Incoming PCMA Board Chair: ‘We’ve Got to Keep Moving’

Charles Starks, the 2022 chairman of the PCMA Board of Directors, says PCMA — and the business events industry — must forge ahead with an eye to innovation, education, and collaboration through growing relationships.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Charles Starks

As 2022 board chairman, Charles Starks will oversee a PCMA Board of Directors that combines the Foundation and PCMA boards into one body.

When Charles Starks, president and CEO of Music City Center in Nashville, begins a one-year term as Chairman of the Board of PCMA in January, he will lead a newly reorganized board. Beginning in 2022, a revised structure combines the two PCMA and Education Foundation boards into a single 19-member body.

“I am very honored and excited to be chosen to be this first chair. I think it’s the right time and the right place for me,” said Starks, who became a PCMA board member in 2015 and has served as a member of both boards. “It’s important, as we combine the boards, that neither side of what used to be two boards is forgotten.” At the same time, Starks told Convene in a telephone interview in December, it’s crucial that the organization keep moving forward.

Here’s what else was on Starks’ mind as he looked toward a new year and his new leadership position.

What are some of your goals for the coming year?

One of the goals for me is to continue the great work that’s been started by our previous boards, especially our chairs over the last year, Kirsten Olean, CAE, 2021 Chair of the PCMA Board of Directors, and Angie Ranalli, CMP, 2021 Chair of the PCMA Foundation Board of Trustees.

The 2022 board is the most geographically and individually diverse board in the history of PCMA. We cover a lot of time zones and continents and have a lot of first-time board members. We’ve got great leaders and visionaries who will help us in this first year because we get the chance to put the building blocks out there and start building the foundation for those who will come after us.

We’ve got to have financial stability — I think every organization is facing that. But we cannot be afraid to be innovative and keep looking forward. We can’t have a year of status quo — of saying, “Oh, woe is us, what’s going to happen?” We’ve really got to keep marching forward — and I think we’ve got the right group at the right time to do that.

What motivated you to take on this voluntary leadership role? 

My very first volunteer role — on the board of a local hotel association — came four months after I graduated from college when I was 22. I was a fortunate individual. One of the things that my first boss and mentor believed in so strongly was that it is our job to be engaged and volunteer in organizations not only related to hospitality, which at that time was our focus, but also in your community. From that day to this day, I have been engaged in some kind of volunteer position. And that’s what I hope for from programs like 20 in Their Twenties — what a bright, smart, funny group of individuals! Those are folks that we’ve got to instill in the value of volunteering.

I think that that’s part of what we’re responsible to do — to give back and try to help wherever we can. I hear people say, “Well, we’ve got to help the next generation.” We do have to do that and we need to help the current generation as well. There are folks out there who need help today, especially with this pandemic, that two years ago didn’t need help, maybe with reskilling or other education programs. I’m all for giving scholarships to those in their 20s, but maybe we need to also give scholarships for those in our 50s. We need to be able to do things to help further our entire industry. I think PCMA already is a leader there, and I think that’s where we’ve got some opportunities.

What do you consider to be the biggest challenges and opportunities facing meeting professionals? And what do you consider to be the biggest challenges and opportunities facing CVBs, convention centers and event venues, and other industry partners?

I think the roles are probably more intertwined in 2022 and 2021 than they ever have been before — and hopefully that they ever are again in the future. Without question, where COVID or the pandemic comes in, every variant is scaring people and I understand that.

And we’ve got to also say: “We’re back, businesses are starting to come back, and we’re starting back to educate people in our organizations.” We’ve got to be safe. We absolutely have to be safe, nobody’s going to discount that, but we can’t just stop again. It took a long time after the shutdown to get things started again. It was kind of like a train that stopped — it took you a little while to get the wheels rolling again, and now we’ve got them rolling. Not wide open, and we’re still trying to get out of it. But we’ve got to keep moving.

As we do that, that’s going to be a concern for everybody. And we, as suppliers, have got to help our business strategists understand ways they can be successful in a COVID environment. We’ve got to practice all the right things. That’s a given, that’s the cost of entry. That you have to be safe is a non-negotiable.

Have the last two years changed how you think about leadership and innovation, and if so, in what ways? 

Many of our colleagues and many of our customers struggled mightily to put on virtual events for several months. But what’s true both for meeting organizers and for suppliers is that we figured out how to get work done. We had no playbook — nobody said, “Here’s what you do when a pandemic hits.” And so we were extremely innovative. That’s a great takeaway. We learned some things there that, frankly, if you put a committee together to try to figure out how to do them, you could spend two years and never figure it out.

So I think what the last two years have done is accelerated innovation and shown us more efficient ways to get work done than what we were doing previously. What we have learned as leaders is there are different ways to approach and tackle complex situations and the old ways of us thinking about how to get there is not necessarily what you need to do now.

We also learned about the things that are important to build our bigger picture as we move forward. So we realized some of the stuff that we were missing. I would say if you would have told me two years ago that I was going to slow down and listen better, I would have probably said, “You’re crazy. I know I need to listen better, but slow down?” But, from a leadership perspective, we kind of slowed down a little bit and we certainly reflected back a little bit. I think what we realized even more was the importance of relationships. And I think what we learned as leaders is that we have the ability to develop our teams further right now. And we’re not going to stop doing that.

Where do you see PCMA in the next five years?

We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas. I believe PCMA is at the absolute right time and place right now. We have been a leader in educational products. We’re also an organization where I think new members feel as welcomed as those who have been members for 30 years.

We’re a global organization and I think we’ve got an opportunity to show governments around the world what we mean when we say meetings mean business. Nobody’s done a great job globally of telling that story. I think that’s our opportunity. It’s our job to step up and do that. This is not the time to think small.

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.