EDUCATING INTERNATIONAL conference attendees about U.S. immigration policies and procedures is critical to ensuring that they reach their conferences with as few hitches and glitches as possible.
So said Dave Fellers, executive director of the Radiological Society of North America, based in Oak Brook, Ill. He spoke at the recent Professional Convention Management Association Industry Issues Forum on “Visas, Customs, and Customer Service: Making Life Easier for International Meeting Attendees and Exhibitors. The forum was held before a live audience, and also via an audioconference.
The RSNA holds one of the country's largesteach year in Chicago. Sixty thousand delegates attended in 2004, including 26,000 healthcare professionals, one-third of whom were international attendees.
International attendees are becoming increasingly important to associations like the RSNA, Fellers said, because the market for North American conference attendees has been “virtually saturated.” As a result, he added, “our growth potential is in the international area.”
Consequently, it's critical that the international attendee experience in the United States be a good one. Fellers said that once RSNA starts marketing its upcoming conference it does everything it can to educate its prospective international attendees, from the process they'll need to follow to get a visa, if one is needed, to what they can expect concerning security procedures once they enter the United States.
For example, when it came to applying for visas, RSNA went “to the extreme to make sure they [international attendees] were advised, educated, and warned on what to expect,” Fellers said. “And that was successful; The vast majority [of attendees] were not dissatisfied with what they had to face.”
A post-conference survey established that for the most part international attendees were satisfied with their travel experience, but that their satisfaction level could have been increased.
One area in which there was a significant level of unhappiness was security procedure at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, with 21 percent of international attendees complaining about that part of their experience.
Fellers said that dissatisfaction level apparently had little to do with intrusive security procedures or unfriendly immigration officials. In fact, only 7 percent complained about unfriendly or unhelpful service. Instead, more than 60 percent noted the excessive amount of time it took them to get through security.
“It wasn't the people, it was the process,” Fellers said, referring to the various security procedures that have been put in place since 9/11. If foreign attendees are educated about the security procedures — and the possible inconvenience they'll be put through — they'll expect it, accept it, and not allow it diminish the travel experience, Fellers said.
Fellers was joined on the Industry Issues Forum panel by John Roberson, Commissioner of Aviation for the City of Chicago; Christopher Bowers, CEO, Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau; and Robert L. Harris, deputy chief, Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.