Has either the stalled U.S. economy or the possibility of war with Iraq significantly affected international program planning? Yes and no. Despite the uncertain state of world affairs, international planners continue to book meetings overseas and remain optimistic about the outlook for 2003 and beyond. But they're also adjusting their expectations and taking added precautions.

“In the short term, given the economy and the focus on terrorism, I have concerns,” says Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, Arlington, Va., and organizer of International CES, the world's largest technology event. “In the long term, though, I am a passionate believer [that] trade and international travel are essential.”

Shapiro expects attendance consistent with 2002 attendance at the next Asian Home Electronics Fair, scheduled for a second year in Shanghai, China, from May 14 to 17, 2003. And international registration is “very strong” for 2003 International CES, January 9 to 12 in Las Vegas. He's become CEA's personal emissary, spending a significant portion of his time promoting attendance in China, Japan, Mexico, and other target countries. With 15 percent of the nearly 100,000 CES attendees expected to come from outside the United States, “We're making a smart investment,” he says.

Shapiro cites the familiar 12-step program prayer: “Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Shapiro says, “We can't control the economy, business travel, or our country's foreign relations. So we follow the prayer and focus on what we can control.”

ADJUSTING EXPECTATIONS

Planners are projecting flat or negative growth compared to pre-9/11 years, given concerns about personal safety, the hassle factor associated with airline security precautions, and the expense of international travel.

Jeffry L. Newman, area manager for meetings and exhibits at the American Oil Chemists' Society, Champaign, Ill., has regional programs booked in Ecuador, France, and Greece in 2003, and he's lowering attendance projections for all of them. “I look at where we were four years ago, and I might take that number down 15 or 20 percent, whereas I might have increased it or kept it flat in other years.”

In 2002, all but one of seven AOCS programs were outside the United States. “We exceeded our attendance projections because we had good topical programs, and because I had lowballed the budget,” he says.

It's an admittedly dangerous game, since attendance estimates need to be balanced against affordable registration fees. The trick, Newman says, is to know your audience.

Working with a budget reduced by lower attendance projections, Newman is forced to be more creative in his program planning and purchasing decisions. “We're trying to do more with less,” he says. “Money is tight.”

SECURITY FIRST

Once attendees decide to travel to a meeting outside the United States, the association and the facility share responsibility for their safety on site. Planners are asking many more questions about facility security procedures, and facilities are strictly enforcing operating standards and policies, according to Marriott Senior Vice President Paul Cerula.

“Most meeting planners are more cautions about booking offshore,” Cerula says. “They have to do a little more work when they're soliciting information from venues where they never have been before to be sure they meet the needs of the association and that the membership will be comfortable.”

U.S.-based shows like CES are also contending with heightened national security and its potential impact on international attendance. “We're facing challenges in certain countries with people getting visas,” Shapiro says.

Restrictions on travel to the United States could have a longer-lasting negative impact than the threat of war or terrorism. “We're more concerned about the trade-off between promoting business and trade, and the costs imposed by national security issues,” Shapiro says. “Right now the pendulum is swinging most heavily toward national security, which impacts whether U.S. events or other non-U.S. events will be market leaders.”

Meanwhile, tightened security measures on site, such as requiring two forms of identification, conducting random bag checks, and establishing a more visible security presence, have increased security costs by up to 40 percent, Shapiro says.

INSURANCE ISSUES

Despite the best laid plans, no facility can prepare for a terrorist attack. When bombings in Bali, Indonesia, killed nearly 200 people and injured more than 300, groups from all over the world canceled meetings planned for that resort destination. Even the Pacific Asia Travel Association, dedicated to promoting travel and tourism in the region, canceled the PATA Sustainable Tourism Conference, which had been scheduled for October 23 to 26, 2002.

Because of the continued threat, planners are examining their contracts with suppliers — from hotels and convention centers to audiovisual companies — and adding language that includes terrorism as a reason for cancellation.

“We're having our clauses reviewed by legal counsel so we know what our options are, which then helps me phrase what I need insurance [to cover],” says Michael L. Haley, CAE, executive director of the International Communications Association, Washington, D.C. ICA had about 1,200 attendees at its 2002 annual meeting in Seoul, Korea, and is taking about 150 delegates to a follow-up meeting in Leicestershire, U.K., in 2003.

Planners also are attempting to insure against the possibility of terrorism. The cost of cancellation insurance has more than tripled since 9/11, and that's with terrorism excluded. Add that coverage, if you can get it, and the cost goes up. “It increased our cost by about $2,000,” Haley says of a recent policy purchase. “But because the conference is such a major part of our budget, that is a reasonable [cost].”

