AC Forum Spreads Its Wings

Author: Rémi Dévé       

Adrian Ott

The Austria Center Vienna (pictured) hosted part of the 20th anniversary edition of the Associations Conference Forum’s congress in January 2019. (Austria Center Vienna photo)

The Associations Conference Forum (AC Forum), which provides a platform for peer-to-peer exchange on all things association-related, recently set up partnerships with the Leading Centres of Europe and the Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau to create collaborative learning experiences for its members. We met up with AC Forum President Adrian Ott to learn all about the — until now low-profile — organisation.

Can you describe the AC Forum?

Adrian Ott

Adrian Ott

The AC Forum is Europe’s only networking platform established exclusively for and by associations with established headquarters and in-house organising teams for congresses and other educational events. Up until five or six years ago, it was mainly composed of health-care associations, but it is now diversifying and membership today is open to associations of various disciplines. With time, we thought we could learn more if we became a peer-to-peer organization by branching out and looking at other fields.

Our main mission is to advance excellence in association and congress management. We like to think that we’re doing this by diversifying our membership structures and fields of interest by educating and learning from each other as well as from external experts. We provide our members with a variety of opportunities to network and exchange experiences in trusting and confidential environments, free from commercial influence.

Membership is open to any association, but they would have to follow certain criteria, one of which is that you have to have in-sourced capacity for the management of your congresses and events. Other qualifications have more to do with figures — you have to have at least 2,000 delegates at your main conference, salaried staff, and some fixed structure when it comes to the management of your events.

What can members expect at your main event, the Annual Meeting?

We’re trying to spread education through our Annual Meeting, our flagship event that takes place each January. In Vienna where we just celebrated our 20th anniversary, we almost reached 150 in terms of attendance (we had 99 percent of our association members present, which is a great achievement).

Throughout the year we organize various workshops, which were initially focused on congress management themes but have now evolved to include other association management topics. In the workshops, we discuss congress and association management — seen both from a strategic as well as hands-on perspective — and, as of recently, personal development. But a constant is that all workshops are targeted, small-scale meetings with in-depth discussion on a specific topic.

What are some of your achievements so far?

Definitely the excellence, this raising of standards — it’s an ongoing process. We still manage to keep it a trusting and confidential environment to have open discussions within the association community. We like to think that we allow for quality peer-to-peer exchange on a variety of important topics.

After 20 years of operations, you look at your various programs, all the things you put in place at the Annual Meeting, and those have grown enormously. From a roundtable discussion at the very beginning where we discussed the pros and cons of different destinations, different suppliers, and tips and tricks, the Annual Meeting has developed into a mini-congress with different streams and several parallel sessions.

Can you talk about the formal partnership with the Leading Centres of Europe?

In addition to a partnership with the Switzerland Convention & Incentive Bureau, we set up a formal relationship with the Leading Centres of Europe, the informal alliance of 10 of Europe’s largest venues, each with a proven track record of successfully staging major European and international conferences.

We set this up so we could offer a different educational format to our members. People don’t work and learn the same way as they did 10 years ago. The virtual world has developed extensively, and the format in which people want to learn has also changed. As an organization, we wanted to link strategic and operational considerations together, in addition to this personal development component I mentioned earlier, and these partnerships help us present a different value proposition. It has nothing to do with selling something aggressively to our members; it’s a subtle approach combing education and discovery. Here, we’re talking about collaborative learning), which our partners help us achieve.

What would you say your challenges have been so far as an organisation?

Definitely to leverage the engagement of our members. There are so many things going on. How do you create an education offering so that you can make your members available and engaged? We’re constantly tackling this challenge.

There is also increasing competition when it comes to educational offering for associations. Some are private ventures, some are associations of associations. What makes AC Forum truly unique is the peer-to-peer component, this unbiased character with no commercial influence whatsoever. All activities are led by our members, and that is what makes us different.

This article was contributed by Boardroom. It was edited for use inCommunique.