Obtaining travel documents for an international meeting can challenge even the most seasoned traveler. Depending on the destination, for example, meeting attendees and speakers may need to apply for visas several months in advance of the conference. And it often comes as a surprise that a passport due to expire in less than six months is not considered valid in some countries-including Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Argentina. Add the fact that rules and regulations for travel documents change constantly, and the message to association meeting planners is obvious: Communicate information about passport and visa requirements in initial meeting materials.
"We bring people from all over the world to a particular meeting site," notes Lili C. Merritt, director, conferences and meetings, for the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), Washington, DC, "so it is impossible to provide complete information about required travel documents. But we give general guidelines and tell people to contact the consulate [of the destination country] for specific requirements." Merritt, who oversees about 30 international meetings a year, includes information in promotional and registration materials that educate participants on how to help themselves. Still, she often is contacted for further information. "We're not staffed to take care of everybody," she says, "but if people call for help getting travel documents, I give guidance. It pays for the planner to do the research, because when your speaker or registrant has a problem entering or leaving a country, it ends up being your problem."
One document that the association planner routinely provides to the international conference participant is a letter of invitation to attend the conference. This invitation, along with additional information, validates the purpose of the visit and is necessary to obtain a visa (if one is required). "Make it clear in the letter that the association is not offering any financial assistance to the speaker or attendee," advises Bruce Lemmon, manager of exhibitions and international conferences for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in Tulsa, OK, so that a participant can not subsequently demand sponsorship from the association.
Start early experts agree that problems often arise because people don't leave enough time to procure visas and passports. "You have to start the visa application process a minimum of six months in advance of the meeting," recommends Louisa e. Jones, executive officer, International Association for the Study of Pain, based in Seattle, WA. "We've had people e-mailing us for letters of invitation a week before the meeting."
Association planners are full of stories about international participants not making it to the meeting or getting stranded en route because they didn't get proper travel documentation in a timely fashion. "Documentation problems can result in a domino effect," says Arlene Davie, executive vice president of Travel Planners Inc., a San Antonio firm that specializes in meetings. Recently, Davie got a last-minute request for a letter of invitation from some Philippine citizens who wanted to attend a meeting in Rome. "That's tough enough to do in ten days," she notes, "but it also meant that we couldn't confirm hotel and ground arrangements because we weren't sure if they were coming." Although Davie faxed the requested letter immediately, the prospective attendees weren't able to get their documents in time, and they missed the meeting.
It's bad enough when registrants cancel their plans because they couldn't get the proper documents, but it's even worse when speakers don't show up. "We had an embarrassing situation when a speaker traveling from Brazil to a meeting in Canada had arranged a stopover in the U.S., and didn't have the proper documentation to enter the country," says Lili Merritt. "He returned to Brazil."
Merritt advises using association contacts in the meeting destination to help expedite travel documents for international participants. "We've had to use our local people time and time again to help rush a passport or visa through," she says.
One way for U.S. meeting participants to speed the process is to get help from companies that specialize in obtaining travel documents. These companies assist both individuals and organizations in navigating the regulatory maze of passports and visas. (See sidebar, below right, for sample listing). Their representatives in Washington and other consular cities speak foreign languages fluently and hand-carry documents to the consulates in order to expedite their processing. Fees (exclusive of government fees), are based on how much time is involved and, in the case of visas, how difficult they are to procure.
even a simple passport renewal can take an unexpectedly long time. Processing times vary, but it generally takes about four weeks for ordinary renewal by mail, depending on the particular passport agency and the time of year. In addition, "some passport offices are still backlogged from last winter's government shutdown," cautions Heike B. estey, director of sales for express Visa Service, Inc. "In these cases we send passport applications to one of our offices where the backlog is less serious." Based in Washington, DC, express Visa has branch offices in five consular cities.
Procuring visas can also be a lengthy process, depending on the destination, and even the expediting firm can't always provide super-fast service. "One of the greatest misconceptions is that we have the stamps to issue passports and visas," says estey. "We facilitate getting these things done, but we still have to comply with different country regulations."
No matter how desperate the rush, don't advise attendees to get a tourist visa. "The rule is simple," says Jan Dvorak, president of the Washington, DC-based visa services firm Travisa. "If the country requires a business visa and you are doing anything but sightseeing, you are not a tourist." According to Dvorak, it usually costs a bit more to get a business visa, but it is well worth the few extra dollars. "Most countries are very favorable to business visitors," he says, "and it's just as easy to get a business visa as a tourist visa." Further, those who aren't honest risk not only detention at the airport, but confiscation of all business materials, including computers.
Visa requirements change so often that the largest visa services company, McLean,VA-based CIBT, Inc., has a huge computer database of travel document requirements that is updated daily. "The requirements to get a Chinese visa in New York are different from the regulations in Chicago or San Francisco, and every day we get calls about new regulations," notes CIBT's director of account management, eric Lobel. According to Lobel, the most common mistake people make is waiting too long to renew their passports. He advises renewing one year before the passport is due to expire. The second most common mistake is not having enough blank pages at the end of the passport. "People give us just enough time to get their visa, and then we find that the passport has no empty pages to put the visa on," he explains. extra passport pages are available in 24-page inserts and take about ten business days to procure, says Lobel.
Sometimes difficulties arise not when meeting participants enter a country, but when they depart. Americans, for example, often don't know that nearby destinations such as Mexico, Canada, Bermuda, and the Bahamas all require proof of U.S. citizenship in order to leave. This can be either a valid passport or a certified birth certificate and a photo I.D. such as a driver's license. A voter registration card is no longer accepted as proof of citizenship, notes Arlene Davie. "Today the airlines are very stringent about following the rules and will deny boarding to anyone who does not have proper documentation."
Another point Davie stresses is that if the name on a birth certificate differs from the traveler's current name, then it is necessary to provide documentation of the name change. And those bringing families to the meeting, cautions Davie, should be aware that if children under the age of 18 are not accompanied by both parents, then there must be a notarized letter of consent from the non-traveling parent giving his or her permission for the children to travel outside the country.