Planning a meeting outside one's own country or usual jurisdiction presents special challenges for meeting planners. You need to understand the immigration and customs rules for both the host country and the home country to give attendees the right advice about getting into the host country and back again. And you have to comply with the host country's customs laws to ensure the timely arrival of meeting materials. If attendees get into legal trouble, you must help them find assistance. As a planner, you also must understand the legal nuances that will affect the facility contracts in the host country.

Rules of Entry

Every country has rules and regulations governing the movement of people and goods across its borders. At every national border, the traveler must satisfy the immigration laws to enter or exit the country, as well as the customs laws that regulate the passage of goods.

Each person must have adequate documentation to enter a country. Although the kind of documentation varies from country to country, most require a traveler to have a valid passport. Some countries also require a visa, and many demand that the traveler show proof of a return and/or an onward-travel ticket. These checks are increasingly being carried out at the point of departure by air, as well as the point of entry.

Meeting attendees will look to the meeting sponsor to provide them with the information needed to obtain the proper documentation. The planner must carefully check with the authorities, either the consulate or the embassy of the host country and the country of domicile, to properly advise attendees of the requirements. Never assume that all of the countries in a region have the same requirements. However, if you cannot reach these offices, then information can be obtained from the diplomatic service offices of the home country (in the United States, the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs).

Countries that require visas want to exercise a tighter control over people who enter the country than can be done with passports alone. A visa is an official endorsement made on a passport by the authorities of a country, denoting that the traveler's documentation has been examined and found correct and that the bearer is permitted to enter the country. The visa endorsement allows the bearer to visit the country for a specific purpose and for a stated period of time.

Visas are issued by the appropriate embassy or consulate of the host country, so you need to check with the foreign consular offices or the embassy of the host country for information. Always check visa requirements, as they change frequently, especially in the post-9/11 world, and entry requirements may be stricter than in the past.

Most of the African and Arab countries, China, and Australia, and the countries that make up the former U.S.S.R., for example, require visas. Currently, the United Kingdom, most European countries, Israel, the Caribbean countries, Japan, Canada, and Mexico do not require U.S. citizens to have visas for short stays. Attendees planning extensive stays should know that almost every country in the world requires a visa for stays in excess of three months. However, at press time, The U.S. State Department had announced the North American Travel Initiative, which requires all U.S. citizens, Canadians, and citizens of Bermuda and Mexico to have a passport or other accepted secure document to enter or re-enter the U.S. by January 1, 2008. This initiative comes out of the 9/11 Intelligence Bill that was signed into law last December.

Notify attendees early on about the visa requirements of the country where your event will be held.Without a necessary visa, a meeting attendee cannot enter the host country. In fact, the attendee is likely to be held up in transit and will not be able to board a flight to the host country without the proper visa.

Meeting attendees will have to go through customs when they enter the host country — and through home country customs when they return. Customs officers have two roles: to look for goods that may not be legally brought into the country, and to collect duty on goods purchased in a country and brought in for personal use or resale.

Many countries have strict rules about the transportation of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and agricultural products. Persons violating these rules run the risk of seizure of goods and even imprisonment. Most countries also regulate the amount of currency that can be brought into or taken out of the country.

Customs duty is imposed on goods that are brought into the host country that the customs official believes will be offered for sale or distribution.

Materials for meetings, and goods shipped or transported to the meeting site, are subject to those customs laws. Generally, personal papers, documents, and other meeting materials that will be used by staff to conduct the meeting are not subject to customs duty when shipped or brought in by meeting planners. Problems arise, however, when large quantities of printed materials, gifts, favors, or other items to be distributed to meeting attendees are shipped. Such items could be subject to the host country's customs regulations as they may be construed as material for sale or commercial distribution.

The customs laws differ greatly from country to country, and the level of enforcement within a country also varies from port to port. Some travelers do not understand local procedures and may be offended by requests for payments. Some might, foolishly, offer money to customs personnel that could be construed as a bribe.

