Latin America is unquestionably the rising star for meetings and incentives, especially those originating in the U.S. In the time it takes to fly from Miami to Rome, for example, you can fly from Miami to Buenos Aires, and for a fraction of the cost, treat your attendees to comparable food, wine, hotel accommodations, meeting facilities, entertainment, cultural activities, and world-class service.
Since 9/11, many destinations in the region are considered to be as safe, or safer, than parts of Europe. Tourism to Rio de Janeiro, for instance, has been at an all-time high for the past year. Latin America — Mexico, Central America, and South America — is different from the U.S. and European destinations in some significant ways. That's part of what makes it an interesting place to hold a meeting. And you can cope with the differences, as long as you take them into consideration.
Time: Of the Essence
More than anything, the concept of the importance of time and punctuality is probably the greatest cultural roadblock to North American planners working in Latin America. To us, time is a valuable commodity: We use words like spend, waste, and save to describe it. In Latin America, time is a relative concept, and there are a lot of things more important than being “on time”. The gap between the two points of view is what causes many North Americans to think that Latin Americans are lazy, shiftless, and inefficient, while they are thinking that we are uptight, insensitive automatons.
So the first thing a planner has to do is relax and recognize this major cultural difference. It's also helpful to understand that in some countries that are less developed, things will not be as efficient because some of the resources we take for granted simply may not be there. For example, there's not an Office Depot or Kinko's around every corner for last-minute supplies or copies.
To cope with this difference in culture and resources, you need to budget in more time up front. Expect it to take longer to plan, communicate, and implement your needs — and to take longer afterwards to reconcile accounts.
¿Habla Español? Fala Portugues?
Beyond the issue of time, the next most important difference is language. While upper-level hospitality managers and frontline personnel may speak English, they may be the only ones. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, and back-of-the house personnel may speak little or no English. Having a member of your team who speaks the host country language is a requirement, not a luxury.
Don't assume that you're being understood. Ask questions periodically that require more than a yes or no answer to see if you're getting through. Document all oral communications with a written contact report, and ask to have the report verified within two or three business days. Specify the date.
Site selection may take a little longer in Latin America, too. You may need to make more than one site visit, and you'll want to cultivate a relationship with a goodor other local partner in the city you choose, to act as your eyes and ears between site visits and help you navigate the local waters. They'll have local connections and know-how, better negotiating clout with local vendors, and an inherent knowledge of local customs, laws, and potential dangers or difficulties.
Latin America comprises a multitude of individual destinations, and some are better bets than others for a business meeting. Although recently, planners have had to consider the political and economic situation of any destination, Latin America can be volatile even in more settled times. Always start your process with a check of state department travel advisories (http://travel.state.gov/warnings_list.html). Even health standards and public safety vary. The Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov/travel/) can apprise you of current outbreaks and health risks in specific countries.
The amount of business infrastructure and access varies from place to place. You can't assume every destination will have appropriate air-ground connections, hotels, meeting locations, or communications facilities for your group, so ask for specifics. The number of hotels offering business-class rooms with Internet access, in-room faxes, voice mail, and extra phone lines, is increasing rapidly. South America and Mexico have been adding new hotels, and American air carriers were recently adding routes and flights, though that may be slowing somewhat in the current economic crunch. Make sure your destination has good, professional suppliers for AV and technical services, interpreters, and other conference needs.
At the moment, some of the best bets for meetings are Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Mexico is another excellent location — so long as you stay in the cities. Incidents and threats of violence against foreign tourists in remote areas have led to a state department warning against traveling in rural and jungle regions.
Up-and-coming destinations include Costa Rica and Peru, where there's already a well-developed infrastructure for incentives, some very good DMCs, and a commitment to raise the level of professionalism and join the global community.
Economic difficulties can engender political instability, and of course, the more desperately poor the population, the greater the potential for street crime. It's important to check with the local embassy and your other contacts on the ground to get an accurate picture of what to anticipate.
But it's also important to remember that a situation can appear unstable or dangerous on CNN when in fact things are functioning normally. Argentina's a good example. When the currency collapsed, there was a demonstration in one part of Buenos Aires that was broadcast over and over for days, making it look as if the entire country were exploding. In fact, business was going on as usual in most parts of the city. Cruise ships were docking and discharging tourists. And the collapse of the currency made everything an incredible bargain for people paying with U.S. dollars.
Latin Americans in general are warm, hospitable people for whom a service position is a source of pride. And the service can be of much higher quality and more efficient, despite the reputation, than in many parts of the U.S. and Europe. If you do your homework, get expert local help, and adapt to the culture instead of fighting it, you and your attendees can enjoy the richness, diversity, and hospitality of Latin American culture, and incorporate these into your meeting experience.
Carol Krugman, president/CEO of the international meeting planning company, Krugman Group International in, St. Petersburg, Fla., is a frequent speaker on international meetings.