The cost for larger meetings can be prohibitive. Chris P. Vranas, associate executive director of the American Association of Orthodontists, St. Louis, Mo., elected not to buy cancellation insurance for his 2003 annual meeting in Hawaii, which is expected to draw 22,000 attendees from 120 countries. Instead, AAO will self-insure. “[Cancellation insurance] would cost us $40,000, and it doesn't include the things we need,” Vranas says. For example, only a terrorist act that occurred within a certain number of days and within a 25-mile radius of the convention would be covered.

FUTURE SITE SELECTION

Because they book their annual meetings up to 10 years in advance, most planners report that today's economic and political concerns have little impact on future site selection. The destination's ability to accommodate their group and the attractiveness of the destination are the overriding factors. For other types of meetings, though, disturbing international news can wipe a destination off the short list.

In Haley's view, any destination under a travel advisory would be out, and even some that aren't would be questionable. Although the ICA meeting in Korea went well, Haley wouldn't select it as a destination now, in light of the news about North Korea's nuclear weapons program. “I think we have to go, unfortunately, to more industrialized countries with more stability,” Haley says.

Still, Haley, is optimistic. “When you're an international organization, you have to be able to take your meeting to your various members and constituencies around the world,” he says. “You have to be a better planner and not just take a number of things for granted as we used to do.”

Cathy Chatfield-Taylor covers the meetings industry as a freelance writer and editor. E-mail her at cathy@cc-tunlimited.com.

Reaching Out MORE THAN EVER

In what could be described as a climate of fear, destination marketers are ramping up sales efforts to convince association clients their venues are safe. “We live in this constant state of travel advisories. That's a fact of life,” says Paul Cerula, senior vice president of international lodging sales for Marriott International, Washington, D.C., which operates properties in 56 countries. “Staying at a recognized brand like Marriott gives a sense of security.”

Association board retreats, conferences and other meetings are happening all over the world, albeit with smaller room blocks than pre-9/11. “Bookings are good,” he says, but Marriott has deployed as many or more sales people for the association market than ever before.

Even destinations far-removed from hot spots are feeling the pinch. “Association business has been more or less stable in the number of meetings since 9/11,” says Laure Mouton, director of marketing and commercial congress-expositions for the Paris Convention Center. To generate more business, though, her staff is putting in more time on overseas accounts.

“Because of the economy, people are not going long-haul as much,” says Patricia Fisch, president of International Destinations Inc., Washington, D.C., U.S. sales representative for Auckland, New Zealand; Cancun, Mexico; Istanbul, Turkey, Tokyo; and five Paris conventions centers. “And although Turkey is not part of the Middle East, it is the perception of meeting planners in the United States that it is, so business is down in Istanbul.”

Destination USA

While many planners are predicting flat or declining attendance, Catherine R. Lincoln, CFRE, director of marketing and international affairs for the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Alexandria, Va., expects to increase international attendance at the AAO-HNS Annual Meeting in Orlando, September 21 to 24, 2003. She estimates that more than 30 percent of 8,000-plus attendees will be international.

“We establish peer-to-peer relationships with 23 societies in 20 countries,” she says. “We're dealing with their leadership, and it expedites communications.” Broadcast e-mail messages, translated by volunteers, alert leaders about calls for papers and early-bird deadlines. Joint meetings and speaker exchanges foster relationships among delegates. And each year, one country or region is honored at the opening reception — laryngologists from the “guest country” receive complimentary registrations.

These efforts, in combination with an appealing destination, are expected to boost attendance from Europe and Latin America.

Going the EXTRA KILOMETER

“I think the largest growth opportunities for U.S.-based associations are outside their borders,” says Terrance Barkan, managing director of European Association Services, an association management company with offices in Brussels, Belgium, Washington, D.C., and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “Multinational corporations are bringing to other parts of the world their models of human resource management, IT systems, advancement of women, and so many other of the things that shape our civil lives.” Because so many associations are tied to specific professions, they ride on the backs of these multinational companies. Plus, he adds, the cutting edge in many fields, such as telecommunications, energy conservation, and technology, is happening outside the U.S.

The most common reason associations fail when they try to expand internationally is “the idea that what works at home will automatically be successful abroad,” says Barkan. Another common reason for failure Barkan cites is an inability to get local partners involved. “I don't just mean service providers, but also getting local volunteers to be enthusiastic and supportive of the move.”

Many associations also fail to get adequate financial, legal, technical, and contractual advice, and don't understand the little things that can make or break an international meeting, like vacation schedules and major events happening in a foreign market over your meeting's dates.

EAS often facilitates communication of the U.S. organization's objectives to its European counterparts. “At the same time, we have an obligation to sensitize our American clients about European concerns and conditions.”

“International travel is cheaper, easier, and more common. U.S.-based organizations have information to be shared, but it needs to be packaged and delivered in the right way,” Barkan says. “An international association brings people of different races, religions, and histories together to share a common interest. When they get together, the differences fall away.”