The International Congress and Convention Association, launched in 1963, is celebrating its 50th year with a special anniversary Web site that includes a neat interactive timeline illustrating the association’s milestones; a map-based history of all its past events, where members can share their memories; and a growing library of video interviews—a new one will be uploaded every week throughout the year. Martin Sirk is also celebrating an anniversary—10 years as the association’s CEO. We talked to Sirk about the changes he’s seen during his tenure, and what’s ahead for this globally focused organization. ICCA provides education and research for those involved with international meetings and conventions, including professional congress organizers, convention and tourism bureaus, convention centers, and meeting professionals.

Association Meetings: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen among your members since becoming CEO?
Martin Sirk:I guess it wouldn’t be safe to mention hairlines or waistlines, but the tremendous loyalty of ICCA members does mean that many of the friendly faces that were present when I started as CEO in 2002 are just as active and engaged today—even if many of us are not quite as sprightly or svelte!  

The organization has grown in size, of course. We’ve expanded from about 600 companies and organizations to almost 1,000 in 90 countries. But despite this, I know we’ve retained the core business culture that attracted me to ICCA when I first joined back in 1989. That culture is built on the open sharing of data about international association congresses that members have been involved in hosting or organizing. [ICCA publishes an annual ranking of the most popular destinations for association meetings that take place on a regular basis and that rotate between at least three different countries.] This sharing leads to three powerful cultural traits that influence the relationships between members: openness to discuss a wide range of other knowledge and experiences; a focus on winning business; and giving priority to using ICCA to connect internationally rather than with local colleagues.  

There have, of course, been changes in the past decade in the way we operate: our databases are now fully online and interactive (rather than distributed by CD-ROM); we have five regional offices instead of two; and our annual Congress is far more complex and interactive, and packed with content and business opportunities. We’ve tried to be more personalized in terms of how we design and deliver member services and benefits. We’re constantly adding new products to the ICCA membership package (having strategically opted against selling each separately when possible), and like the rest of the world, we’ve embedded social media into almost all our activities.

AM: What are some of ICCA’s most significant developments during the past decade?
Sirk:Passing the 1,000-attendee milestone at our 2011 Congress in Leipzig, Germany, was a big step: It really got us thinking about how to retain the atmosphere of a smaller, friendly meeting after moving up to a new scale, and how we could design new tools and formats to ensure that delegates connect with the colleagues who are the most useful to them. Six years ago ICCA moved from old-fashioned office space, where teams were split up and isolated, into new, modern offices in Amsterdam, which transformed the collaboration among our departments. Working environments matter enormously, at meetings as well as in offices, and our move helped us to understand more clearly how to design informal space at our meetings that can help delegates to feel comfortable and work effectively.

The transformation of our Asia-Pacific Regional Office in Kuala Lumpur into our second Global Research Centre a few years ago was also a important development for ICCA. We now have five researchers there in addition to the eight-person research team in Amsterdam, and it’s only going to grow. We have to expand our research data, both qualitatively and quantitatively, faster than we expand ICCA’s membership, and the only way to ensure the accuracy and appropriateness of data and to avoid the infamous “garbage-in/garbage-out” syndrome is to have trained researchers verifying and checking everything that is added to the database. That’s expensive but vital.  

One of our most recent moves is also one of the most significant: Last September we opened offices in Dubai, U.A.E., and Johannesburg, South Africa. As a genuinely global association, we have to look after the needs of members all over the world, and we know that the Middle East and Africa will be more and more important in the coming years, even if the current number of ICCA members in those areas is not enormous. We’ve seen faster growth of the association outside Europe for some years now, but last year our European membership slipped below 60 percent for the first time ever.
AM: What is your personal passion in this role? Is it research, membership growth, education?
Sirk:I was a fan of ICCA before I became an executive, and what attracted me was that friendly but business-focused culture that I experienced at my very first ICCA event, a client–supplier workshop in Barcelona, Spain. Many of the people I met through ICCA became friends and mentors, and what gives me the greatest pleasure today is to see the same circles of friendship being created by new members: crossing cultural and industry-sector boundaries to connect with international colleagues. Often these lead to powerful business relationships, marketing consortia, and new business, but the friendship and trust inevitably come first. We’ve never set membership growth targets for the association. The primary focus has been on improving services for existing members and making sure that new members have the right track record and a long-term commitment to the international meetings market. All our staff know that if we do this then net growth will follow, through high retention rates and member referrals, and I’m very proud that we’ve seen net member growth every single year since I became CEO, without the need for hard-sell recruitment campaigns.

AM: As ICCA celebrates its 50th anniversary, tell us about some of the steps you are taking to maximize member value.
Sirk:We’re using the 50th anniversary to remind members about the historical foundations on which ICCA is built—its business philosophy and culture—and to showcase why individual members value their involvement, but we’re also using this anniversary to prepare the way for the next phase of our association’s evolution, which will involve greater personalization, further technological innovations, and even greater value from our events and other projects. It’s also a great opportunity to celebrate with our members and find out what they enjoy about ICCA, and what makes them feel positive about their membership. Associations need to nurture their members and make them feel they belong, in addition to constantly increasing the concrete ROI they offer.

AM: How are technology and social media changing ICCA and the way you interact with your members?
Sirk:Technology and social media aren’t ends in themselves, and we always remind ourselves that sharing commercially relevant data on international association events, something that ICCA members have been doing since the 1960s, is already a social activity. The Web site, interactive database, and now the social media tools that are embedded in these, all need to improve that fundamental process and help members to trust one another. The other key point is that the member-to-ICCA relationship is less significant than the member-to-member relationship. Our members are the true source of data, knowledge, and expertise, so our role is to facilitate in every way conceivable the strengthening of these circles of membership trust. We’re the “super-connectors” who help to make the ICCA network truly global and multisectoral, rather than the source of infallible truth. There are many technological challenges coming up: how to deliver brilliant mobile services to our members that match our desktop data access; how to genuinely offer 24/7/365 services, how to integrate live and online experiences, and how to afford all the innovations we’d like to introduce!

AM: Looking into your crystal ball, what are your top predictions for the next 50 years?
Sirk:I just wrote an article with predictions for 2013! Even over that timeframe, the future is uncertain, so we’d better be ready to grasp opportunities and to dodge banana skins. But longer term, these five trends appear likely:

• Ever-increasing competition for destinations, meeting owners, suppliers, and associations

• Continued acceleration of scientific, healthcare, and technological discovery and innovation (great news for the international association sector, whose meetings are driven by these mega-trends)

• Continuing economic turmoil and the end of smooth growth patterns. Growth won’t stop but it will be uneven, unpredictable, and extreme (with bubbles, booms, and busts)

• More media hypes and scares, relating to both manmade and natural phenomena, and more cries from clients for the (non-existent) “safe” meeting destination

• More failed forecasts from economists and futurists (and association CEOs)!