Coopetition: With a Little Help from my ‘Frenemies’

27th Apr, 2021

As a global community, the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) has a database of 21,000 regularly occurring meeting series, 260,000 meeting editions and 12,000 international associations. Clearly, some rivalry must exist both among destinations and among the people who want to organise their events in the exact same places.

Rivalry is natural in business and its opposite - collaboration - is too hard while competing for the same targets. Sometimes, however, it has turned out to be a winning strategy. The pandemic is definitely one of those times, and a few smart visionaries realised that immediately. Last May, the organisation for association management ASAE, significantly hosted a special webinar on ‘Global partnerships in the COVID-19 era’.

“The COVID-19 outbreak has radically transformed associations around the world,” they wrote. “With cancelled global congresses and unprecedented government interventions, associations are facing extraordinary challenges ranging from disrupted global operations and strained budgets to rapidly accelerated digital transformations and new ways of working.”

“At the same time, members have never needed their associations more. That’s why associations across the globe are thinking of new ways to partner and strategise with vendors, suppliers, destinations, and each other to support and engage their members, stakeholders, and the public-at-large during these challenging times. To be successful, association leaders need an expansive partnership mindset to find opportunities amidst the chaos and add value going forward”.

The terminology “coopetition” came to the business world in 1992 coined by Raymond Noorda, CEO of Novell. In 1995, Adam M. Brandenburger and Barry J. Nalebu developed academic work that introduced coopetition as a revolutionary mindset that combines cooperation and competition. A relationship in which competing firms first cooperate with each other to jointly create value and a bigger market, and then individually compete for the created value. From that point until reaching the MICE industry it was just a jump forward, driven by the acceleration of this crisis and a new status quo.

Just take the coopetition partnership carried out between the promoting agencies of Barcelona and Vienna: both convention bureaux have the same role, but that has not prevented a joint approach to several associations in order to present their bids for mutual benefits. Take also the Berlin MICE Summit 2018 with the motto “Coopetition to shape the future”. In a prophetic meeting that foresaw the breakthrough of hybrid events, new design thinking and circular economies, more than 300 event professionals imagined a future in which the ‘neighbour next door’ could be our strategic partner to develop appropriate creative solutions − from sustainable catering to waste prevention at events and emergency management for evacuating large venues.

In yet another case, the American Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) launched a campaign entitled “Together We Are a Force,” representing different parts of the outdoor industry and emphasising the work they do together, namely OIA executives, major industry leaders, but also manufacturers, small retailers and nonprofits. Even more recently, a group of English Core Cities has joined forces to create the Hybrid Events Solutions UK; a free initiative open to all business audiences, to support the conference and event industry as it continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

Featured in our HQ #98, we can find two good examples of this ambivalent relationship of competitive collaboration: the hybrid meeting, Convening Leaders 2021 and the online fam trip, Meet Japan. In both cases, the organisations that oversaw the events resorted to online management platforms but did not abandon long-standing PCOs in sharing experiences and in the physical setting up of their hubs. In Singapore, PCMA turned the page on a new hybrid cycle with JUNO's conference streaming worldwide, but it also needed assistance from local partners to install its global broadcast centre. In our virtual visit to Japan, the software provider, Cvent, made possible the digital meeting between all buyers but also served as an umbrella for the promotion of their physical rivals, Kenes and International Conference Services (ICS).

This is where the concept of ‘coopetition’ lies. Associations’ members, destinations representatives and other stakeholders can all use, as the Beatles suggested, a little help from their ‘friends’. Business is both competition and cooperation. The future will reveal that these antagonists will ultimately be complementary pieces in a well-oiled event machine.

This was - and it probably has always been - particularly true in the world of science. “Some problems are too big, too complex and the humanitarian need too great to address alone,” wrote Nathalie Moll of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA). “And, when time is of the essence, pooling knowledge and specialist skills is vital to success.” At the same time, managing the relationship between NGOs, donors and for-profit organisations is a very important aspect to retain through various levels of coopetition. The benefits expressed for NGOs can be an incentive for them to work together in managing crises effectively, and to form a playbook to act within their ecosystem.

In the year of recovery, we may have the chance to see a small tourism association partnering with a student exchange programme in response to the COVID-19 crisis. We may see event professionals sharing their knowledge with their peers around the world. We may see governments creating funds for stakeholders and event organisers. Destinations investing in digitalisation within a network of local actors. Sustainable development becoming a magic word. Universities and academic experts informing policy and government-level decisions.

All eyes are on rivals to put differences apart and make the best of what they have in common. Keep your ‘friends’ close but your ‘enemies’ closer!

Author: Manuel Fernandes - HQ Magazine Manager
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Supported by the Union of International Associations (UIA), the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO) and the Interel Group, the global public affairs and association management consultancy, Headquarters Magazines serve the needs of international associations organising worldwide congresses.