Attending to details has always been crucial to the success of an overseas event, but September's terrorist attacks have magnified the importance of those details. Every aspect of a program, from shipping materials to transporting and housing attendees, demands extra scrutiny in the current environment.
“Like most associations, we're taking it day by day,” says Jeff Newman, area manager of meetings and exhibits for the Champaign, Ill.-based American Oil Chemists'Society. “Every time there's an announcement about a potential attack, that makes it more tense.”
In the short term, meeting planners have faced severely disrupted airline schedules, and speakers and attendees unwilling or unable to participate in overseas events. In an extreme example, the American Society of Travel Agents wound up scrambling to move an early October event from Seville, Spain, to New York City after key speakers declined to participate, and many of those registered balked at overseas travel (see sidebar, page 32). Some association members are afraid to fly, but the more compelling reason for not wanting to get on an airplane seems to be the potential for inconvenience. “People don't want to be stranded away from their families,” observes Steve Knight, senior marketing executive with the British Tourist Authority.
While overseas venues haven't seen wholesale cancellations of events by U.S. associations, the outlook for new bookings in the near term is guarded. Karin van der Cammen, president of KC International Business Events, based in Bethesda, Md., says her clients — international destinations looking to attract U.S. groups — are being cautious about promotions. “It might not be the best season to very actively pursue the American market,” she says, based both on economics and on Americans' sense of patriotism, which some observers expect to result in a flood of U.S.-based meetings.
But a lot of associations are going ahead with events beyond U.S. shores, and as the world situation improves, more will join them. How have the basics of planning an international meeting changed?
“One of the first things you have to look at is security considerations — not because things aren't going to be safe, but to calm your members' fears,” says Chris Vranas, associate executive director of the American Association of Orthodontists, based in St. Louis. Vranas coordinated a number of international programs at his last job as a meeting director with ASTA. “You need to make them feel safe — when they're on the ground in particular.”
Vranas suggests setting up advance meetings with hotels, convention centers, and — depending on the size of the meeting — with government officials. He says knowing what security precautions are in place can help a meeting planner convince attendees that a destination is safe.
“It's probably not a bad idea for the next year or two, when sending materials to members, to include some information about precautions — considerations that you need to take when traveling to certain countries,” Vranas says. He adds that providing up-front tips — such as areas of a city to avoid or how to handle taxis — shouldn't alarm members, but should assure them that you have checked out likely potential threats.
As Vranas is quick to point out, “petty crime is more of an issue for travelers than terrorism is today.”
Keep a low profile
In uncertain times, splashy events may attract unwanted attention by groups that are anti-American or looking to crash the party for other reasons.
“We refrain from using the organization name or logo in public and on signage, especially at airports, on vehicles transporting attendees around town, and in the hotel,” says Carol Krugman, CMP, president and CEO of Krugman Group International in Miami. Attendees are told not to use their business cards as luggage tags and reminded not to wear their name badges outside the hotel.
In the light of terrorist threats, Krugman's firm is also telling clients to stay alert regarding their surroundings, and to avoid crowds in public places.
Have a backup plan
Every-one is aware of the need to monitor airline schedules, but today international travelers would be wise to monitor the financial news as well. With carriers such as Swissair and Sabena declaring bankruptcy, and more airlines expected to follow, it's particularly important that groups traveling overseas keep tabs on the health of the carriers they choose.
Last June, Teresa Larson had to scramble to find alternative flights for 230 people when Iberian Airline pilots decided to hold a one-day strike the day her group was to leave for Spain.
Larson, senior vice president with Smith Fairfield, an Alexandria, Va., communications and events management company, says the firm called all the travelers three days before the scheduled flight and offered them the option of leaving a day earlier.
Larson says she's not sure such a switch would be possible now. “I think some of the airlines might have some concerns with a large group of people changing their plans at the last minute,” she notes.
“The reality is that nowhere is really safe anymore,” Krugman says. But in recent months she has been asked to yank business originally intended for the U.S. and rebook it in Latin American destinations, which are perceived as less controversial. “The South American attendees were not comfortable traveling to or staying in the U.S.,” she says.
Newman says he has observed the same sentiment keeping international attendees away from AOCS's U.S.-based events.
Recently, world events have forced meetings to be canceled or to move on short notice. Just in case, Vranas, of the American Association of Orthodontists, says it's a good time to consider carrying event insurance, although he says few cancellation policies cover acts of terror.
“But it's something to look at, particularly if you have spent a lot of money promoting an event and havewith a convention center.” Vranas was able to add a rider to one cancellation policy covering a 6,000-person convention in Egypt when unrest in the region threatened to affect the event.
For an unfamiliar destination, some meeting planners like to have local destination management companies or affiliated associations help with the legwork.
Michael O'Donoghue, global development management for the American Society for Quality in Milwaukee, participates in a world partner program with other quality associations to produce joint educational events. The host country's organization handles logistics and marketing. In theory, locals are most aware of the best venues and potentially thorny issues.
“You've got to have somebody on the ground,” says O'Donoghue, who once worked for the U.S. State Department, which he says followed the same philosophy. “When you try to do something from a distance, you usually get short-circuited.”
