Geralyn Mason needed easels for a convention in October, but the sales staff at the Mainz, Germany, Hilton didn't understand. “I drew a picture to help them grasp what I needed,” recalls Mason, vice president of meetings and expositions for Springfield, Mo.-based Students in Free Enterprise. In the end, she scoured the country to collect 27 rented easels for the SIFE World Cup, a competition with 600 attendees from 30-plus countries.

After experiences like this, Mason and other veterans of international events share a basic piece of advice: Don't take anything for granted. From navigating the complexities of contracts to setting up a working temporary office, doing business overseas can be an eye-opening experience for even the most seasoned planner used to doing things the American way.

The disparities show up in the planning phase. Americans want everything yesterday; Europeans and Asians prefer to do business at a more leisurely pace. “Americans think they can do eight site inspections in a day — boom, boom, boom — but it doesn't work that way,” says Audrey Bird, managing partner of International Meeting Planners, based in Naples, Fla.

Nigel Bramich, an independent planner in Lakewood, Calif., who has booked a lot of business in Australia and New Zealand, recommends spending at least half a day at each site in such a long-haul destination. “It's very important to take a close-hand look and meet with the sales team, the general manager, maybe the director of security and the head chef, and do a very thorough evaluation of the site and the chemistry,” he says.

We're Not in Kansas Anymore: Contracts and Meeting Rooms

Once a site is chosen, the contract phase points up additional differences. A big hurdle for many non-U.S. venues is our insistence on covering every legal eventuality in writing. “Often it's difficult to explain to a hotel or convention center why we need to have all the force majeures and indemnifications and this and that when they're a little more used to operating on a handshake, per se,” says Mary Ryan, senior sales planner with the Carlson Marketing Group in Minneapolis.

Tressa Goulding, executive director of the Scoliosis Research Society in Milwaukee, faced such a hurdle when arranging an upcoming convention with a group of Istanbul, Turkey, hotels. “What they initially presented was not a contract so much as a statement that we'll give you this many rooms and charge you this much,” she says. She tried forwarding the hotels her own proposed contract, which yielded a counterproposal from the Istanbul sites. In the end, it took two trips and a DMC's interpreting skills to iron out the details. “We didn't get very far with e-mails and phone calls. We had to sit down with them and the DMC. A lot of it is language; they didn't want to sign the force majeure clause,” Goulding says.

Deposit rules vary as well. Smaller hotels in particular are more likely to demand the majority of their fees upfront. In the United States, convention centers and hotels are likely to ask for a small deposit upfront and the final payment after the event.

While it's standard for U.S. hotels to include complimentary meeting space when large groups are in-house, don't expect the same courtesy abroad. “Meeting room rentals are the biggest shock for inexperienced meeting planners,” says Bird. Foreign hotels are likely either to charge for the meeting rooms as part of a total package that includes meals and sleeping rooms, or to charge separately to rent the rooms. And those rates will be based not on 24 hours, but on separate uses of the room throughout the day. So if one space is used for breakfast and for dinner, a planner can expect to incur three charges: one for each meal period and another for turning the room over in between the two meals.

Room setups are fairly standard throughout the world, but the rooms may feel a little more cramped because of nonstandard table sizes or distances between tables. Susan Rosen, a Palatine, Ill., independent planner who specializes in programs in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Hawaii, has noticed that in the Caribbean, for example, conference tables are only 18 inches wide — not much space for a pad of paper and a glass of water. Similarly, European hotels are likely to squeeze more tables into a space than their U.S. counterparts. Carlson's Ryan suggests that planners know the square footage — converted from square meters, of course — and decide how much elbow room makes sense for their groups.

Audiovisual equipment rental practices are not standard throughout the world, either. Although more sophisticated technology is changing the practice, hotels and convention centers in the United States often set up equipment in a meeting room and leave it for the meeting officials to run. “In foreign countries, I've never had equipment without a person,” says Rosen.

Shipping, Supplies, Equipment Headaches

Simple things like copy paper can create minor havoc for the unsuspecting planner. “Most countries are based on the metric system, so don't think you're just going to buy paper when you get there,” Rosen says.

For last year's SIFE convention in Amsterdam, the organization had shipped 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper for notebooks, but when that ran out, the longer European-standard A4 paper had to be substituted. Then no one could find a three-hole punch, so the meetings staff ended up inserting the new sections in the notebook without any holes. “This time, we made sure we sent one of our own three-hole punches and plenty of paper,” Mason says.

Some planners don't take any chances. “If the client is specific that they want things, for lack of a better term, ‘the American way,’ notebooks are produced here and shipped over there,” Ryan says. The Scoliosis Society decided to print its final program in the United States and ship it to Cairns, Australia, after looking into the economics of doing it there. The cost of shipping proofs back and forth across the Pacific was the determining factor. The society also weighed the expense of shipping versus purchasing a variety of additional materials, such as office supplies and equipment, and decided to ship some items and purchase others locally.

Voltage and Internet connectivity differences across the world present a variety of challenges. The time to inquire about a hotel or convention center's capabilities is early in the planning phases. Ryan says one of her top concerns early on is determining whether a hotel can handle her groups' computer and Internet needs. She works with a variety of clients in Europe, so she stores equipment and uses it at various events. “It's ultimately less expensive than trying to adapt something you bring over,” she says.

