Charged with planning a meeting with attendees from around the world? If so, join the crowd. In Houston alone, there are more than 3,000 local businesses, government offices, and non-profit organizations involved in global commerce in more than 130 foreign countries, and hosting meetings with international delegates has become the norm for many organizations. The success of a gathering with global attendees can largely rest on a meeting planner's ability to keep up international protocols and travel standards.
While meeting planners shouldn't have to immerse themselves in books on global etiquette, there are some basic areas that should be considered:
- Keep an eye on international travel requirements.
Stay on top of new Homeland Security measures. As of January 23, 2007, citizens from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, and Bermuda must present a passport to enter the United States by air — with potential for more documentation to be required in the future.
Don't spring any last-minute meeting surprises. Give meeting attendees from other countries ample time to organize their personal documents in preparation for travel. Also, build in conference rates that will cover pre- and post-meeting stays. Many international attendees will want to arrive early to acclimate to the time zone and recover from jet lag, and they may linger an extra day or two (often a necessity if your meeting is in a smaller city with limited international flights).
International travelers also may be uncomfortable driving in an unfamiliar city, particularly if they are accustomed to different traffic rules. Arranging a pickup at the airport through a destination management company can ease the transition for travelers.
- Choose a venue that caters to global travelers.
Find out if the host hotel offers international power and phone jack adapters in its guest rooms. Does it offer currency exchange for foreign travelers to obtain a small amount of U.S. dollars for cabs and other minor expenses? At InterContinental Houston, guests can watch the news from their home country on their in-room television. They can also secure their hometown newspaper upon request.
Also, now that many U.S. hotels have become nonsmoking yet many international travelers still smoke, ask if your venue has a complement of smoking rooms, and how they accommodate smokers. Also give folks sufficient break time to go out and smoke if they need to.
It's also helpful for planners to provide some information about the city, including dining, entertainment, and local sites of interest if the attendees will have some free time.
- Understand the expectation levels of your conferees.
Provide a written meeting agenda for each attendee to ensure that everyone understands the expectations and goals of the meeting, keeping in mind international attendees bring to a meeting a different set of expectations. While some cultures, such as those of Asia and Latin America, tend to be more relationship-focused, others, like those of the U.S. and Britain, are more priority-driven and focused on results.
Also, if you have attendees coming from multiple time zones, it can be easier for guests to book their hotels electronically instead of making an international call.
- Be aware of the complexities of global shipping.
Shipping items for international meetings can be overwhelming, with duties, customs issues, and meticulous paperwork coming into play. Find out how much time is required to receive items from another country in preparation for a meeting.
Conversely, consider the amount of paperwork and materials conferees will need to take home with them. Plan on behalf of attendees how these items will be shipped back to their home country.
- Proper protocol extends to food and staffing services.
Proper food selection is a critical component of conducting a smooth-flowing business meeting with international conferees.
Let the hotel know any special food and beverage requirements your international attendees may have. For example, guests from the Middle East might not eat meat or root vegetables such as onions, carrots, and potatoes. Partner with a chef who is experienced in catering to international guests. Also, consider their dining habits. If you have a large contingent coming from South America, for example, they may be accustomed to eating later at night than is the norm in the U.S. Notify the hotel so they can be sure to keep their food outlets open later than usual, and let them know as soon as possible if you plan any late-night banquets.
Planners also should have on hand information on how they can contact the local consulate in case of an emergency, such as an accident, illness, or lost passport. Planners also can contact the local Consulate General's office of the country in question for country-specific protocols.
If your group includes people from cultures that may require something the hotel is not used to providing, such as all male servers, be sure the hotel staff understands what is going on so they won't be put in an uncomfortable position.
Above all, be aware that meetings with global delegates present their own unique set of challenges and opportunities. Take the time to understand the needs of international attendees to ensure a productive and inclusive meeting experience.
David Bennett is director of conference services for the AAA Four Diamond InterContinental Houston. The property frequently hosts conferences with international attendees and offers specialized amenities for travelers from abroad.
- Beyond Borders 2006 - more on planning meetings internationally