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Contracting a Professional Conference Organiser: Tips for the Unwary

Conferences can play a vital role in the life of an association. A well run conference creates valuable professional development and networking opportunities for participants, and it gives the association a higher profile in the sector. Conferences can also generate much needed revenue for an association, which can be reinvested in member services.

While larger associations may have the resources and expertise needed to organise conferences in house, many medium and smaller associations need to enlist the help of a professional conference organiser (PCO). Choosing the wrong PCO for your organization can turn your conference into a nightmare and drastically reduce any return to your Association, so buyers should beware.

Based on previous experience (some of it bad), the following provides a basic toolkit that will help you avoid some of the common pitfalls when using a PCO.

Tip 1: Beware the hidden costs of  ‘in-house’ services

If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Be wary of the PCO who quotes a very low ‘per delegate’ fee and then embeds costs elsewhere in the budget. A PCO should be upfront about management and delegate fees, commissions on sponsorships and exhibitor’s fees.  All other expenses should be passed on at cost, with copies of the invoices being available to you to scrutinize if you wish.

Be wary of PCOs boasting about their fantastic in-house services (for example design, website development, marketing, even audio visual). You should ensure there is a clause in the contract that means in-house services are provided and billed at competitive market rates. You should also be able to elect not to use their in-house service if you can get a better deal elsewhere, or you may find yourself paying far more than necessary.


Tip 2:  Watch the contract wording

It is important to ensure the contract appoints the  PCO  as an Agent, and not as the Principal.  In simple terms, this ensures that the Association signs off on any contracts with third parties and there is no opportunity for the PCO to artificially inflate costs.   Have a lawyer look over the contract and ensure that you understand the implications of the wording.


Tip 3:  Contract the venue directly

The venue for your meeting is key to the success of your event. While PCOs have expertise in finding suitable venues and negotiating a good deal, again, ensure that the final contract is between your association as Principal, and the venue. This provides full transparency about the arrangements, costs and obligations. Any commission paid by the venue to the PCO for bulk handling accommodation bookings or using in-house audio-visual equipment should be declared in the contract. Insibtasaqa site down Contracting the venue directly also ensures that the PCO does not under quote the venue on the number of participants attending, thereby allowing them to pocket the difference on the per delegate rate.


Tip 4:  Control the bank account

If you allow the PCO to manage the dollars, you may lose the ability to get a true picture of the state of the conference finances.  While laws exist to ensure that all conference funds are held in trust and are appropriately administered, in our experience, if you have the capacity to handle the bookkeeping in house, you should. By setting up a separate conference account, you control the cash flow and ensure that your association benefits from any interest earned. You can avoid potentially costly accounting fees being charged, and in  the unlikely event that your contract with the PCO is terminated before the event is held, it leaves you in control of any funds already collected from which creditors may be paid.

Not all PCOs are trying to hoodwink small associations. In fact, there are some excellent operators in the market who have outstanding track records supporting not-for-profit associations. However, be wary of PCOs that put together impressive quotes and promise to make organising your conference a breeze. While some of them may deliver, you need to ask: at what price? Consider a smaller owner-operated PCO with lower overheads. You may find they deliver the best and most transparent services.

If you haven’t been scared off yet, consider the following when appointing your next PCO.



  • Get multiple quotes
  • Meet the PCO face to face
  • Ask to see examples of how financial reports will be presented. Avoid financial reports that are very involved and difficult to understand
  • Ask for not-for-profit referees and be sure to talk to them before you make a decision
  • Ask who will be appointed to manage your conference and check their credentials
  • Ask some of your sponsors and exhibitors about their experience of PCOs.  Which ones have left them feeling they got value from attending a meeting?



  • Be afraid to ask the hard questions
  • Base your decision on price per delegate management fees alone
  • Sign a contract until it has been checked by a lawyer and are sure you understand the implications of the wording.


Terrie Paul – Director, Business Services, Australian Healthcare & Hospitals Association

Barbara Vernon – CEO, Women’s and Children’s Hospitals Australasia