With 20 years' worth of stories to tell--and advice to share--ASTA's Liz Culkin says mastering a few basics is the best way to successfully manage overseas events.

If you think you don't have the global clout and international savvy to carpet the Sahara, Liz Culkin will tell you differently. When members the American Society of Travel Agents met in Cairo for their 1992 Annual World Congress, you could say they got the red carpet treatment. In fact, 200,000 square feet of the Sahara Desert was blanketed with 6-by-8-foot rugs for the event's opening 6,000-person dinner, held in the shadows of the Great Pyramids and complete with camel shows, fireworks, and fabulous food provided by five hotels.

"Our members are still talking about it," says Liz Culkin, vice president of ASTA's meetings and education department and the impresario who put together the Cairo event--among dozens she's planned in nearly 20 years of meeting planning for ASTA. Of course, being a travel industry association--with many offshore members--has its advantages, especially outside the U.S., where ASTA holds its annual congress about every other year. In the art of staging successful international meetings, several basic principles are pivotal, she says, and when a planner masters them, the sky's the limit.

*Association Meetings: Can you share any secrets to pulling off an event like the one in Cairo?

*Culkin: It's true that we're in a good position because we're a travel association, and we can get a venue like Cairo's pyramids. That was one of my most memorable events--it took days to prepare for and it paid off. But other associations can do it, too, if they can get the cooperation of the locals through a host committee for their destination. It's one of the most important things to organize when planning meetings overseas.

*AM: Who do you like to see on your destination's host committee?

*Culkin: Our international host committee generally includes the president of the city's tourist office and the presidents of any surrounding regional tourist offices, plus a representative from the national air carrier and the local hotel association. Local tour operators should be on the host committee because they can help with the shuttle bus system. It's good to have a local airport official too--that way you have contacts for any freight or customs issues--as well as a representative from the convention facility. We also like to ask city dignitaries to sit on the committee, because this helps with promoting the event and the exhibit. And in the case of our upcoming meeting in Seville, Spain, we also have a representative from the country's high-speed rail.

*AM: How do you deal with customs issues, especially given the size and diversity of ASTA's 200,000-square-foot trade show?

*Culkin:Get a good freight forwarder. This is probably the one most important thing a planner can do. We use Schenckers International out of London, an excellent company that we have worked with for years--and we just wouldn't do a show without them. There will always be some exhibitors who ship their material on their own. It takes just one mistake on their part, resulting in our not getting their stuff on time, and then exhibitors change their minds and go with our freight forwarder.

*AM: Describe a shipping glitch you've dealt with.

*Culkin: When we were in Taipei in 1991, there was a rather memorable incident with the Swiss National Tourist Office, which always puts on some kind of luncheon at its booth during the show. One of the items they shipped was raclette cheese, very pungent smelling. I happened to be at customs when the Taiwanese agents smelled it--they told me it had gone bad, that it was not fit to be eaten. I can still see their faces--noses all scrunched up and saying "pewie, pewie." We got every official in our host committee, the local officials, their [the Swiss'] freight forwarder, and we're all sitting around a table trying to convince the customs agents that this was not bad cheese. This is the kind of thing you can never anticipate! And, from my point of view, even though we [ASTA] didn't ship that stuff, we're still responsible for the whole group. In the end, if something isn't getting through customs, they [the shipper] will look to us for help.

*AM:What are some other potential pitfalls?

*Culkin: Transporting as many people as we have at a destination is very hard to get right in some foreign cities. Even aside from language barriers, a lot of places--without naming venues--tend not to be equipped to handle shuttling 6,000 people among more than 50 locations. You're dependent on about 100 different bus drivers sometimes, and you just hope they know where they're going. This is one area where we rely heavily on the host city to communicate with them.

*AM: How do destination management companies fit into your international planning?

*Culkin: We don't use a DMC. When we are outside the U.S., especially in Europe, we use a lot of hotels--sometimes up to 50--to accommodate the 3,500 rooms per night we need (since most European hotels are smaller than what we find in the U.S. and in Asia). In the many years we've been doing this, we find we can negotiate better hotel rates if we spread the attendees around and deal directly with the hotels and city tourism officials. We do a lot of homework on what rates the hotels are currently offering to groups, so we know what to ask for. We also have our own standard contracts that we send to hotels rather than the other way around--and I find this is the biggest advantage in going direct. This way, we control what we need and pay.

*AM: Being an association of seasoned travelers gives ASTA an edge that other groups may not have. How do you think that translates for other associations?

*Culkin: Without a doubt, being a travel industry group has benefited us in our negotiations in that many of the hotels and destinations we work with are either ASTA members or closely tied to us. But I think any association can make their meeting valuable to a destination if they add up the potential income stream that they'll bring in--how much attendees will shop, eat out, spend on entertainment, that kind of thing.

*AM: So money always talks.

*Culkin: Absolutely. Any group can track how much business they're bringing into a destination, both long- and short-term. We go for the long-term because our members will be booking future trips to the destination. Meeting planners for any association need to really look at their group and create a profile of the kinds of people they will be bringing in, including spending habits. We put together a very involved prospectus and video presentation of ASTA and our attendee profile, and we show this to any destination we are considering for our events. This tool can really help you get in the door, even if you're not a travel industry group.