To avoid these problems, you should hire a customs broker in the host country. The customs broker's job is to advise shippers in how to comply with the customs laws. They will handle the paperwork and will deal directly with customs agents in the host countries. You should retain a customs broker well in advance and consult with the broker about the procedures for transporting meeting materials into the host country. For more on customs and shipping, see the article on page 23.

Dealing with Legal Troubles

Sometimes meeting attendees get to know the legal process in the host country “up close and personal.” The precipitating event could range from a minor matter like a dispute with a merchant or a restaurant over a bill to a major problem resulting in arrest and incarceration for a crime. Travelers who are arrested in a foreign country are subject to the laws of that country and will not normally be granted any special privileges because they are foreigners.

The local consulate of the person's country of domicile should be contacted, but bear in mind that embassies or consulates will provide assistance only in cases where a citizen has not been afforded the proper legal protection by the courts of the host country. It will not provide legal assistance, nor will it assist in obtaining local legal counsel.

In hiring an attorney for someone under arrest, the best procedure may be for you or the person's family to contact an attorney back home and ask him or her for help in retaining foreign counsel.

The law of the host country will be applied to resolve the matter. Foreign travelers are often surprised and confused by the contrast between the laws in a foreign country and those at home. American citizens, particularly, should know that the presumption of innocence, the right to counsel, the right to a bail hearing, and the right against self-incrimination do not necessarily apply on foreign soil.

Negotiating Contracts

You should approach facility contracts with the idea that contract law and rules may be different in the host country than at home. Some of the specific factors to consider are the following.

Certain items that are easy to negotiate with local hotels may be less negotiable in other jurisdictions — although it never hurts to ask.

Preliminary contract discussions or letters of intent may be binding on the parties. (In the United States, a letter of intent is typically not binding unless its terms say so.)

What is included in the room rate may differ from country to country, so always confirm exactly what the quoted price covers — breakfast, taxes, gratuities or other charges, for example. If it is important that certain items be included (e.g., full breakfast rather than continental), then be specific.

Definitions of everything from rooms to rates may be interpreted differently and should be clarified in advance.

Local laws will apply in contract disputes. Legal advice from attorneys in the host country should be sought in the contract negotiations and immediately in the event of a dispute.

  • Insurance — Your organization's insurance professional should review the agreement before signing. Insurance obtained in the home country may or may not extend to an overseas meeting, so make certain your organization is covered.

  • Currency — The contract should specify whether payments are to be made in the local currency or in that of the home country. You can probably negotiate better with foreign suppliers if your organization opens a local bank account and pays in local currency. Define payment schedules and the circumstances requiring the return of deposits. In some cases, payments from a foreign entity may be subject to tax, governmental approval, or currency control laws. For example, in China, government approval may be required before you can use local currency to pay certain expenses. Foreign businesses also may require substantial advance deposits to reserve exhibit halls, labor, or hotel space. To protect against the foreign provider's in-solvency or inability to perform, make deposits through interest-bearing escrow accounts or letters of credit.

  • Language — Some countries require the use of the language of the host country in the contract, leading in many cases to both an English and non-English version. Obviously, careful and precise written translation of the contract terms is important. Finally, determine and specify in the contract the official language that is to apply in any contract disputes.

  • Arbitration — It is sensible to include a clause in any contract detailing the procedures agreed upon in the event of a dispute. Heavy fees and considerable time can be saved by agreeing to the use of an independent arbitrator. The Chartered Institute of Arbitrators is a worldwide body (www.internationalarbitrators.org).

    James E. Anderson, Esq., specializes in representing trade associations and nonprofit groups with the law offices of Howe, Anderson & Steyer, P.C., in Washington, D.C. This article also appears in “Convention Industry Council International,” 1st Edition, to be published in June. Visit www.conventionindustry.org for more information.