When it comes to shipping materials outside the United States, you'll need to build in some extra time, as some countries may have new rules in effect post-9/11. One of the most important people who can help you figure things out is an international freight forwarder. This person will transport your shipment from one of its consolidation points in the U.S. to the airport or seaport and will help with documentation. (Some forwarders also transfer shipments from your warehouse to the consolidation point.)

But if you ship exhibit booths and exhibit materials, such as products for display, it's preferable to select an international exhibit freight forwarder. This specialized forwarder is more expensive, but provides additional services, including delivering the freight to the stand (as booths are known outside the U.S.), unpacking, storing empty crates during the show — and reversing the procedure at the end of the show. In other words, the international exhibit freight forwarder usually handles drayage, which in the U.S. is the responsibility of a separate contractor.

You'll need a customs broker, who receives goods at the destination, declares the value of the shipment, processes the paperwork, and handles the payment of any fees required to clear the goods. You can contract separately with a freight forwarder and a customs broker, but it ultimately makes more sense to select a forwarder who is also a licensed customs broker. That makes one less supplier to deal with, and you're more likely to receive seamless service.

Why not deal directly with the airline for your shipping needs? Because an airline is strictly a carrier. Thus an airline typically would not be able to arrange to ship merchandise to the air terminal, for instance, or to prepare documents that would help your shipments to clear customs.

Keep in mind that when shipping to Canada you are crossing an international border, so don't expect the experience to be like shipping from state to state — as many planners do! Canadian Tourism Commission representatives can update you on anything you need to know, and provide lists of good customs brokers to work with.

Locating Suppliers

If you are planning an event outside the United States, your best bet is to select a U.S.-based company as the official freight forwarder. There will be no language problem, which is especially important when you're dealing with so many technical terms. And the time zone differences will be minimal or perhaps nonexistent.

If you are organizing a pavilion, the show organizer will name an official freight forwarder based in the country where the show is being held. That forwarder then appoints agents in all the countries participating in the show. In this situation, you still are almost always better off selecting your own forwarder rather than using the official supplier. The exception: Some countries require a special customs bond and give only the official forwarder permission to offer that bond. For companies that exhibit independently in a show produced by an offshore organizer, it's preferable to use the official forwarder. If there are any problems, you'll have more clout with the organizer.

There are probably only a dozen U.S.-based international exhibit freight forwarders. To identify them, check the directories issued by the International Association for Exposition Management, the Trade Show Exhibitors Association, and the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. A more comprehensive listing of international freight forwarders, not just those that specialize in exhibits, is the directory of the National Customs Brokers & Forwarders Association of America Inc.

Important Shipping Terms

An experienced international freight forwarder can tell shippers which of these documents they will need. For specific customs information for your shipment, you can also contact a U.S. Customs office.

The ATA Carnet

This is a “merchandise passport” issued by the United States Council for International Business (USCIB) in New York City (212/354-4480; www.uscib.org). The ATA Carnet demonstrates to customs officials that you are bringing in the merchandise only temporarily; if you do not re-export the merchandise, you will be subject to penalties. ATA Carnets may be used for most business-related items, including commercial samples, professional equipment, and goods for exhibitions (consumer shows) and fairs (trade shows).

The ATA Carnet is accepted in more than 50 countries. A carnet is not required, but there are several advantages to using it whenever possible:

  1. It is valid for a year and can be used for unlimited entries and re-entries.
  2. It eliminates temporary import duties and value-added taxes (VAT). In Taiwan, for example, the VAT is 5 percent, and duties can be as high as 50 percent of the total value of the merchandise.
  3. It is far less expensive than Temporary Importation Under Bond (see below), which can reach 150 percent of the value of the shipment.
  4. It simplifies customs procedures and re-entry into the United States.

Carnet costs include a processing fee, which ranges from $120 to $250, depending on the value of the shipment; and a refundable security deposit of at least 40 percent of the value of the shipment. The deposit can be paid by check or by surety bond.

Carnet application materials can be downloaded from the USCIB Web site or obtained from one of the Service Bureaus listed on the site. For other carnet questions, contact USCIB directly.

Temporary Importation Under Bond

If you do not use a carnet, you must post a bond to guarantee that the merchandise will be re-exported. A bond must be obtained for each foreign country upon arrival — which is obviously more complicated than using a single ATA Carnet.

A Certificate of Origin

This document, required by some countries, states where the items in the shipment were manufactured.

Temporary Export License

This is a specialized license required by the U.S. government for the export of products that could affect national security, including aircraft parts, firearms, and some computers. Licenses are issued by either the Department of Commerce or the Department of State, depending on the commodity. Contact the Department of Commerce, Office of Export Administration at (202) 482-4811, or the Department of State, Office of Defense Trade Controls, at (703) 875-6644.

Contributing editor Rayna Skolnik wrote the TSEA Guide to Successful International Exhibiting, published by the Trade Show Exhibitors Association.

Evaluating Suppliers

Ask these questions: How long has the freight forwarder been in business? If you have exhibitors who will be shipping special equipment, is the forwarder experienced in handling such equipment?

Get current references. For exhibit freight forwarders, get the names of show organizers and, if practical, managers at foreign facilities. Request a detailed list of the services that the forwarder can provide. Will he or she pick up materials at your place of business, or must you deliver to the consolidation point? Who handles the paperwork? Who handles customs clearance? Is the forwarder a licensed customs broker? If the forwarder is an exhibit freight forwarder, he or she should be able to provide door-to-booth and booth-to-door services.

Get a quote. The components of shipping costs are the number of pieces, their size and weight, the value, and the type of commodity. Give the forwarder an example of something that is likely to be shipped and request a quote. The forwarder should provide a close estimate, giving you a basis for comparing price/value ratios of the freight forwarders who are under consideration.