We recently spoke with Sherrif Karamat, chief operating officer at the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA). Sherrif, a meetings industry veteran with more than twenty years of experience, shared his thoughts on a wide range of topics, including ways that meeting professionals can advance the objectives of their organizations. Below is the first of our two-part interview with Sherrif.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your role at PCMA.
A: I have been the chief operating officer at PCMA for almost nine years, and at the association since 2003. So it’s been quite a journey.
As an organization, PCMA is clearly focused on the business events industry and connecting business events to an organization’s purpose. We provide the best possible education for professionals in the industry so that they can help evolve their organizations and positively impact businesses, communities and individuals.
Often, that means developing new products, focusing on how we position our events, and thinking critically about how we engage with audiences around the world.
Q: How did you get your start in the meetings industry?
It was an accident, really, which is unfortunate because I think we are in the greatest industry.
Back then, I wanted to be a chief marketing officer for a professional sports team in North America, preferably a baseball team. That was the reason I pursued an MBA in marketing and international business, and why I earned my undergraduate degree in marketing, business and finance. I started my career working for the North America Soccer League, but in the late ‘80s, the league folded. At the time, I had many options, and one was from the owner of the soccer team, who also owned nine hotels.
He said to me, “Sherrif, we do not want to see you go from our company. Would you consider joining our hotel division in sales and marketing?” Of course, I knew nothing about hotels. I was very young and he said, “I will put you into a management and training program and you can do whatever you want. I think you are clever person and wherever you end up, I will have a job for you.”
Shortly after, I decided that I liked sales and ultimately, it’s what led me to work in the hotel industry, with ITT Sheraton and Regal Hotels, until I was hired by the Metro Toronto Convention and Visitors Bureau and later, by PCMA.
Q: In the past, you’ve talked about how meeting planners can positively impact the way their organizations operate. Discuss the difference between organizations that allow planners to advance strategic goals and organizations that assign planners logistics and coordination roles only.
A: I think there’s a responsibility on every side. There’s a responsibility for individuals to take charge of their careers, understanding that we all need to evolve as professionals if we want to make an impact on our organizations. This places a tremendous onus on individuals, not just the organizations we work for.
Some of us are comfortable on the logistical side of our business. Logistics are critically important because they are intrinsically tied to how organizations or brands are perceived. I understand that, but logistics are only one element of what business events strategists or meeting professionals are often tasked to do.
Today, we have to be experts in engagement. Today, we have to be knowledgeable about the different delivery channels and types of content. Today, we have to have proficiency in data analytics – and it’s not just about getting data but also interpreting data and being able to use it in a prescriptive rather than a reactive way.
The unfortunate thing is that logistics can be commoditized (though not in all cases), and if a company finds a great logistics partner, it can outsource many of the tasks related to meeting coordination and planning. Therefore, if logistics are our only focus or only strength, we can be marginalized. We may also never have the ability to show how we are connecting business events to key organizational objectives.
Q: In your view, how are associations – PCMA and others – helping industry professionals to develop the strategic skill sets that make them indispensable?
A: PCMA and many other organizations are helping to educate industry professionals and give them the tools and resources they need to be effective. There are so many facets of a successful business event that PCMA doesn’t play that role exclusively. Our friends at DMAI, for example, focus on how events are hosted in various destinations and the role of the DMO.
When it comes to how you facilitate a successful event and produce even greater outcomes, certainly our goal at PCMA is to make sure that we are creating the best business event strategists in the world, so that they can be effective for their companies.
Q: What advice do you have for meeting professionals who have developed the skills to transform their organizations and now want to be viewed as more strategic by internal decision makers?
A: I’d say that identifying where the business is going has to happen first.
Frequently, we look at what our roles are or how things are being done at our organizations today. We don’t look at where our organizations are going or how the business may be changing.
When we look at what’s ahead, we can think about what part business events can play in our organization’s success. We can ask ourselves, our peers and our leadership, “What are the gaps in business performance, and based on what we’re doing today, how can meetings or business events play a greater role in the organizational purpose or strategy?”
From there, we can say, as individuals, “These are the skills I need to hone in on or I need to develop to get that seat at the table or to be better at my profession.”
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