While organizing the 17th World Conference of Family Doctors, known as Wonca 2004, which took place in Orlando this past October, Sondra Biggs, CMP, director, convention management division, American Academy of Family Physicians, Leawood, Kan., encountered a problem that has become increasingly familiar since 9/11: Overseas physicians complained about the difficult visa application process. This was an especially important issue for Wonca, an international conference that draws the majority of its attendees from outside the United States. The triennial conference had not been held in the United States for 20 years — and Biggs wanted to do everything in her power to ease the way for foreign physicians to attend.

Taking a tip from the Radiological Society of North America, Biggs posted a letter of invitation on Wonca's Web site. Doctors could fill in their personal information, print it, and use it when they applied for a visa. Biggs' team also called the State Department to see if there was anything else they could do to help.

“After several months, we did find someone who deals with visas for people attending medical or any kind of conferences within the United States,” says Biggs. Cherie Lombardi — lead visa specialist, public inquiries, public and diplomatic liaison, visa services, Bureau of Consular Affairs — and her staff provided invaluable assistance, says Biggs. “We sent them information about our meeting and a registration list, which they posted on their intranet. That information goes out to all the embassies and consulates.” The information was continually updated as Biggs sent the State Department a new (and complete) registration list every week.

When physicians appeared at an embassy or a consulate to apply for a visa, the staff checked on the Web site and ascertained that the meeting organizers had notified the State Department about the conference and the applicant was registered. The intranet site is only a communications tool — and cannot guarantee that a visa will be issued. Embassy consular sections abroad have sole responsibility for issuing visas, the State Department underscores.

While there were still some people who did not get visas, Biggs says, and the AAFP did have to refund some money, “Finding this lady was very, very helpful to us.” Wonca 2004 drew 2,200 physicians; about 1,800 were from outside the United States. Biggs advises other meeting planners to start early and develop a plan for helping attendees with the visa process. “We discovered [Lombardi] only four months before the meeting. I wish we had known about her a year ago,” says Biggs. (Lombardi is no longer handling conference inquiries; see new contact information in box above).

The intranet service is available for conferences drawing 100 or more international attendees; but, according to State Department representatives, the department will provide information for planners organizing any size conference. It has also just set up a dedicated e-mail for conference organizers and business travelers: BusinessVisa@state.gov. Its Web site, travel.state.gov, includes information about the visa application process, how long it will take applicants to get an interview appointment, and other instructions helpful for planners. There are also links to embassy consular sections worldwide.