It’s a great adventure out there, every time you take a meeting to a new international destination,” says Rhonda Williams, senior meetings manager, Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology in Washington, D.C. “We try to immerse ourselves in the culture, and go with the flow.”
As long as you’ve got essentially the same attitude, and wouldn’t rather substitute a word like “hassle” for the word “adventure,” then planning, booking, and executing your nextmeeting is probably going to go just fine!
But you will face challenges along the way. So we’ve collected strategies from veterans of global programs that can help you make great venue choices, be understood by vendors, find local partners, and reduce your stress level.
Go if You Can, Learn if You Can’t
First up is research. Straight to the Internet? For the big picture, yes, especially from the U.S. State Department Web site. There you can read the most recent travel warnings and advisories, extensive advice for traveling safely, plus comprehensive and up-to-date information on every country in the world, from its politics, to its history, to its current relations with the United States.
“Checking on a destination’s financial and political situation is a very hot topic right now, when globally things can change daily, even hourly,” says Diane Williams, director, meetings and events, International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. “Know what the U.S. State Department is saying with regard to travel warnings. In today’s society, attendees are getting up-to-the-minute news from a variety of sources, and they may wonder why you’re planning to take them to a country where they don’t feel safe. You will have to address those concerns and make a case why the destination is a good fit for your group.”
One way to make a convincing case is to unplug and take off. “It’s invaluable to be on the ground to see how the infrastructure actually works,” says Williams. “You need to know if your attendees are safe taking taxis from the airport, or walking in the city. What is the technology infrastructure? I strongly recommend, if you go outside the U.S., that you have an advance team that can go and experience the destination.
“As much as we love Google and the Internet, there is nothing like going there, so when asked you can draw on your experiences and give accurate information to attendees, and share how you see it from a risk assessment perspective.”
Sandy Monkemeyer, vice president and corporate travel director, Captive Resources LLC, agrees that local knowledge is critical—but she can’t always get it firsthand. “It is important to me to have local folks on the ground,” she says. “If we have the time and manpower, doing a site inspection is fantastic, and certainly helps in the planning and comfort level of a program. But often I need to trust our hotel and. My preference is to use a DMC that is local and physically has an office in that city. I find they have more clout and personal contacts, which come in handy if a last-minute favor has to be pulled.
“We work closely with our DMC, hotel sales manager, and conference services contacts to steer us in the right direction. If the DMC recommends particular restaurants, we’ll also do a little research on our own. Some sites with ‘real-world opinions’ are ChowHound, TripAdvisor, and the Michelin guide. We review these personal opinions with skeptical eyes, but they often help to gauge a general feel of a place.” Of less use, Monkemeyer believes, are the official Web sites of the venues. “We often take these with a grain of salt. A personal referral outweighs any advertising or awards you can show me.”
Communicating—in Words and Pictures
When you’re working in different time zones, different languages, different business hours, and, often, with different perceptions of what deadlines mean, communication emerges as the biggest hurdle to overcome with international meetings.
“The best advice is to be prepared,” says Phelps Hope, CMP, vice president, meetings and expositions, Kellen Meetings. “Really expand upon the needs of your meeting on paper, and especially put down your hot buttons and the things you rely on for a successful program.” This starts a process, Hope explains, of continual clarification back and forth until you and your international vendor are confident the details are clear to both sides. “I find that’s really helped with the language barriers. They become a partner in communicating.”
Another way to clarify your words? Use pictures. Make a sketch, scan it, and send it off, says Rhonda Williams at ARVO, who often does just that in order to explain what she means by “poster boards,” which the scientists at her meetings require. She also has sent photos of room setups, just to be sure there are no misinterpretations—even English to English, which can happen.
Putting things in writing and using pictures are important strategies, but equally important is the relationship you develop with your hotelier and convention services manager—and that should start with a phone call, says Williams. “Use the phone, even if you have to do it at midnight,” she says. “Making that personal connection, so they feel that you are truly interested in them and who they are, is very important in many countries.”
What’s also important outside the U.S. is the distinction between work and personal time. “The European lifestyle is different,” says a pharma company planner. “On one hand, they’re among the hardest-working people I’ve ever met. On the other hand, they don’t work at the pace we do in the U.S. In the U.S. people have no qualms about saying, ‘I need that tomorrow.’ But in Europe, they might say, ‘I’ll get that to you in a week.’”
“The first shock for planners doing an international meeting is when they get the contract,” says Jim Goldberg, principal, Goldberg & Associates. And often that’s because the contract is so short. “All the clauses you are used to aren’t there. The good news is that U.S. hotel brands are in expansion mode when it comes to overseas locations, and they are trying to incorporate U.S. norms and clauses into foreign.”
It’s a slow transition, however, because of the existing local business culture, the fact that even if a hotel flies a U.S. brand flag it may still be managed by a local company, and, finally, most of the hotel’s meeting business may not be from the U.S., so there is not the urgency to use U.S.-oriented contracting language.
clauses, which are often a sticking point for U.S. meetings, are generally absent from international contracts. “You need to develop a rapport and a dialogue with the salesperson, and ask, ‘What happens if we don’t fill 100 rooms?’ Most often the answer will be, ‘No problem.’”
In part, Hope points out, that’s because the venue probably has a big chunk of your money already. One of the other shocking differences to U.S. planners doing their first international meeting is the requirement to pay most of the meeting costs up front. Negotiate to pay 10 percent to 20 percent of the cost after the meeting, just to retain some leverage should you need it.
As for, Goldberg again suggests starting with asking your salesperson if you can get out of your contract if there are demonstrations in the streets, for example. “You may have to craft a force majeure clause that is different,” he says. “In some countries it’s more about good faith. Contracts are typically so short you may have to create your own addendum, but rather than legal terms, it will mainly include business terms”—that is, things like meeting room setup.
And speaking of meeting rooms, they are not complimentary outside the U.S., even when you have a food-and-beverage function. “Meeting room rental for venues is not connected to the property’s other revenue lines, so getting it comped is a rarity,” says Rhonda Williams. In fact, one planner found that the meeting room rental charge for a hotel in Hong Kong increased during evening hours, because the hotel was giving up the chance to book a local social event.
Comp sleeping rooms are not the norm, either, so if you expect it, be sure to ask. But pick your battles, Hope says. “Do you need an Americans with Disabilities Act clause in France? No. Look at the pertinent pieces of pertinent clauses only. Find out what is the intent and what can be reworded if necessary, and then negotiate. Don’t try to force things.”
That’s a good piece of overall advice for traveling and doing business internationally. “Remember that even if you’re well on your way to bona fide expertise in American business etiquette, practices that pass as polite in San Francisco may be deemed downright rude in Seville,” says Sue Fox, founder of Etiquette Survival, a company providing etiquette-related educational materials and training to business professionals and companies. “You are not only a company representative when you travel abroad, but a representative of your home country as well. It’s critical to be respectful of other customs and cultures. To achieve a global perspective, try to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Blending in and conforming to social norms is often a form of flattery.”
Find Local Experts
Here are resources for finding DMCs and PCOs whose local knowledge can make your meeting great. Call your planning peers, too: Their experience is worth a lot of Web searching!
Note: Fantastic free resources are national tourist offices and convention and visitors bureaus. Call them early so you know the scope of services they can provide.
Global Events Partners
Hosts Global Alliance Kuoni Destination Management
The Luxury Partnership
Association of Destination Management Executives International
International Association of Professional Congress Organizers