With the Association's 2007 annual meeting in Toronto this May, Kathy Cannon, associate executive director at the American Pediatric Society/Society for Pediatric Research, The Woodlands, Texas, was more than a little anxious about attendance.
Her fears had nothing to do with the appeal of the destination; rather, it had to do with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which went into effect on January 23, 2007. The regulation requires U.S. citizens to have passports to enter, and re-enter, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean by air. (It won't go into effect for land crossings and sea entries until January 1, 2008, at the earliest). Cannon says that this is the first time the association is meeting in Canada, so they were very concerned that members might decide to stay home because they didn't have a passport.
But this past December, when registration and housing opened, her worries disappeared. The numbers ran higher than they did for the 2006 annual meeting in San Francisco, which set an attendance record.
But it wasn't by accident, as Cannon took steps a year out to make sure attendees were informed of the regulations. She's not alone. Association executives with meetings in WHTI countries this year have been working overtime to let attendees know about the need for passports. Some, like Cannon, are very confident that attendance won't be adversely affected. “At this point, I'm not concerned one bit,” says Cannon. Others are keeping their fingers crossed.
According to the Travel Industry Association, only 27 percent of Americans have passports. However, medical meeting planners interviewed say that most of the physicians and healthcare professionals who attend their meetings are well-traveled and have passports at a rate higher than the national average.
“Most of our physicians are from academic centers and they are invited to speak overseas all the time, so a majority of them are already going to have passports,” says Cannon.
Still, association executives are taking nothing for granted.
“We've been promoting the need to apply for passports a year before the meeting,” says Sarajane Garten, director of education, Society of General Internal Medicine, Washington, D.C., which is holding its annual meeting this April in Toronto. The association put a notice on its home page about the passport requirement for the annual meeting with a link to the meetings page as well as links to the U.S. State Department and Tourism Toronto for information on how to obtain passports. Also, all communications that went out to presenters and attendees about the meeting — calls for submissions, acceptance letters, even the preliminary program — included reminders about the new passport regulations.
Other U.S.-based associations meeting in Canada this year have taken a similar approach in promoting the message about passports in e-mail blasts, newsletters, and conference programs. “We put the passport information on our Web site and in absolutely every communication that's gone out of our office regarding the meeting,” says Cannon.
In addition, Tourism Toronto, the city's destination marketing organization, was at APS's 2006 annual meeting spreading the word to attendees at their booth.
Garten considered setting up a booth at SGIM's 2006 annual meeting where people could actually apply for passports on the spot. She didn't do it because a special piece of photographic equipment is required to take the photos, but she says associations should consider it.
Others already have done it. Tourism Toronto has helped a number of associations set up passport application booths at conventions a year before coming to Toronto, says Andrew Weir, vice president, communications, Tourism Toronto. “Maximizing attendance is one of our core objectives.”
Medical association meeting executives say they are most concerned about the younger attendees — residents, trainees, medical students, even children of attendees — because it's more likely that they don't have passports yet.
“For us, the greater issue is the children,” says Camille Petrick, managing director, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, Rosemont, Ill., which is meeting in Calgary, Alberta, in July. “Our meeting is family-oriented,” she says. “People may not think about the need to get passports for their kids, which is why we have stressed it so strongly” (in outgoing communications). The meeting usually attracts 1,200 attendees and about 30 percent of them typically bring their children. (In February, the Department of Homeland Security proposed exempting the passport requirement for children 15 and under crossing by land and sea, but not by air.)
Minimal Meeting Impact?
Travel leaders in Canada and the Caribbean say WHTI will be felt more on the leisure travel side than it will be for meetings and conventions.
In Toronto, the initiative hasn't been a deterrent for meetings, says Weir, and he doesn't expect it to be in the future. “People who attend conventions have traveled more and hold passports at a much higher level (than the typical American traveler),” says Weir. And even if potential attendees don't currently hold a passport, “meetings are usually booked three, four, five years out,” so associations will have ample time to ensure that delegates get them.
Business from the U.S. has actually increased in recent years, says Weir, and the future booking pace is strong. One reason Toronto has become more popular for U.S. meetings is because it's easier to attract international attendance there from the rest of Canada, Europe, and Asia. Overseas visitors find it easier to travel to Canada than to deal with U.S. travel restrictions, he says.
In the Caribbean, WHTI is expected to hit tourism hard with an estimated $2.6 billion impact to the economy, according to a report commissioned by the Caribbean Hotel Association, with Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas expected to be hardest hit. But most of the effects will be on the leisure side, not meetings, says Tim Grace, director of marketing at CHA.
Only time will tell what impact WHTI will have on meetings held abroad by U.S.-based groups. Positive attendance numbers will go a long way toward instilling confidence in groups to book future international meetings.
Just ask APS-SPR's Cannon. Based on the strong registration numbers for the association's April meeting in Toronto, the association is in the process of booking two future meetings in Canada, says Cannon. (They will meet in Vancouver in 2011 and 2014).
However, SGIM is taking the wait-and-see approach before booking another international meeting, says Garten. Two Canadian destinations were bidding on two future SGIM meetings, she says, but the association is going to stay stateside. “We decided on the side of caution,” she says. “We're not going to book another Canadian meeting until we see how things play out (this year). Five years from now, 80 percent of Americans could have passports, but in this transition year, WHTI is certainly a factor.”