A hotel vending machine in Frankfurt that spits out any major newspaper in the world with the touch of a screen is a nice perk for a business traveler. It’s also the kind of thing that helps to accommodate today’s growing number of multicultural meetings, said Paul Flackett, managing director of IMEX, during a webinar sponsored by Meeting Professionals International on September 24. More than 100 people dialed in and logged on to the event, entitled "It’s All About Business: Practical Strategies for Planning, Implementing, and Servicing Multicultural Meetings."

According to a recent MPI member survey, the current $1.3 million multicultural meetings business is growing to the tune of 20 percent a year, said Hattie Hill, chief executive officer of Hattie Hill Enterprises and a member of MPI’s Multicultural Initiative. That 20 percent figure was deemed surprisingly low by Flackett and Joan Eisenstodt, president of Eisenstodt and Associates, but no one argued that this is a big—and growing—market. Meeting planners, hoteliers, and convention and visitors bureau officials who want to grab a slice of it need to understand and accommodate a range of customs and ethnicities. "Organizations can grow their business by connecting with national, ethnic, and international cultures," said Hill.

For a multicultural meeting to be successful, the speakers and topics must accommodate a diverse assembly, the presenters said. But that doesn’t mean you have to have speakers of color, said Hill. The important thing is to have individuals who can connect with a broad audience and deliver the organization’s message. And whatever you do, Flackett warned, be aware of different religious, regional, and national holidays to prevent a major faux pas when scheduling your meeting. Resources, such as www.holidayfestival.com, are good places to learn about holidays in different parts of the world, said Eisenstodt.

Equally important are the various customs and mores of different parts of the world. One of the most obvious is language, but the panel cited other, more subtle, concerns too. In Eastern Europe and Asia, for example, smoking is a big part of the culture, so U.S. attendees accustomed to smoke-free hotels and meeting space need to be warned. Planners should do their homework and research cities, regions, and countries to understand the local scene before booking events, said Eisenstodt.

Planners who are used to having to plan for just Atkins diets and vegan menus will find their menu responsibilities growing as well, since people from other cultures may have certain food requirements or may be fasting on holy days, said Eisenstodt. She prompted attendees to work with their venues to make sure they can handle all the dietary needs of a multicultural audience. While meeting planners and venues aren’t obligated to make all these concessions, Eisenstodt said it makes good sense. "Smart business people accommodate their guests," she said. "They do everything they can to make them feel important." Going the extra mile to address dietary needs, or the like, will go a long way toward winning a market segment, Eisenstodt added.

For meeting professionals, it’s essential to know not only their customers today, but the customers they want to attract tomorrow, said Eisenstodt. Then the questions become: "How do we position our venue? How do we market to them?" To further that end, Flackett’s IMEX, a worldwide exhibition for incentive travel, meetings, and events based in Frankfurt, announced on September 25 that it is launching a cross-cultural training program for incentive trade professionals, in partnership with Richard Lewis Communications, a U.K.-based international institute for cross-cultural training, communication, and language.

The MPI member survey was just the first step, said Hill. Because of participants’ requests for Web sites and other resources for multicultural meeting planners, MPI is now considering expanding the Multicultural Initiative portion of www.mpiweb.org site to include more of this type of information. --- Dave Kovaleski