Ease the Way

EDUCATING INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE attendees about U.S. immigration procedures is critical to ensuring that they reach their conferences with as few glitches as possible. Dave Fellers, executive director of the Radiological Society of North America, based in Oak Brook, Ill., spoke on the subject at the recent Professional Convention Management Association Industry Issues Forum on “Visas, Customs, and Customer Service: Making Life Easier for International Meeting Attendees and Exhibitors.”

The RSNA holds one of the country's largest medical meetings each year in Chicago. Sixty thousand delegates attended in 2004, including 26,000 healthcare professionals, one-third of whom were international attendees.

Fellers said that once RSNA starts marketing its upcoming conference, it does everything it can to educate its prospective international attendees, from the process they'll need to follow to get a visa, if one is needed, to what they can expect concerning security procedures once they enter the United States.

For example, when it came to applying for visas, RSNA went “to the extreme to make sure they [international attendees] were advised, educated, and warned on what to expect,” Fellers said.

A post-conference survey established that for the most part international attendees were satisfied with their travel experience, but there was room for improvement. One area that caused a lot of grousing was security procedure at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, with 21 percent of international attendees complaining about it. Fellers said that only 7 percent complained about unfriendly or unhelpful service. Instead, more than 60 percent noted the excessive amount of time it took to get through security. “It wasn't the people, it was the process,” Fellers said. If foreign attendees are educated about the security procedures — and the possible inconvenience they'll be put through — they'll expect it, accept it, and not allow it diminish the travel experience, Fellers said.

Fellers was joined on the Industry Issues Forum panel by John Roberson, Commissioner of Aviation for the City of Chicago; Christopher Bowers, CEO, Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau; and Robert L. Harris, deputy chief, Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.