Exhibitors and meeting planners also might consider buying essential materials, booths, and other items at the destination to avoid customs snafus. “Our recommendation prior to 9/11 was to try to use local products, and avoid shipping whenever possible,” says Larson. “Now I would recommend that even more strongly.”
Build in more time
With heightened security and curtailed airline service, international travelers and packages are not arriving at their destinations as easily as they were in the pre-September 11 days.
“Overall, we're encouraging people to build in more lead time,” says Larson. That includes time for obtaining passports, since the State Department seems to have a lot on its plate these days.
Professional shipping agents and customs brokers can expedite package delivery, says Krugman. And these service people are most aware of changing regulations and shipping requirements for various destinations.
Larson also believes that travelers' fears will result in more hand-holding by organizers of overseas meetings. “We're not being as cavalier about travel and getting groups to distant locations,” she says.
Paying careful attention to details is especially crucial in making sure attendees feel confident they will go from point A to point B with the fewest hassles.
ASTA Relocates Meeting
Ten days after September 11, the American Society of Travel Agents had to make some hard decisions. The attacks had undermined the organization's upcoming World Travel Congress in Seville, with speakers bowing out and members either canceling or strongly hinting that they wouldn't attend the congress, which was scheduled for November 6 to 11.
ASTA's board of directors voted to shift the meeting from Seville to New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. The move wasn't simply a show of support for the beleaguered city, although ASTA's decision attracted a lot of positive publicity. Aside from the convention center's availability on short notice, New York's large stock of empty hotel rooms helped seal the choice.
Although some who signed up for the Seville program expressed disappointment in the change, “the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Liz Culkin, vice president of meetings, conventions, and trade shows for the association. About 2,100 had preregistered for the Seville congress, while the November 4 to 7 program in New York attracted about 3,000 attendees. In addition, many exhibitors who had canceled their plans in Seville rebooked at the new venue, and new exhibitors lined up for the rescheduled show.
Once the vote was cast, “we went into full gear,” Culkin says. ASTA's Web site announced the decision and explained how delegates and exhibitors could cancel their airline and hotel reservations and shift their paperwork to New York. In lieu of direct mail, which was deemed too slow, the association used e-mails and faxes to reach members.
In the month after the switch, ASTA issued an average of seven press releases a week announcing the changes. “We had to tell 2,100 people it had moved and another 30,000 to 40,000 about the new show, and every day there were new people on the program,” Culkin says.
Pared down from six to four days, the program retained many of the originally planned sessions but mixed in some more topical subjects and speakers. “[Terrorism] has affected the industry so tremendously that we can't not talk about it now,” Culkin explains. Other signs of the times: Exhibitors banded together for the first time to host one large patriotic unity dinner; and a group representing Hawaii canceled its reception, instead issuing delegates a $75 American Express gift card to spend in the city.
Although Culkin could not estimate the total cost of moving the show, she acknowledged that New York is a more expensive city than Seville and that ASTA had shouldered some expenses normally shared with the host city, such as promotion. To soften the blow in Seville, the association is negotiating for a future meeting. Fortunately, hotels were canceled in enough time that attendees received refunds of their hotel deposits minus a $20 booking fee.
But “this was definitely not a financial decision,” Culkin stresses. “The first and foremost reason was that our major speakers pulled out.
Here Comes the Euro
Some skeptics are bracing for chaos when the European Union officially rolls out the euro on January 1, 2002, but others expect a smooth transition. The euro has been more concept than reality since 1999, but the newly minted coins and paper money will now replace the 12 member countries' so-called legacy currencies, and some businesses may be caught unprepared.
While larger corporations are ready for the switchover, banks are scrambling to educate smaller firms and consumers about what the change means and urging them to convert their accounts into the common denomination before the 11th hour. Some observers are expecting popular resistance to the switch and snafus in routine transactions.
Beginning in 2002, European Union electronic transactions will be euro-only; individual member countries will set their own rules about whether to accept checks written in legacy currencies. Fran Berndt, first vice president of Ruesch International, says many meeting planners and others accustomed to doing business overseas are already dealing in euros, so the transition for them should be relatively smooth. Washington, D.C.-based Ruesch, which helps clients manage international payments, routinely transmits amounts in euros with a reference to the individual country's currency.
Berndt sees mass circulation of the euro as a big positive for meeting planners. “The fact that we have the euro in 12 countries does away with the exchange rate risk in dealing with different currencies,” she explains. Perhaps more significant, though, is the ability to make apples-to-apples price comparisons. Instead of having to convert different currencies into U.S. dollars, “you can look at hotels in different markets and really see the cost,” Berndt says.
For anyone considering an overseas event, there's more good news: The U.S. dollar continues to hold its own against the euro and other world currencies. It dipped briefly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, but by mid-November the dollar had rebounded compared to major currencies such as the euro, Swiss franc, and Japanese yen.
Alex Beuzelin, a senior market analyst with Ruesch, declined to make any long-term predictions about the dollar, but says two factors influence the outlook: the global economic situation and geopolitical trends. Despite the current U.S. recession, the federal government's moves to stimulate the economy are seen as a plus. As to the war on terrorism, Beuzelin says,. “If the situation continues to evolve favorably, that will help the dollar. Conversely, if it worsens, the dollar will likely take a hit as well.”