Carefully check before plugging in sensitive equipment, such as laptop computers, at destinations that cater to visitors from different parts of the world. “They may well have two currents in their meeting rooms, and god forbid if you plug something into the wrong outlet,” Rosen says.

For organizations without the luxury of having their own equipment at hand, local rentals are often the answer if the meeting is in a developed country. But be prepared for sticker shock in some destinations. One planner who visited the Caribbean recently spent $1,000 more than she expected to line up an appropriate AV setup.

As for shipping, anyone venturing overseas for the first time should remember that customs brokers exist for a good reason. One broker helped Goulding understand how much detail Australian customs insisted on for even mundane items such as office supplies. “You couldn't say just that it was a box of supplies — you had to say how many scissors, how many rolls of tape, paper clips, pens, what type of badges, how many badge holders and what they were made of,” she recalls.

Also don't underestimate the amount of time involved in shipping essential materials. “I had a U.S. client who turned a package over to the shipping department on Friday and expected it to be in Australia by Tuesday,” Bramich says. “It was, but it was in customs because the shipping department hadn't prepared the right documents.”

Getting Nuances Right: Service and Language

Just as business may follow a more leisurely pace outside the United States, service in certain parts of the world may seem snail-like to Americans. “The service in Europe is European — it's much slower than American service at meal functions,” Mason says. In Amsterdam, servers at one banquet each emerged from the kitchen with two plates at a time, not exactly the most efficient way to serve 500 people. So SIFE changed the service style for the Mainz, Germany meeting. “We did a buffet, and it was very well-received,” she says.

Knowledge of local tipping customs can help to ensure a smoother experience. Rosen has learned the nuances of tipping through trial and error. “In South America, you need to be prepared to tip everyone. In Mexico, however, it would be very offensive if you tried to give a gratuity to the owner of a company,” she says. But she has given special gifts — such as a fine bottle of tequila — to DMC owners who have gone the extra mile.

A DMC, in fact, is a good place to start asking questions about tipping protocol. The hotel staff, local convention and visitors bureau, or the country's tourism board can help. Some hotels automatically include charges for baggage handling and other services. These charges at least help settle the issue — and often they are negotiable.

Americans tend to speak too fast and use too much jargon, so it's a good idea to enunciate and choose your words carefully. Ryan says she was supervising the setup at one Japanese hotel when she asked the sales and catering contact if the lights in the ballroom could be lowered. “He looked at me strangely and said he could take care of it, and five minutes later the chandeliers were being dropped from the ceiling,” she recalls.

Social customs also differ from place to place and spill over to the business world. In many parts of the world, for example, business associates still refer to each other as Mr. and Ms., and acceptable dress is much more conservative than in the United States. A number of books provide background on these subtleties. Bird recommends two — Do's and Taboos Around the World edited by Roger E. Axtell; and Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison.

Bird and other experienced planners can't stress enough how important it is to work with a reputable DMC. “They know the language, they're in the market and know the best suppliers, and they probably can negotiate better rates than you can,”she says.

Contributing editor Megan Rowe has been writing about the hospitality industry for more than a decade.

Hotel Ratings: No Universal Standards

In the United States, Mobil Travel Guides and the American Automobile Association issue annual, updated guidebooks listing properties on scales of one to five stars or diamonds. Ratings reflect written standards for facilities and services. Ratings of hotels in other countries, if they exist, come from a variety of sources, including government, tourism groups, and even operators themselves.

European countries look at accommodations differently, so it's wise to do a little digging before selecting a hotel. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the Automobile Association, Royal Auto Club, and English Tourism Council have adopted a standardized rating system to rank its member properties. Hotels are rated one to five stars. Travelers to France can expect hotels to display federal government — sanctioned star ratings, ranging from one star for a simple inn to four for a deluxe hotel. The Michelin Red Guides, which rank French hotels according to such subjective qualities as their comfort and views, “are quite good,” says Tim Zagat, chairman and CEO of the Zagat Surveys, which publishes its own guides to U.S. and international hotels.

Meeting planners should expect less standardization throughout Europe, partly because about 70 percent of the hotels there are independently operated (in the United States, about the same proportion are chain-affiliated), and partly because the definition of lodging is broader. Some hotels, for example, are part of former estates that have been transformed into meeting facilities. Nonsmoking rooms or king-size beds aren't customary in many European hotels. Access for guests with disabilities isn't widespread, although new construction and major renovation projects generally are required to include it.

Hotels across Latin America carry government-sanctioned star rankings from their ministries of tourism. And some hotels rate themselves, resulting in meaningless designations as high as seven stars. Too often, the government ratings stick for life, even for hotels that have declined in quality. Fortunately, many U.S. chains have strongholds in Latin America, so meeting planners can find a product comparable to what they would find at home. And most parts of Latin America are requiring new and renovated hotels to include access for travelers with disabilities.

The Chinese government ranks hotels on a star system; five-star hotels are comparable to international luxury hotels, while four-star properties lack some features such as swimming pools. Both provide English-speaking staff. Hotels in Singapore and elsewhere are also ranked by stars, although, as in Europe, definitions vary. Hong Kong hotels are divided into high tariff, medium tariff, and hostels or guest houses. Often, price is the most accurate indication of quality.

Throughout Asia, hotels have higher staffing levels because of relatively low wages. At the four- or five-star level, the guest experience should be similar to what it is in the United States.