more demanding responsibilities, and the training need is extreme.”
Gaunt acknowledges that there is also a threat from unqualified operators in Asia, especially from travel agents muscling in on the events industry. “There is a serious and current situation in many developing Asian markets of agencies offering services they have either limited or no experience of delivering.
“Unfortunately, this can bring our industry, and in particular agencies, into disrepute. Over the past 10 years many retail travel agents have been forced to change their business model with the advent of consumers shopping online for travel,” he says.
“One of the obvious and common themes has been for travel agents to gravitate to the growing business events and MICE sector. While they are qualified to manage the travel elements, they are often ill-equipped to plan and manage the logistical and business content requirements, staging, audiovisual, content development and other elements an experienced business events agency would have the experienced staff to manage.”
Gaunt says it is important for any training course or education programme to maintain relevance by adapting to industry changes.
“There is always a risk of academics with limited or outdated experience creating course content that is no longer relevant or failing to cover the newer technology or requirements of business events professionals,” he warns.
“At PCMA-ICESAP we have been working with leading business event agencies, including Uniplan, MCI and BI Worldwide, in developing our online distance learning content. By having current practitioners working for global agencies assist us in course content development, we feel we can offer quality ‘real-world’ education.”
This is a challenge for academics who in the past have been criticised for offering one-size-fits-all ivory-tower solutions to gritty real-world problems. Solange Leung (left), who is senior programme director at Hong Kong University SPACE, says that is not the case with the university’s courses.
Although there are hospitality programmes that are “quite basic”, she says event design courses are, by contrast, industry savvy.
“Event management programmes are more specialised and comprehensive to cover event design and planning, operation, risk management, marketing and communication, finance and budgeting, logistics arrangement, human resources management, sponsorship and partnership development,” she says.
Case studies, teachers who are experienced event professionals, and guest speakers, make sure students on event management courses “are not just receiving academic knowledge from books and journal papers, but also practical knowledge with live examples”.
Leung draws a distinction between education of the kind offered by HKU SPACE, and training. She says training is “mostly for working adults on the job, for continuous improvement and learning, and for professionalising and advancing the industry”.
University programmes of the kind offered by HKU SPACE – advanced diplomas, bachelor’s and postgraduate courses – contrast with industry development schemes, such as those provided by, for example, the International Live Events Association, which describes its mission as “collaborative networking, education and professional development, inspiration, and outward awareness and credibility”.
Libbie Ray, general manager of New South Wales-based agency AV24/7, which focuses on “innovative thinkers, proactive creators, and investigative minds” in an industry with “rapidly changing technology”, says academic courses can offer a useful introduction to the industry.
“Purely academic event management courses prepare students for the focus and dedication that is required to be successful in event management. They certainly have a place in the market and are a great foundation to starting out in our industry.”
However, Ray favours “education programmes in [the] form of traineeships”, which are “the most effective in our business”. She adds that accreditation should be voluntary.
“There will always be many discussions around this and points for both sides with merit. I believe that accreditation could be beneficial, but it should be voluntary. This way clients can choose if they only wish to deal with accredited businesses,” she says.
Jonathan Seevaratnam (right), CEO of Malaysian event management agency, Jiggee, disagrees that academic courses add much value: “Truth be told [they add] only 25 per cent at most”.
“Events is a ‘school of hard knocks’ field of study/learning and I’ve yet to meet someone who graduated from an event management course who could hit the ground running or was actually worth their salt,” he says.
“Not ’til many events later did some real essence start to bloom and show forth. It’s a very hands-on learning curve and I don’t find event management courses truly provide this experience yet.”
Seevaratnam says training should be “helmed by experts with a proven track record”.
Shirlena Soh (below left), executive director of the Singapore’s SACEOS, agrees and says “continuous learning and development” is a much more relevant term than “training and education”. She stresses the need for it to involve industry professionals.
“To really prepare trainees for the industry, it is most important to ensure the trainers themselves are well-established practitioners, who can share not only their areas of expertise, but also their experiences.”
Soh is also in favour of accreditation. “How do we differentiate between the good and genuine ones from the rogue ones?” she asks. “I think accreditation in our sector would not only raise the service standards of our industry, but also help to safeguard the good reputation of Singapore as an excellent, reliable and efficient city to bring events to.”
Seevaratnam agrees that accreditation is important, but says too many accreditation schemes are outside of Asia.
“I would like to see a deeper dive into accreditation in the Asian region, as there’s not enough being done to focus on the serious growth in this industry here,” he says. “We need to have a centre of accreditation closer to us, almost all key ones being North American based.
“Many event managers out here would love the opportunity to be accredited but not everyone has the means to physically do it out yonder. Also, the training and education needs to be revised so that it’s up-to-date, trendy and not steeped in old-school methodologies.”
Joyce DiMascio (right), chief executive of Exhibition and Event Association of Australia, is all for codes of conduct and professional associations, although less keen on one-size-fits-all accreditation schemes.
“Professional standards in Australia are very high and it’s important for operators – whether organisers, association organisers, venues and suppliers – to be part of their professional association as this requires their compliance with a code of conduct,” DiMascio says.
“Our message to the marketplace is to always use members of an industry association because they provide screening processes, training opportunities and also disciplinary protocols should there be breaches in professional standards. Of course, [Australia has] very good consumer protection laws that are enforceable in cases of inappropriate business conduct.
“I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution. Accreditation can certainly assist industry standards to be developed, but there are also other ways to educate players in the industry,” she says.
DiMascio says it is most important that bad behaviour is identified and acted upon. “We must come down heavily on rogue operators and educate the market.”
To do this there must be co-operation with members of industry associations though her association does not currently have a policy position that pushes accreditation. “It can be an effective strategy to create base-level training, but then it is incumbent upon the association to be very good at delivering training.
“We have taken the view at the EEAA that we do not wish to become a registered training organisation, instead our strategy is to influence what is taught in colleges and universities so that it is fit-for-purpose.”
While there are many companies, organisations and institutions offering courses that range from vocational training to academic qualifications, there are only a handful of industry accepted forms of accreditation.
The best known of these are:
CMP: Certified Meeting Professional programme run by the Convention Industry Council.
CMM: Certificate in Meeting Management offered by Meeting Professionals International.
EDGE: A qualification offered by the International Association of Congress Organisers.
CSEP: Certified Special Events Professional accreditation run by the
International Live Events Association.
CIS: Certified Incentive Specialist qualification offered by the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE).
EMD: Exhibition management degree set by UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry.
DES: Digital Event Strategist accreditation offered by the Virtual Edge Institute.
There are also international compliance guidelines, including:
LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a third party verification for green buildings, and,
ISO 20121: An international standard that offers guidance and best practice to help manage events and control their social, economic and