Even the most detail-obsessed planner can be hit with unexpected challenges while on site at meetings outside the United States. “It's the little things that are going to get you,” said Laurie Fitzgerald, meetings manager, sales support, Allstate Insurance in Northbrook, Ill., at a seminar she led at the Professional Convention Management Association annual meeting in January.

Fitzgerald, who also spoke about the on-site needs of international meetings at the Beyond Borders Conference held at The Motivation Show in September, recommends that planners take a mental walk-through of their on-site daily routines, no matter how small — and figure out how to accomplish things, especially if staff don't speak English. “Review everything with your convention services person,” she stresses. “Develop backup plans. If you can, take care of this during a site visit.”

We asked Fitzgerald to elaborate on some of the important on-site details that will help to ward off headaches. Here are some suggestions.

Working with Hotels, Centers, and Other Suppliers

  • Ask how event orders are handled at the site. Hotels outside the United States often have slightly different ways of doing event orders. Deferring to their methods and format will prevent headaches. “When we did our usual event orders of one page per event, per day for overseas meetings, we had a lot more paperwork for the hotel to translate than if we had followed their custom of doing one event order per week,” notes Fitzgerald. “There are fewer chances of goofs if you do what the hotel is most familiar with.”

  • Find out what language the on-site staff speaks. Just because your hotel sales contact or convention services representative speaks English, you shouldn't assume that other hotel and convention center staff you'll be working with are also multilingual. Ask about your day-to-day contacts, such as the banquet staff at the hotel or the exhibit staff at the convention center. “Be specific,” advises Fitzgerald. “Ask: Whom am I going to be dealing with and do they speak English? If not, who can translate? Whom can I go to for help?”

    Fitzgerald learned this lesson when she needed to adjust the floor plan of her exhibition booth at a French convention center. The exhibit construction man didn't speak English and she didn't speak French. Eventually she explained her predicament in Spanish to the center's security guard, and he translated to French for the construction man. Luckily, the ad hoc solution worked, but “it's better to identify that extra layer of work ahead of time,” says Fitzgerald.

  • Hire multilingual temps. If you are hiring temporary help, make sure that they speak the local language and also the language that is spoken by the majority of your attendees. If you have a lot of German-speaking attendees, for example, make sure the temp speaks the local language, German, and English. This holds true for the local temp staff at both the hotel and convention center. And even though they are multilingual, take nothing for granted. Clearly explain to them how they will be compensated, for example. Fitzgerald notes that it really pays to bond with your hotel's convention services representative, because with his or her help you may not have to pay a local temp to work the registration desk.

  • Be aware that meeting rooms and guest rooms may be smaller and lack amenities such as air conditioning. Particularly in Europe, ask about air conditioning if you're going to bring a group there during warm weather. As well, many times hotels outside the United States are not purpose-built for meetings and may lack adequate breakout space. If you are told that a property can accommodate 500 people for a meeting, for example, that could mean it has one big banquet room large enough for your group, but no other meeting space.

  • Don't expect a 24-hour hold on meeting space without paying for it. Most hotels outside the United States don't automatically block function space for 24-hour periods, even if you have daily meetings there — they block only for the time you are actually using the space. So if you don't pay attention, you may discover that the hotel has booked another function after your session that requires you to dismantle and re-assemble your setup.

  • Do expect to pay more for hotel and convention center meeting space, including labor, in many international locations. Fitzgerald once had to pay triple time to set up an exhibition in the Netherlands on the weekend. Work with your facility and suppliers to try to coordinate setup on the weekdays — it will save extra labor costs and help you get a head start on set up.

  • Ask your bureau or hotel contact about gratuities. Cash gratuities are expected in the United States, but when Fitzgerald tried to give a gratuity in France, it was perceived as a bribe. In some cultures, a gift is more appropriate.

  • Use your hotel's national sales office and the local convention and visitors bureau or tourism board. They are great resources for just about everything you need to know about the city you're meeting in. A local destination management company and/or professional conference organizer can also be helpful, but whether or not you need them depends on the type of meeting and the location. Most incentive programs outside the United States will benefit from a DMC, but they may not be necessary for other types of meetings, says Fitzgerald. She adds that in Europe, unless you have a complicated program, you may not need a PCO, either. But you really need to look at the cultural nuances of your destination, Fitzgerald stresses. A PCO/DMC is more necessary in Asia than in Europe, for example, because of the language and cultural differences.

  • Adjust your crisis management plan to the cultural differences and language barriers of the location. Ask your hotel contact if a crisis will be taken care of in a way that your attendees will understand. In what language will announcements be made? Does a fire alarm go off and will it be a familiar sound? Is the hotel required to print a fire exit plan on back of your door like hotels do in the United States?

  • Ask about access for attendees with disabilities. Most other countries don't have to meet requirements similar to those of the Americans with Disabilities Act that attendees expect. You need to ask hotels and other facilities about their architectural limitations so that you can arrange access for attendees with disabilities.

  • Develop a strategy to settle local bills before leaving the country. It will simplify your post-meeting accounting to bring home receipts instead of bills. One suggestion is to ask the hotel for an unusually large payout (a cash advance in local currency that is posted against your master bill, typically used for registration change, that you can use to settle up with local vendors). “Paying in one exchange rate makes it very easy to wrap up the meeting,” says Fitzgerald. “When you get home, there's only the master bill to deal with.”

AV, Supplies, Gifts, Shipping

  • Shop locally for awards, gifts, and business services to save shipping headaches. If your awards or giveaways will go to U.S.-based attendees, giving them gift certificates or mailing the awards to them after the conference will save you on customs taxes and shipping challenges. Buying something locally is also nice if your recipient is local or will not have to pass through customs when returning home. The same goes for business services. For example, you can e-mail the content of handout materials to the local Kinko's or equivalent to print there. “But be conscious of what you are writing because they will not always understand it,” says Fitzgerald. “Give brief, straightforward instructions, and don't use clichés.” In addition, ask for a sample before printing to be sure it is what you were expecting.

  • Order local paper stock for printing badges on site. The standard paper size for printers in Europe and most other destinations outside the United States is A-4, which is a bit narrower and longer than the 8.5 inches by 11 inches that is standard here. This also goes for folders, binders (4-hole punch or more), and other materials. It is always good to pick up samples during a site visit or have the hotel, convention center, or business center send you samples.

  • Bring a power converter, not just an adapter. An adapter has plug prongs that fit into the wall, while a converter converts the electricity. You may need both. Be sure to check out the configuration that works in your meeting destination. If you are doing a site visit, it's a good idea to purchase converters and adapters then.

  • Ask your cellphone provider about a special card you can insert that enables you to use the phone outside of the United States. International phone cards are also handy. Be sure you know how to dial back home from the country you are in, especially in the event of an emergency.

  • Find a customs broker by working backward from the meeting site. Inevitably, there will be some supplies that need to be shipped to the meeting and then shipped home again. Shipping is not a one-way deal. Don't assume that the customs broker who ships from the United States will be able to ship back home.

Find out who ships from the destination hotel or convention center back home and then ask whom that company works with in United States, so you tie them both together. For example, when Fitzgerald was planning a meeting at the convention center in Nice, France, she contacted their in-house shipping broker. “They told me whom they had a reciprocal agreement with in the United States, and then we had the path,” she says.

Laurie Fitzgerald, meeting manager, Allstate Financial, Northbrook, Ill., has more than 21 years of hospitality and meeting planning experience, primarily in international association conference planning. Before holding her current position, she worked for more than 14 years at SmithBucklins Corp. She has planned meetings in locations throughout Europe, including Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, as well as in Australia.