Fear of customs hassles could replace fear of flying for many attendees and exhibitors at international events held in the United States. In the security-obsessed, post-September 11 climate, incoming attendees and shipments face greater scrutiny than ever. As a result, planners with heavy international audiences could get more requests for help.

While visitors from western Europe still have little trouble entering the United States, “it gets dicey when you get into the emerging economies,” reports Steven Hacker, president, International Association for Exhibition Management, Dallas. “When you add the issue of terrorism to the mix, it gets even dicier.”

He says the Immigration and Naturalization Service started cracking down in recent years on visa holders who enter the states but fail to return home on time (if ever). Based on INS records, the government has targeted countries including Pakistan, the Philippines, China, India, and certain African nations. Several of the September 11 suicide bombers had overstayed their visas.

By Invitation Only

Typically, visitors seeking a visa need to prove that they have a legitimate reason for entering the United States. “Almost invariably they need some kind of letter of invitation,” says Stephen Schuldenfrei, president of Framingham, Mass.-based EOS (Exhibition Operations Society) and an operations expert. Some consulates require an original letter, and applicants often wait until the last minute to request it, so meeting organizers should be prepared to act quickly.

That does not mean that anyone who requests one should get a letter. “You really need to know who you are inviting, and to make sure they're qualified and coming in for a real reason,” says Schuldenfrei. And if anyone who requested a letter of invitation for a visa application doesn't arrive for the event, a show manager should consider reporting that individual to the authorities, he adds.

Consulate Consultant

The Radiological Society of North America's annual scientific assembly is one example of a meeting that has been affected by more stringent security. About a quarter of the professionals who attend the Chicago event each November come from overseas. For those who run into visa problems, the society hires a consultant to intervene with local consulates.

Steve Drew, assistant executive director, did not notice an inordinate number of attendees seeking the consultant's help for the November 2001 meeting, but several exhibitors reported trouble entering the country. The organization also hired a customs agency to navigate shipping rules and to see that exhibits and materials made it in.

“From what we've seen, there is more trouble with people than there is with materials,” observes Douglas Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in Chicago. He explains that international trade fair bonds streamline the shipping of materials for exhibits and help exhibitors to skirt inspections at points of entry. So far, he says, getting shipments to the United States hasn't posed a problem.

Shipping News

The shipping process is likely to grow thornier, though. The Federal Aviation Administration and airlines are increasing security measures, which are likely to affect international cargo shipments, according to Richard McCrady Sr., president of Minneapolis-based CF AirFreight. McCrady expects to see fewer routes, more elaborate security steps, additional security requirements such as X-rays and decompression of packages, and other measures that will increase shipping times as well as demands on the shipper.

“Customers will have to provide more detail about their products when shipping freight,” McCrady says. He predicts that the new procedures are also likely to increase security and insurance surcharges.

Experienced shippers also think that meetings and events with a substantial international component should consider designating staff members or customs experts to help smooth the way for attendees. “All exhibitors' needs are different,” explains Hacker. “If a company wants to grow internationally, it had better have some people here to assist people coming in with information well in advance.”

Megan Rowe is a business writer based in Cleveland. She is a frequent contributor to CMI.


Roger A. Abl-zeid
consultant on consulate issues
(703) 244-0049

U.S. Department of State
visa services
(202) 663-1225

U.S. Customs Agency
import/export rules
(202) 927-1000