*AM: How do you promote your overseas events?

*Culkin: We market our trade show to our supplier members and many other target markets that, over the years, we have created databases for. We fax, e-mail, and direct mail these groups. We also advertise in the major travel industry publications and go so far as to invite key members of the press to the venue in advance of the show. They spend a few days touring the venue and write stories about our convention--it's a great promotional tool for us.

Also, whenever we go to a new city, we start a database of nonmembers in that area. In Spain, for instance, we will market our event--and ASTA--to lists of both nonmember travel agents and suppliers, which are easily obtained from the local tourist office and from the local travel agent association, since most countries have their own agent associations.

*AM: Has it gotten easier to plan overseas events?

*Culkin: Certainly things have changed over the years, especially in the area of communications. With the Internet and e-mail, there's no question that communicating is easier and faster. In fact, the rest of the world is more up-to-speed with the Internet and e-mail--I would say they are beyond us here in the U.S.

Another thing that's improving: International destinations are building more convention center space, mainly to attract the American convention market. In the past we have had challenges finding the perfect space for our convention and trade show overseas, but we are also finding that many international cities are building large convention centers, so this has become less difficult for us. I think in the next five years, we'll see a significant increase in meetings outside the U.S.

*AM: Looking back over your years of experience, what is it that you most appreciate about international meeting planning?

*Culkin: When I'm asked this question, I keep coming back to the same thing: Even though our annual congress is structured the same way every year, by taking it to different countries, my staff and I are always faced with a new set of challenges. What is great about international meetings is that you're always working with different cultures and customs. It's important for any staff organizing the meeting to be aware of this. It's also tremendously rewarding, personally, to work with people from all over the world, because you can make some lasting partnerships--and friendships. *

Offshore Checklist Liz Culkin has been planning international meetings for the American Society of Travel Agents for 20 years and, for her, these five top items on her list can mean the difference between success and disaster.

*Ask yourself: Is the international site the best location for your attendees? There are numerous aspects to research, says Culkin, but most important, planners should determine if air service is direct or has one or more stops; know the hotels--from rates to quality to distance to convention facilities; ensure convention facilities are accessible for persons with disabilities; and know what airport customs costs and challenges your exhibitors may face when getting their materials into the country.

*Establish a diverse, working local host committee. The main players on any local host committee should include local officials who represent convention center facilities, hotel associations, the national air carrier, the city's tourist office as well those from surrounding cities, and the shuttle bus or tour operator company.

*Find a good freight forwarder. Culkin relies heavily on hers, one she's been using for years. This is very important for exhibitors, she says. "And on-site you should be able to rely on your freight forwarder to assist with any customs problems or lost shipments."

*Test your hotel shuttle bus system. Culkin takes advantage of her setup days with a dry run between hotels and the convention venue. "When you're dependent on about 100 bus drivers shuttling 6,000 attendees among 80 or so hotels and the convention center, you hope they know where they're going."

*Never assume attendees know enough about the host city. Send them useful information on time differences, currency exchange, electricity conversions, taxes, weather, business operation hours, and local traditions.

Inside ASTA The American Society of Travel Agents' World Congress is held outside the U.S. every other year--and sometimes in consecutive years. Roughly 15 percent of ASTA's 26,000 members from countries other than the U.S.

Liz Culkin, vice president of the meetings and education department, says she spends about 60 percent of her time planning ASTA's World Congress, held every fall. The rest of the time, she and her staff of 15 manage five other regional events--which draw about 800 attendees each--held January through June in North America and foreign port cities for the group's two annual Cruise Fest events. Culkin's department also plans quarterly board meetings for 35 to 70 people, held "all over the place," she says.

The meeting staff does everything in-house, except hotel reservations for attendees, which was turned over to a housing bureau in 1998, Culkin says. "The housing bureau is local to whatever destination we select, but we do everything else, such as negotiate hotel contracts, register delegates, sell and register trade show booth space, assign the exhibit floor, and find speakers." The reason, she says, is simple: It saves money.

Trade exhibits are a big part of the World Congress, with 450 exhibitors in about 200,000 square feet of space. The regional shows have about 150 companies and travel suppliers exhibiting. Meetings and exhibits account for a major portion of ASTA's revenue--$1 million net--second only to membership dues.

Around the World with ASTA In a perfect world, the annual ASTA World Congress would rotate between domestic and offshore destinations, says Liz Culkin, vice president of meetings, conventions, and trade shows. It doesn't always happen that way, "and we would certainly go to Europe two years in a row," she says. The 2000 ASTA World Congress was held in Las Vegas this past September, and Seville, Spain, is the venue for 2001. Here's a look at ASTA's international meetings in the last 15 years:

* 1985 -- Rome

* 1986 -- Singapore

* 1988 -- Budapest

* 1990 -- Hamburg

* 1991 -- Taipei

* 1992 -- Cairo

* 1994 -- Lisbon

* 1996 -- Bangkok

* 1997 -- Glasgow

* 1999 -- Strasbourg