ABOUT 1,000 OVERSEAS physicians opted out of last fall's American Society for Microbiology meeting in San Diego. Normally, approximately 55 percent of those who register for the conference arrive from outside the U.S., but last September only about 47 percent of the 13,000 attendees did. Fear of flying to the U.S.? Nancy Elder, director of meetings and industry relations for the Washington, D.C.-based ASM, says she saw no evidence of that. Instead, she blames visa snafus for the drop-off in attendance.

“There are additional requirements and restrictions, and people are running into time issues. The sheer time needed to obtain a visa is precluding them from coming to the U.S,” Elder says.

As a result, Elder and other conference managers have had to rethink how they promote their conferences and exhibitions outside the U.S. Many have had to log more hours helping prospective delegates navigate an increasingly complex and protracted application process for visas. And they're dealing with a still-stumbling global economy, a recent war, and underlying worries of another round of terrorism.

But the news is not all bad: The Radiological Society of North America saw the crowds bounce back at last November's annual conference, when about a third of the 23,000 conferees came from outside the U.S. And Scherago International, based in New York, which manages expositions for a variety of medical associations, says international attendance at several events remained stable or grew from 2001 to 2002. “There was an impact, but from 2001 to 2002 it was eminently manageable,” says Anthony Maiorino, exposition manager.

Harsher Scrutiny

Still, getting here from many parts of the world has become a hassle. The visa bottleneck clogged even more immediately after September 11, and most observers expect the situation to worsen before it eases. It's true that the U.S. still allows citizens of 27 countries in the visa waiver program to enter temporarily without a visa. But visitors from most parts of the world must apply to visit and submit to harsher scrutiny than in the past. They must also file documents proving their employment status, reason for travel, and financial status.

Once, the paperwork was largely a formality unless the visitor was an illegal immigration risk. Today, however, “visa applications undergo much more scrutiny by multiple agencies, and this is increasing the wait time for many travelers and may be deterring travel to the U.S.,” says Edward M. Fluhr, manager of legislative affairs for the Travel Industry Association of America. Today, those multiple agencies may include the Central Intelligence Agency as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

TIA anticipates the process will only get more arduous. “[The Department of] State is supposed to interview most, if not all applicants, but has often waived this requirement. That is changing and there will be many more applicant interviews soon,” Fluhr says. If so, even more visa seekers will need to apply in person at a U.S. consulate rather than through the mail or a third-party agency.

Effective Invitations

Another aspect of the application process, the letter of introduction, needed as evidence that the visitor has a legitimate business reason for entering the U.S., has assumed greater importance as visa applications increasingly go under the microscope.

Susan J. Potton, marketing director of conference services for MediTech Media, Princeton, N.J., has organized a number of international medical conferences. She offers the following tips on producing an effective introduction or invitation letter:

  • Print the invitation on the official letterhead of the organization or conference, and have the conference chairperson sign it.

  • Include the following details: title of event; dates, including pre- and post-meeting activities; meeting location; brief synopsis of the meeting program; organizing committee members.

  • When the delegate is an invited speaker or presenter, mention that fact.

To lend the application an air of legitimacy, Cheriff Moujabber, president of Creative Expos and Conferences, based in Walpole, Mass., and a consultant who helps large events attract international attendees, recommends subtle phrases — such as “we welcome you again to the U.S.” — that indicate the person regularly attends the event. “When the consular section reads that letter, they have a better feeling that this [applicant] is not an unknown quantity,” Moujabber explains.

A number of large event organizers have starting posting a form letter as part of their online registration materials. ‘Last year, we posted the invitation letter on our Web site,” says Pam Kaminsky, senior manager of registrant services at the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago. “That eliminated a lot of paperwork, and we mailed out only a couple of hundred letters [to people who didn't have Internet access]. In the past, we would send out close to 1,000 registration brochures and letters overseas.”

Planners as Gatekeepers

But other event planners worry about the security ramifications of sending an invitation later to an unknown person.

“I don't know if the FBI is going to knock on my door and ask whether so-and-so attended my convention,” says Madelaine Morgan, CMP, director of meetings and convention for the Society of American Foresters, Bethesda, Md. Since September 11, a number of event managers have fielded requests from the FBI.

Another complication is that planners must produce letters of invitation for visa applicants before ascertaining if they'll be able to attend the meeting. “It's a real catch-22,” Morgan says. “They're not going to register without having a visa, and I don't want to do the work without them having a visa.” She says many prospective attendees wait until just before the convention and then insist that their embassy needs an original letter of invitation because electronic signatures are unacceptable. “Then they want you to overnight things, and not only is that work, that's money, and these people haven't even registered.”

Start Early

To counter that problem, meeting planners are taking proactive steps to encourage attendees to start the visa application process early. Barbara Hollis, member services manager for the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, Rockville, Md., says she lost about 18 percent of her international audience during last May's annual meeting. Hollis figures the numbers declined because ARVO members tend to wait until the last minute to register, and many of them underestimated the amount of time it would take to obtain a visa. This year, she sent several e-mail blasts to members reminding them not to wait to apply. Nevertheless, a month before this year's conference she had received several cancellations from researchers whose visa applications were rejected.

ASM's Elder, who fields registrations from some 95 countries, says she plans to provide more information on the visa process in the registration materials. “We also will consider moving up our abstract acceptance deadlines so we can provide a little more time for people to obtain visas,” she says.

When attendance at last fall's Society of Exploration Geophysicists annual meeting slipped, Jim Lawnick decided to be more explicit and proactive about explaining the more arduous visa requirements to members, 45 percent of whom are based outside of the U.S.

“We literally started in December putting things on our Web site to inform our members” about what they needed to attend the October event, says Lawnick, director of the meetings and marketing group for the Tulsa, Okla., association. The Web site also includes a request for an invitation letter and a number of helpful links that provide more information about the visa process.

Help on the Web

The state department is taking small steps to make the visa process clear. A new Web site, www.unitedstatesvisas.gov, includes step-by-step instructions on the process that emphasizes three types of temporary visas: business, education, and tourist.