Fear of customs hassles may be supplanting fear of flying for many attendees and exhibitors at international events held in the U.S. In the security-obsessed post — September 11 climate, incoming travelers and shipments — especially those from non-European countries — are expected to encounter greater scrutiny.
“When you get into the emerging economies, it gets dicey,” says Steven Hacker, president of the International Association for Exhibition Management in Dallas. “When you add the issue of terrorism to the mix, it gets even dicier,” He says the Immigration and Naturalization Service in recent years started cracking down on abuses by visa holders who enter the U.S. but fail to return home on time, if ever. Those efforts have taken on added weight since the news that several of the September 11 suicide bombers had overstayed their visas, an embarrassment that the government wants to avoid repeating.
As a result, meeting planners with heavy international audiences will undoubtedly get more requests for help from overseas attendees and exhibitors. That help may take a variety of forms.
By Invitation Only
Typically, visitors seeking a visa to enter the U.S. need proof of a legitimate reason for being there, such as a letter of invitation. Some consulates require an original letter, and often the visa applicant may wait until late in the game to request it, so meeting organizers should be prepared to act quickly.
That doesn't mean anyone who requests it should get a letter. “You really need to know who you are inviting,” says Stephen Schuldenfrei, president of Framingham, Mass.-based Exposition Operations Society. “You need to make sure they're qualified and coming in for a real reason.” And, he adds, 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.
The Radiological Society of North America's annual scientific assembly, like many, attracts much interest from outside the U.S. For those who run into visa snafus, the society routinely retains the services of a consultant who intervenes with local consulates. (See contact information, next page.)
Steve Drew, assistant executive director of the scientific assembly and informatics, didn't notice an inordinate number of attendees seeking the consultant's help for the November 2001 meeting, but several exhibitors reportedly did have trouble entering the U.S.
But their booths and materials made it, thanks to a customs agency that helps them navigate shipping rules. Douglas Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in Chicago, explains that international trade fair bonds streamline shipping of materials for exhibits and help exhibitors skirt inspections at points of entry. So far, he and Schuldenfrei say, getting shipments to the U.S. hasn't been a problem.
The shipping process is likely to grow thornier, though. The Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines are increasing security measures that are likely to affect international cargo shipments, according to Richard McCrady Sr., president of Minneapolis-based CF AirFreight. He expects fewer routes, more elaborate security steps, additional requirements such as X-rays and decompression of packages, and other measures that will increase shipping times and demands on the shipper.
“Customers will have to provide more detail about their products when shipping freight,” McCrady says. The new procedures will likely increase security and insurance surcharges.
International exhibitions with a substantial international component should consider designating staff members or customs experts to help smooth the way for companies. “All exhibitors' needs are different,” Hacker explains. “If you want to grow internationally, you'd better have some people here to assist people coming in with information well in advance.”