Charles Starks’ one-year term as Chairman of the Board of PCMA in 2022 marked the first year of a reorganization that combined the PCMA and Education Foundation boards into a single body — one that Starks, president and CEO of Nashville’s Music City Center, says is the most geographically diverse in PCMA’s history. “We’re in 17 time zones,” he said. “To get everybody when they’re awake, or just before they fall asleep, is not always the easiest. But we’ve committed to make it work this year, and I thank them for that.”
Starks recently spoke with Convene to reflect on his past year of service, as well as what he envisions for the future of PCMA and the events industry.
Can you share some of the highlights of your term serving as Chairman of the Board?
Not that I didn’t already know this, but a real highlight for me is the spirit, the passion, and the commitment of membership. When you see the folks who are our members and what they’re doing, they’re doing it not only for the benefit of PCMA, but they’re giving back to the industry. Then to see what’s happened when [they are] helping a fellow colleague who, as some have been, were laid off or changed careers during the pandemic, has just been tremendously rewarding. As I’ve traveled around, I’ve gotten to see a number of those folks and speak to them. So I think first, it literally is just the spirit and compassion our membership has. We truly have a collegial organization of professionals. We all came together, and we said, “Look, we’re willing to step up for the better good of the business events industry.” While we’ve certainly got to be cognizant of our day job, we also understand there’s a much more global, bigger “something” out there than just what we are.
I don’t think you can mention PCMA or the PCMA Foundation and not talk about the work our volunteers do. Most all of us started as a volunteer. Some were volunteer board members [or] they’re in a chapter, a committee, the advisory boards, or a task force. If you look at the CEMA advisory board, the EMEA advisory board, the APAC advisory board, what we’re starting to do in Latin America, or some of the task forces at work this year, and our work on foundation events — the amount of enthusiasm that those volunteers bring to our organization is tremendous in driving our success. …I just want to thank all the volunteers. I think the best part is, I’ve traveled around and gotten to talk to some of the volunteers. Honestly, that’s been some of the best fresh perspectives I’ve gotten this year.
I think what we have seen in student membership growth is extremely encouraging — what we’re seeing out of young and next-gen professionals. I’ve had a chance to meet with a number of the 20 in Their Twenties [class members], students, and young and next-gen professionals not only this year, but last year as well. I will tell you, while we continue to need to get more people involved in our industry, I’m really encouraged. These are some bright folks. It just makes you feel good about where the future of our industry is.
I want to hit on a couple of the events I think that have really been highlights this year. You’ve got to start with the Business Events Industry Week. …We had over 2,000 people that week. I will tell you, what a great year one. And I think the Visionary Awards was a smashing success in D.C., too. Being a Nashville native, the CEMA Summit was in Nashville this year, so I’m biased, but they had their largest attendance ever. The CEMA advisory board put together a phenomenal program. What a great week at EduCon in New Orleans. It was a phenomenal network, I think, and great programming opportunities for members this year. Another record-breaking attendance was in Vienna this year, at Convening EMEA. Over 450 people were there. Enthusiasm has been evident at every single [event I’ve gone to] this year. I’ve not gone into anything where you felt like frankly, you were going into a “woe is us” [situation].People have met this with enthusiasm.
We have seen a lot of growth in Latin America. I think that’s [for a few reasons]. Number one, we’ve put PCMA staff there doing a phenomenal job. We’ve had some partners step up in the region that realize the importance of what PCMA can deliver to the folks in that area. What we’ve seen there, I think we’ve got an incredibly bright future.
And that brings me to our equity, inclusion, and diversity initiatives. One of the things we did during the year was hold training for the board and the PCMA staff. We thought that was very helpful. But I will tell you, we’ve still got a lot of progress we need to make. Fortunately, I think it’s one thing when you think you have no progress to make — that makes it tough. When you realize there’s still a lot you can do, I think that’s encouraging.
This is the first year of ever combining the boards. It’s the most globally diverse board in the history of PCMA. Not many of us knew each other, but this group hit the ground running and they have not stopped. They deserve a lot of credit this year. I’ve asked a lot of them at times. They responded. They’ve asked a lot of me, which is wonderful. So, the board has done a tremendous job. We’ve got tremendous folks coming to the board next year. I still get to hang around as the immediate past chair, but I’m really, really encouraged about where we are from a board perspective, and the hard work they’ve done this year.
What do you see as some of the greatest challenges and opportunities the industry will be facing in 2023?
Workforce continues to be a challenge. We’ve got to get younger folks engaged and we have to be responsible to help get them engaged and mentor them. Inflation is doing a lot right now. You’re seeing folks having to work through this. This is a worldwide matter. It’s not just here. Certainly, in the realm of our business, inflation is wreaking havoc with some of the stuff we’re trying to do. The pandemic, for us, for the most [part] is behind us — we’ve not stopped thinking about it, and we’re still doing everything we can to keep everybody safe, but we’ve moved on from that at this point. Now inflation’s the one we’re tackling, so supply chains continue to be an issue.
Then, I think for our business, and I think you can say this of any walk of life almost, the other [challenge] is just the uncertainties throughout the world right now. I think people are just tired of all this uncertainty that they’re going through. If people just get tired of it, eventually, they quit trying as hard. I think that’s a challenge for any business.
I will tell you some opportunities I think we have. Number one, I think we have an opportunity to lead the way. I think it’s our time, our place. If we get up and we start throwing some meaningful dialogue and conversations out there and we talk about some of the things that we think can be done, it’s our chance to do that. We started doing some of that this year. That’s an area where I think PCMA is absolutely trying to step up and lead.
While I say workforce is a real challenge for us, I think we have a tremendous opportunity in the workforce as well. What the PCMA Foundation is doing in giving scholarships, and the money we’re raising for both students and the money that was raised for folks who were displaced in their work because of the pandemic and helping them get back on their feet, I think that’s an opportunity for us to continue down that path. We need to be a leader in that. I think we are, and I think we can continue to grow.
What is one book you feel everyone in the events industry should read?
Here’s the one reading that I had most of our team do. Whether they’re a business event strategist, whether they’re a convention center, a hotel, a DMO, they’re a technology company, here’s what I would suggest: We said, “Let’s go back and see what our customer surveys and our team member surveys were in 2019, pre-pandemic. Let’s go back and look at that. Let’s see what everybody was saying about how we did for their events, how our staff said we were doing.”
And now [that in-person events] have been back about a year, let’s [look at more recent surveys]. We said, “Let’s look at the same period of time in 2022 and let’s see what those customer surveys were saying and what our team member surveys said. Let’s compare those two and see what the differences are.”
I think people would be surprised in the responses. Number one, there’s not as many differences as they may think, but the ones that are there are just blatantly obvious when you read them again. I would suggest people go back and read what their customers said about them in 2019 and what they’re saying about them in 2022. Their customers can be their internal customers, their external customers. That shed some light on how we’re operating and some of the things we’re trying to do because a lot has happened in three years. I think most of us try and remember 2019 as the good old days and, “Man, that was the time before the pandemic.” I can remember 2019 and it was tough and hard then, too. It’s a fascinating exercise for us and we gained a lot out of it.
Casey Gale is managing editor of Convene. This interview has been edited and condensed.