ATTENDANCE AT LAST YEAR'S CONEXPO-CON/AGG in Las Vegas was down from 1999's record 120,000, “but where we took it on the chin was on the international side,” says Dennis Slater, a managing director for the construction and construction materials associations. Overseas attendance slipped from 20,000 to about 16,000.
Slater blames several factors for the decline: the weak global economy, fear of travel, and the fact that visas were harder to obtain.
Indeed, getting to the United States from many parts of the world has become a hassle. The visa bottleneck clogged even more immediately after September 11, and most observers expect the situation to worsen before it eases. It's true that the U.S. still allows citizens of 27 countries in the visa waiver program to enter temporarily without a visa (it was 28 countries until too many Uruguyans overstayed their welcome). But visitors from most parts of the world must apply to visit and submit to harsher scrutiny than in the past. They must also file documents proving their employment status, reason for travel, and financial status.
“Visa applications undergo much more scrutiny by multiple agencies, and this is increasing the wait time for many travelers and may be deterring travel to the U.S.,” says Edward M. Fluhr, manager of legislative affairs for the Travel Industry Association of America. TIA anticipates the process will only get more arduous. “[The Department of] State is supposed to interview most, if not all, applicants, but has often waived this requirement. That is changing, and there will be many more applicant interviews soon,” Fluhr says. If so, many more visa seekers will need to apply in person at a U.S. consulate rather than through the mail or a third-party agency.
And it's not easy finding out exactly what the government wants, although the state department is taking small steps to make it clear. A new Web site, www.unitedstatesvisas.gov, includes step-by-step instructions and emphasizes three types of temporary visas: business, education, and tourist.
Catch-22 for Planners
More often, event planners are finding themselves acting as gatekeepers and advisors to overseas attendees, roles some are not always comfortable with. “I got a call today from someone I couldn't understand from a country I don't know who wants to come to our convention,” says Madelaine Morgan, CMP, director of meetings and convention for the Society of American Foresters in Bethesda, Md. She worries about the security ramifications of sending an invitation letter to such an unknown quantity. “How do I know these are people who genuinely want to come to the convention?”
“I don't know if the FBI is going to knock on my door and ask whether so-and-so attended my convention,” Morgan continues. (Since September 11, a number of event managers have fielded such requests.) “When you look at the terrorists and how they got here, most of them came in legitimate ways.”
Meanwhile, legitimate or not, Morgan must produce letters of invitation for visa applicants before she is certain they'll be able to attend the meeting. “It's a real catch-22,” she says. “They're not going to register without having a visa, and I don't want to do the work without them having a visa.”
Some U.S. associations are taking a more aggressive take to boost their overseas market share by targeting international exhibitors and attendees. CONEXPO-CON/AGG's staff has stepped up its presence at large overseas trade shows, and participates in a U.S. commerce department's International Buyer Program, which promotes large trade shows to foreign trade offices.
Slater says Latin America is the focus of the most concerted effort to build traffic at the mammoth trade show. CONEXPO-CON/AGG's team is adapting its approach to Latin American business customs to lure delegates to Las Vegas for the 2005 event. “You can't just rely on mail and Web sites to create ties with these groups,” Slater notes. “In South America, they want a relationship with you. They say, ‘Why should I go all the way to Las Vegas to your show if you won't even come here to talk to me about it?’”
Similarly, two large technology association shows — InfoComm and SuperComm — have partnered with a firm that will help them market to and ease travel arrangements for international attendees. Chicago-based Travel Technology Group is affiliated with regional travel partners that can target potential attendees, help them with visa requests, and assemble all-inclusive packages that make getting to a U.S. show simpler and less daunting.
Slater is optimistic that U.S. events won't have trouble attracting overseas audiences again once the world settles down. “September 11 and war change the landscape, but they don't change the fact that people want to come to international events,” he notes.
Official Letters Take On New Weight
The letter of introduction has assumed greater importance as visa applications increasingly go under the microscope. While not mentioned specifically, the letter has become an integral part of the visa request process outlined on the U.S. Department of State's Web site, www.unitedstatesvisa.gov/business. The letter is needed as evidence that the visitor has a legitimate business reason for entering the United States.
Sue Potton, marketing director of conference services for MediTech Media in Princeton, N.J., has organized a number of international medical conferences. She offers the following tips on producing an effective introduction or invitation letter:
Print the invitation on the official letterhead of the organization or conference and have the conference chairperson sign it.
Include the following details:
- title of event
- dates, including pre- and post-meeting activities meeting location
- brief synopsis of the meeting program
- a list of the organizing committee members
When the delegate is an invited speaker or presenter, mention that fact.
To lend the application an air of legitimacy, Cheriff Moujabber, president of Creative Expos and Conferences and a consultant to InfoComm and SuperComm, recommends subtle phrases — such as, “We welcome you again to the U.S.” — that indicate the person regularly attends the event. “When the consular section reads that letter, they have a better feeling that this is not an unknown quantity,” Moujabber explains.
A number of large event organizers have starting posting a form letter as part of their online registration materials. “Last year was the first year we posted the invitation letter on our Web site,” says Pam Kaminsky, senior manager of registrant services at the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago. “That eliminated a lot of paperwork, and we mailed out only a couple hundred letters. In the past, we'd send out close to 1,000 registration brochures and letters overseas.”