In France, breakfast usually consists of cold meats, cheese, and bread, but the California-based staff of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine didn't touch a bite when the group's annual meeting was held there in 1995.
The fact that all their breakfast was uneaten and wasted every day dismayed ISMRM director of meetings Cordie Miller and her staff, so Miller approached the convention center caterer, Henri, and explained how wonderful it would be to get some American breakfast food --breakfast meat, like sausages, and maybe some hash brown potatoes. The next morning Henri beamed as he displayed the cold barbecued chicken and potato salad on the breakfast table.
"Poor Henri thought he had done the most fabulous thing for getting us breakfast meat and potatoes," Miller recalls. The anecdote illustrates a central challenge of planning international meetings--so much can get lost in translation. "It's so easy to forget that the way we communicate something is the way they [foreign vendors and suppliers] will understand it," Miller says. When planning international meetings, you can't be too literal.
Experience Counts Miller ought to know. She has been planningfor the past 10 years and for the past five, her work with ISMRM has taken her to Vancouver, B.C.; Nice, France; and Sydney, Australia. She is wrapping up negotiations with Glasgow, Scotland, for 2001 and Toronto for 2003 and will begin her work for ISMRM's annual meeting in Kyoto, Japan, in 2004. Overseas destinations are built into the society's annual meeting rotation, since 37 percent of ISMRM's 5,600 members are based outside the U.S., Miller's group is among a growing number of associations that are taking their events beyond U.S. borders, thanks to the economy.
Behind the scenes, Miller is starting her second year on the International Relations Committee of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA). Last year, she facilitated a roundtable for international meeting planners.
"Many meeting planners are going overseas and they want someone to go to who can help them get started," Miller says. "I'm getting ready to plan a meeting in Japan. I've never organized a meeting there before so I'm also looking for peers who have been there."
Cost/Benefit Considerations There are a variety of reasons for holding a meeting outside of the U.S., notes Miller. Among the more intangible benefits:
* Developing new markets for domestic members
* Increasing the association's revenue with potential new profit centers
* Exchanging new ideas and expertise on a global level
* Helping domestic membership and staff create a cross-cultural workplace and develop an "international mind-set"
* Educating the association'sleadership and membership on global trends and issues
"Much of the technology in our association is further along in other countries," Miller explains. "Some of the largest exhibitors are headquartered in Europe and we are always watching trends in our field because we never know how it's going to impact our country or our members." Germany is one example, Miller says. That country is considering imposing stricter guidelines regarding how long a person can be exposed to electromagnetic fields.
"We're watching this very closely," she says, "especially for our corporate members in Germany. Being globally aware is very, very important."
Global events are becoming more important, but many association planners find that the costs of running an event outside the U.S. can be twice as high. Overseas convention center costs, in particular, can be quite an eye-opener. For example, in 1998 when ISMRM held its sixth Scientific Meeting and Exhibition in Sydney, Miller found the price of convention center space in Australia to be $200,000 while the going rate for the same space in Philadelphia was $90,000. When Miller worked on site determination for ISMRM's 2004 annual meeting, Japan, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Germany were on her list. Their center costs were all comparable, but they were all in the six-figure range as well, she says.
Planners in the U.S. often are able to leverage their food and beverage expenditures and room block, or even their event's economic impact in a city, to negotiate "free" services, amenities, or meeting room rental rates. A different reality exists overseas, where meeting space is in high demand because hotels and convention centers typically have much less of it than their American counterparts.
"Here in the U.S., you may get a meeting room thrown in for free, but rarely at international centers.. . . It's all supply and demand."
Doing Business Their Way There's no question in Miller's mind that negotiating internationalranks as the most daunting challenge. International contracts can be as long as their domestic counterpart. But Miller says the difference is the language and the laws.
"The contracts are very tough," Miller says, "but the real difficulty is that I am coming at it with an American perspective. With the Glasgow, it had wording to the effect that they reserved the right to evict people from their convention center. As you can imagine, we wanted some kind of clarification on that."
Miller explains that the Glasgow convention center contract had the word "reasonable" to describe a guest's behavior relative to evicting someone from the facility. She learned that the word "reasonable" to the Scots and their court system is a very strong word.
"The key is that you have to ask if you don't understand something," she says. "It leads back to the same old problem of assuming. Once you assume, well, you know . . . "
On several occasions during negotiations, Miller has suggested certain wording be included. "In Sydney, the center did not have any provisions for construction that was ongoing and the building was due to finish 10 days before our move-in," she says. "I had to convince them to put something in the wording that would protect us."
Miller also finds that foreign convention and meeting facilities are reluctant to understand the "acts of God" concept, which is language commonly found in U.S. convention center and facility contracts. "Their idea is if the building is still standing, you're paying for it."
Point People In her foreign business dealings, Miller says she's learning that very often, U.S. meeting planners generally find a local point person to facilitate the preparations for their overseas meeting. Since a fairly large percentage of ISMRM's members are located outside the U.S., it was traditional for a foreign doctor or other member to be that point person.
But the world is shrinking and traditions are chaning, Miller says, as American meeting planners are getting savvier about doing international work themselves. She finds that foreign businesspeople are sometimes not accustomed to dealing directly with an American planner, and some fear that American planners will bring their own suppliers and shun the locals, she says.
