Problems related to obtaining visas precluded 116,000 international participants from attending exhibitions in the U.S. this year, according to a just-released study conducted by Oxford Economics for the Center for Exhibition Industry Research.

The new study reveals that the onerous process of getting a visa to travel to the U.S. has resulted in billions of dollars of losses in foreign trade, as U.S. companies fail to meet with potential prospects, CEIR officials stated in a press release. Additional export losses stem from lost international visitor spending in the hospitality and meetings industries. The barriers to obtaining a visa are particularly acute in Brazil, Russia, India, and China, the study reports.

"While we are mindful of the need for careful screening of international visitors entering the U.S., keeping our borders secure should not be at the expense of keeping our economy open for business,” said Steven Hacker, president and chief executive officer at the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, which owns CEIR. “The U.S. will lose sales to other countries if we continue on this path.” IAEE officials intend to present the report’s findings to several federal agencies, including the state, homeland security, and commerce departments.



Oxford Economics surveyed U.S.-based exhibition organizers from 47 major 2010 events representing 1.3 million attendees and found that about 2.5 percent of potential international attendees and exhibitors don’t attend exhibitions because of visa issues. Extrapolating those figures to the U.S. exhibition industry as a whole, Oxford determined that approximately 116,000 potential visitors did not attend U.S. events because of visa issues, including 78,400 potential attendees and 37,900 potential exhibitors. That translates into approximately $2.4 billion in lost sales, including $1.5 billion in business-to-business trade, $540 million in registration fees, and $295 million in visitor spending—half of which would go to hotels. That $2.4 billion in sales would sustain 43,000 jobs and generate $750 million in tax revenues, the report adds.

Potential visitors are being rejected or discouraged from applying for visas for several reasons, explains Cathy Breden, CAE, CMP, executive director at CEIR. The required face-to-face interview at consulate offices are short, she says, and generally don’t take into account the valid business reasons for attending an exhibition in the U.S. Also, in many countries, there aren’t enough consulate offices and those that exist are understaffed, which means potential visitors to the U.S. often have to travel long distances for interviews, at their own expense, and must wait when they get there. Breden adds that the long wait times for approvals—especially in China, where it can take up to 90 days—is an added challenge.

The Association for Manufacturing Technology, McLean, Va., had 64 of 378 applicants rejected in China for its recent show, and those who were approved had to wait 90 days, according to the study.

One idea for improving the U.S. visa process, suggests Breden, is to conduct interviews via video. That solution may already be in the works. According to a press release from the U.S. Travel Association released December 16, Congress is considering a bill that would create a pilot program that would use secure remote videoconferencing technology for visa interviews. U.S. Travel is urging Congress to pass the bill.