Will US-VISIT—the new program in which foreign visitors to this country are being fingerprinted—be a minor inconvenience or a major hassle for meeting planners and attendees? So far, it’s too early to tell.
"It has huge ramifications," says Chris Pentz, president, Pentz Group Communications, Levittown, Pa., who plans international meetings. Short-term, she says, attendance could decline at U.S.–based international meetings. Long-term, it could mean fewer international meetings held stateside.
Effective January 5, foreign visitors to the United States are photographed and have their fingerprints scanned at 115 domestic airports and 14 seaports as part of this new program, launched by the Department of Homeland Security. Both index fingers are scanned, and a digital photo is taken to verify their identity at the port of entry. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers review travel documents, such as a visa and passport, and ask questions about the visitor’s stay. The enhancements are designed to add about 15 seconds to the entry process for each foreign traveler.
The US-VISIT (US Visitor and Immigrations Status Indicator Technology) program is a continuation of the fingerscans that take place overseas at U.S. consular offices, where visas are issued. The idea is to make sure that the person at the U.S. border is the same person who received the visa.
The program does not apply to 28 countries, including Canada and the 27 nations that are part of the United States’ Visa Waiver Program: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.K. Travelers from these countries have approximately nine months to obtain a machine-readable passport to enter the country without a visa. If not, a visa is required and passengers would be subject to the fingerscans.
Delays caused by US-VISIT at Los Angeles International Airport range from about 18 seconds to one minute per person, says Joseph McGlynn, manager, planning and programs at Laxtec Corp., which provides support services for 52 airlines that operate out of LAX. "Where the real impact will come is when it [fingerprinting] is mandated for departing passengers," he says. Currently, security professionals assist passengers at U.S. borders, but when it is implemented for departing passengers, it will be done at self-service kiosks, which may be difficult for non-English speaking travelers to operate.
Challenges for Attendees
US-VISIT could create challenges for meeting attendees from places other than the 28 visa waiver countries and result in airport delays, missed flight connections, and missed meetings, according to Richard Werth, CPP, president, Event & Meeting Security Services, Franklin, Tenn.
Thomas Steinmetz, publisher of EturboNews, says that the program has received mostly negative reaction from overseas travel groups and professionals. Steinmetz believes that overseas organizations will be more hesitant to hold meetings in the United States and will opt for events in Europe or other destinations where there are fewer obstacles.
Among European planners, attitudes have already begun to change, says Pentz, who adds that "Europeans discovered South America [as a meeting destination]." She says it’s perceived by many to be safer and more affordable than the United States, and fears that once groups start avoiding U.S. destinations, it will be hard to win them back.
To the south, there is resentment among organizations in Central and South America, says Margaret Gonzalez, president of the International Association of Hispanic Meeting Professionals. No countries south of the border are in the visa waiver program. Shortly after the US-VISIT program launched, Brazil implemented a policy of fingerprinting inbound U.S. visitors.
On the Canadian border, Sandy Biback, CMM, CMP, president of Toronto-based Imagination+ Meeting Planners Inc., says border cities, such as Windsor and Detroit, may see the effects of the new program immediately. Typically, when there is a conference in one of these cities, groups will cross the border to visit the other city. But that will be more difficult going forward, particularly if a group has attendees from nonwaiver countries.
US-VISIT will also pose a problem for foreign exhibitors, and by extension meeting planners, in bringing materials into the country. Matthew Summy, vice president, Johnson Consulting Inc., Chicago, says that exhibitors often like to arrive in a city several days before the show to coordinate with staff. But with the new screening procedures in place, it may take longer to import supplies and materials.
Pamela Paton, meeting planner at State Street Corp., Boston, has not heard objections to the new regulations so far. With nearly 20,000 employees in 20 different countries, State Street’s seasoned travelers know the drill. "Everyone has pretty much come to the conclusion that things have changed," she says.
But things have changed so rapidly for foreign travelers in recent months that many still don’t know what to expect, says Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association. While TIA supports US-VISIT, it believes that the DHS needs to do a better job of informing travelers of the changes. "The area that they’ve really lacked in is educating the consumer," says Keefe.
Many international visitors perceive this fortress around America, and perception often outweighs reality, says Keefe. "We need to put out the welcome mat." —Dave Kovaleski