Miller finds herself reassuring overseas associates: "I'll say I may be based in the U.S., but that doesn't mean I'm not going to use local suppliers. We travel with an exhibition manager and I may bring an AV coordinator, but not a whole entourage. They [international facility staff] are still getting comfortable doing business directly with me."
Site visits take on a much greater importance when considering an international meeting venue, Miller says, but again, there are subtle cultural differences she's learned to pay attention to. "Foreign businesspeople don't have the sense of urgency we Americans have when it comes to doing business, and they are much more comfortable with face-to-face dealings than doing business on the phone."
How to Say 'Thank You' Sydney--so far--has been Miller's favorite foreign destination. ISMRM was there for its annual meeting in 1998 and Miller found nothing but open arms from her hosts.
"The level of assistance and appreciation from the staffs at the convention center and the hotels was incredible," she says. "They all were extremely professional and friendly. If I could take the center's staff and travel with them from center to center, that would be so great." To have that level of service in a country where tipping is not the norm was really surprising, she says.
"We wanted to do something to thank them, so we got permission from the convention center officials and invited the center staff out for a beer. That gesture meant so much more to them than an envelope of cash," she says. "It was the cheapest form of thanks I could have done, but I actually got to shake their hands."
These are the differences that make Miller wish more associations would go overseas and not be fearful of the costs or cultural gaps or headaches.
"Overseas events are daunting," she admits, "but I love it and the rewards are great. It's all about taking time to educate yourself, letting go of the ego, and using common sense."
On the Rise Edward Potter, international activities director for the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), notes that international meetings are on the rise--11 percent over the past six years. "It's the global economy that's forcing associations to go international," Potter says, along with other factors like the Internet and the "leaps-and-bounds" growth of associations.
ASAE continually monitors the international scene, and planners can put their fingers on the pulse by going to ASAE's Web site at www.asae.org and clicking on the international section. International news, discussion forums through a listserv, peer networking and resource directory, a host of publications, and ASAE International Section events are featured at the site.
International Convention Center News Here's just a small sample of new and expanded convention centers outside the U.S.
Australia * Adelaide Convention Centre An $85 million expansion is targeted for completion in September 2001.
* Exhibit Space: Currently 32,000 sq. ft.; expansion will double this area.
* Meeting Space: Currently 35,000 sq. ft.; will double.
* Contact: In North America, Boyd Christensen
* Phone: (651) 228-1738
* Fax: (651) 228-1754
Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre * A $60 million extension called Convention Centre South opened in October 1999.
* Exhibit Space: 296,000 sq. ft. in six halls
* Meeting Space: 30 meeting rooms for up to 600, and two banquet halls for up to 1,600
* Contact: In North America, Elizabeth Clyde
* Phone: (202) 457-9262
* Fax: (202) 331-0824
France Paris Conference Center * Expansion completed September 1999, doubling the size of the center and creating the largest conference center in Europe with 2,000 hotel rooms on site.
* Exhibit Space: Doubled to 203,000 sq. ft.
* Meeting Space: Now includes 4 amphitheaters, 22 meeting rooms, and 70 business offices.
* Phone: 33 (0) 1 4068 2551
* Fax: 33 (0) 1 4068 2740
Mexico * Moon Palace,Cancun A new 65,000-sq.-ft. exhibit hall is scheduled for completion in June 2000.
* Exhibit Space: Currently 38,000 sq. ft.; expansion will triple that amount.
* Meeting Space: Current space is 50,000 sq. ft.
* Phone: (800) 635-1836
* Fax: (305) 375-9508
Hong Kong * Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre
* A phase II expansion in 1997 doubled the center's size.
* Exhibit Space: 690,000 sq. ft.in 5 halls
* Meeting Space: 52 rooms with 64,600 sq. ft., two foyers, and 7 restaurants,
* Phone: (852) 2582 7837
* Fax: (852) 2582 7021
Monaco * Grimaldi Forum
* New facility to open June 2000 with 350,000 total sq. ft. of function space
* Exhibit Space: 110,000 sq. ft., including 25,000-sq.-ft., pillar-free ballroom
* Meeting Space: 25 rooms, accommodating up to 2,500
* Phone: 377 99 99 2100
* Fax: 377 99 99 2101
Puerto Rico * Puerto Rico Convention Center
* A new facility on the waterfront with completion scheduled for
* the fall of 2002; will include a
* 40,000-sq.-ft. ballroom.
* Exhibit Space: 150,000 sq. ft.
* Meeting Space: 80,000 sq. ft.
* Phone: (202) 457-9262
* Fax: (202) 331-0824
Singapore * Singapore Expo
* New facility opened March 1999. Plans are under way for 430,600 sq. ft. to be added.
* Exhibit Space: 650,000 sq. ft. in six, pillar-free, connected halls, with an additional 270,000 sq. ft. of outdoor exhibit space and six convention halls that seat 200 each
* North American Contact: Brian Sullivan
* Phone: (203) 845-9117
* Fax: (203) 845-9183
South Africa * Durban International Convention Centre
* By taking over the management of the adjacent Durban Exhibition Centre this year, the facility has added 103,000 sq. ft.
* Exhibit Space: Total of 179,000 sq. ft.
* Meeting Space: All space can be converted into customized meeting rooms.
* Phone: 27 31 360 1353
* Fax: 27 31 360 1005