The meetings industry is experiencing a resurgence in international events. Taking events abroad can create excitement among attendees and increase attendance. But a planner must be careful to consider the unique legal issues that arise with these events.
Every meeting contract should be as detailed as possible. However, this is especially important with international meetings. Agreements made in the United States often include standard industry assumptions that might not apply to a meeting in another country. For example, meeting space is commonly provided at no cost for a U.S.-based meeting with a large sleeping room block, but that is not the case in Europe. Similarly, assumptions about breakfast menus in Europe do not apply to a Mexican meeting. The only way for the facility and the planner to ensure that they agree on the details is to put it in writing.
A contract should also include a governing language, choice of currency, and governing law for dispute resolution — essential to avoid differences between the meeting host's home country and the meeting location. Designating a governing language avoids disputes when different language versions of a contract conflict because of the translation. Choosing an official currency protects the parties against value fluctuations that can affect meeting pricing. And, depending on the country, the court system may be efficient or slow. Without an agreement on which country's laws will apply in a dispute, both sides may try to resolve the matter in their own courts, causing confusion and delay.
Responsibility for accommodating persons with disabilities is another important contract issue. Persons requiring special accommodations will likely expect the meeting host to follow their home country's rules, regardless of the meeting location, so it is essential to provide for disabled persons' needs by contract.
Protecting proprietary information is another essential consideration, particularly with corporate meetings. Information exchanged among attendees — such as customer lists, marketing strategies, and business data — could harm the sponsoring organization if it were distributed to unauthorized persons or lost. A planner should avoid locations where information cannot be protected — hotels with poor security records, and even whole countries if they lack laws to protect a meeting sponsor's property. Once a planner is confident that a meeting location is safe, the next step is to provide for security through the contract. The host venue should be required to take all reasonable steps to protect the sponsor's confidential and proprietary information and to indemnify and protect the sponsor against any mistakes.
An effectivecancellation clause is essential. It allows either the meeting sponsor or host venue to cancel the meeting without liability in the event of certain specified occurrences outside the parties' control, such as bad weather, work stoppages, acts of war, or terrorism. The clause must be carefully worded to cover all unanticipated and unavoidable incidents that would necessitate cancellation, including civil unrest, terrorism, and major airline strikes. Planners should not cede control over declaring a force majeure cancellation to the meeting facility; local hosts are far less likely to cancel a meeting than the planner. For example, terrorism in the United States would probably not cause a meeting venue in Britain to cancel, but it might prevent the attendees from getting onto the airplane. Similarly, labor strikes are an everyday occurrence in some European cities, so they might not be a valid cause for cancellation. In situations where there are differing opinions on what constitutes a force majeure, the best option is to create a mechanism for consultation and mediation if a dispute arises.
Preventing loss of valuable information kept on computers and transmitted through networks is an often overlooked component of international meeting planning. The risks include the theft of laptop computers and CD disks containing important data, unauthorized access to computer networks, and hackers gaining access to the system.
Data security is only now getting attention because the American Sarbanes-Oxley Act and similar corporate accountability laws of other countries make company executives responsible for security flaws that lead to theft of important information. Meeting sponsors can no longer assume that their computers and cyber networks will be safe from information theft; they need to verify that safeguards are in place.
The first security consideration is the host venue's capability to assist in protecting data. In some countries with relatively primitive computer infrastructure, it may be practically impossible to put effective measures into place. Meetings that rely heavily on technology may wish to take their business elsewhere. Even in countries with advanced technology, meeting organizers should create barriers to access for both wired and wireless networks, install firewalls to deter hackers, and secure meeting rooms where laptops may be left unattended. These safeguards may not commonly be found in meeting venues.
Visas and Foreign Attendees
For meetings in both the United States and in other countries, there are new and changing admission requirements that can confuse even savvy travelers. For example, the U.S. government recently imposed new passport requirements for foreign nationals. Meeting attendees from an increasing number of countries also need a visa to enter the United States, which will only be granted after a personal interview. Some countries impose similar requirements on American citizens and others.
A meeting sponsor can take steps to reduce their liability for a meeting attendee's failure to secure the necessary paperwork to attend the event. The first step is for the planner to ensure that attendees and exhibitors will be able to enter the host country without undue difficulty. If a planner cannot satisfy herself that everyone essential to the meeting's success can enter, then the meeting should be relocated.
Meeting sponsors should remind attendees of the need to secure passports and visas to enter the host country. Any information provided should state clearly and conspicuously that it is subject to change and that attendees should consult the host country's embassy for details. Without this limitation, attendees might miss changes to the immigration laws of the host nation. And because each country may have different admission requirements for nationals of different nations, it is very difficult for a sponsor to provide accurate information for every prospective attendee.
Finally, potential attendees often request from the meeting sponsor a “letter of introduction” directed to the host country, stating that the visitor will be attending the meeting and requesting entry to the country. Unfortunately, letters of introduction have become suspect in these days of international terrorism threats, and an organization issuing the letter risks liability if the recipient enters the host nation and commits a criminal act. To avoid this, a sponsor should not issue letters of introduction, or should limit them to known persons or those who can prove their intention to attend the meeting.
Joshua L. Grimes, Esq. is an attorney based in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia with a nationwide hospitality practice. His clients include meeting planners, corporations, associations, hotels, convention/conference facilities, and other industry suppliers. He can be reached at GrimesJ@GrimesLaw.org or (202) 327-5470. His Web site is www.GrimesLaw.org.