For many U.S. organizations, Mexico and the rest of Latin America present a vast territory of untapped opportunity and unknown territory. But taking your meeting south of the border doesn't have to be a complicated mission. Keep an open mind, be willing to adapt, take a few language lessons, and you will be pleasantly surprised at how much you can achieve in this beautiful, vibrant land.
Pick a Partner, and Talk the Talk
Make the time to find a local partner to help you with sales, marketing, logistics, and support. It's all about relationships. A local partner will know the ropes, speak the language, and be able to help guide you through the cultural subtleties that a foreigner might never understand. Just be sure to take the time to find someone you can really trust. Check references, talk to lots of people who have worked with that company/individual, and always, always get it in writing.
Taking even a few lessons in Spanish might be the best investment you make before heading to Mexico, where few people speak English fluently. You may well need a dictionary and/or an interpreter to get through an average day — even in the big city. But the linguistic challenge has more to do with culture than with practicality.
Everything in Mexico runs on personal relationships — and that means you have to reach out to local people. It's the only way you will be able to create those vital personal relationships to help you get business done. Foreigners who take the time to learn a few simple phrases in Spanish (Hello. How are you?, Can you help me?, or even simply, Please, I don't speak Spanish; Do you speak English?) will notice a dramatic shift in the way they are received and supported.
Dress to Impress
It will help if you adapt your wardrobe to Mexican culture. Latin culture is quite conservative, despite the sultry images we sometimes see in films. You will do well to dress conservatively and to maintain a professional manner.
Most professional men go to work in three-piece suits that are perfectly pressed. Women dress extremely stylishly with trendy suits, high-fashion scarves, and matching jewelry. Always be sure to cover your shoulders (no tank tops or spaghetti string dress tops) and keep skirt lengths modest. It's a difficult line to walk between dressing to impress and avoiding the eye of local pickpockets, but be sure to pay attention to your image — it goes a very long way toward making that critical first impression.
Rx for Shipping Headaches
One of the biggest mistakes in planning a meeting in Mexico is to assume that because Mexico is part of North America and a member of NAFTA, the shipping of exhibits to the show, for example, will be a piece of cake.
“In theindustry, Mexico can be a complicated country to deal with,” says John Lea of Rogers Worldwide, Torrance, Calif., a shipping company with extensive experience servicing companies on both sides of the border. “The rules and regulations governing the importation of items for display purposes are quite specific and strict. One of the major issues is that items entering the country on a temporary basis cannot be cleared in the same manner as goods being sold to an end user. This can present a lot of headaches and problems if not handled correctly from the outset.”
Unlike other freight, shipping trade show materials is highly specialized, time-sensitive work. Finding an experienced exhibition logistics management company is the best way to ensure a good outcome for materials being shipped to any country, but particularly Mexico. Ask your local partner to recommend a vendor. If you need to choose your own vendor, make sure to do your research. Any vendor you choose should have a good working knowledge of customs regulations, the appropriate paperwork, and a local office with a full-time staff.
Hand-carrying exhibit materials to Mexico is not recommended. Mexican customs operates on a completely random red light/green light system. If baggage is searched, any items not deemed as personal effects may be detained for an indefinite period of time.
Produce It in Mexico
To reduce the amount of material that has to be shipped from the United States, consider local production. Literature, promotional giveaways, booth graphics, and gifts are among the items that can be produced easily, efficiently, and cost effectively. Local production does avoid the customs hassles, but is not without its own set of challenges. The language barrier can be significant, particularly if everything is being designed virtually and you have to communicate changes.
Eager-to-please vendors are quick to adopt a “don't worry” attitude, so be very thorough in reviewing proofs, and double- or even triple-check logo reproduction, branding, artwork, and booth construction to ensure that final product meets your specifications. Plan to arrive a few days before the show to inspect the finished products. In a worst-case scenario this would leave time for jobs to be altered or redone.
Mexican culture is full of energy. Once you have created a relationship with local customers, you will find a strong response to your brand and your product. By taking the time to build a foundation — and by communicating with your customers the right way — you will see a return on your investment that will last long into the future.
Jennifer Goodwin is an expert in navigating the cultural divide. In the past decade, she has planned meetings, executed public relations and marketing strategies, and written articles in three languages and in more than 30 countries for a wide variety of companies and topics. Jennifer can be reached at email@example.com.
Beth Johnson has 15 years of experience in the international marketplace. Marketing, event planning, and market development are among her specialties. Beth has organized meetings on three continents, on a variety of topics, and for audiences ranging in size from 10 to 6,000. Beth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marketing to Latin Americans: Connect to the Culture
If you are marketing to Mexican attendees, the way in which you reach out to people will make all the difference to your success. Every single piece of communication you send into Mexico needs to connect with the local culture. This means a few important things:
It's all about relationships
Messages that reinforce relationships, or create new relationships, will resonate better in Mexican culture. That means that if your meeting is relatively new in Mexico, try to find a link to the local market. Has your organization partnered with groups in Mexico? If your meeting has a trade show, your exhibitors should also emphasize these connections: Do their companies have offices in Mexico? How many customers do they have? How long have their products been available? Who uses them? How? Do well-known individuals in Mexico use or endorse their products? Tell exhibitors to talk up those links to create the framework for a relationship with their new customers.
Bring on the bargains
Mexicans are masters of bargain hunting. Create a special incentive offer and tie it to your meeting, your booth, your event. This tactic works so well, you may have to plan extra staff to deal with the onslaught of attention.
Direct mail is a novelty
One of the most overused tactics in the United States is a fresh, new approach to customers in Mexico. Use dynamic, attractive colors, reinforce that relationship message, tie it to a special offer, and be sure to include a phone number (local of course) or Web site where potential attendees can get more information.
Say it in Spanish
In Mexico, most professionals do not open their own mail. The secretary does. And if the secretary doesn't speak English (which most do not), your hard work ends up in the trash. Invest the extra money to make sure that all of your pieces are in Spanish (Mexican Spanish please, it's quite different than Castilian Spanish).
Most people listen to the radio in Mexico. It is a much more popular medium than it is in the United States or Europe. Take advantage of this effective channel to market your meeting.
Doing Business in Mexico: New Tax Laws Favor Meetings
Mexico welcomes about 19 million international travelers a year, making it one of the world's leading travel destinations. The country offers a wide variety of options: 38 convention and exhibition centers and other meeting venues in 56 cities, 245,000 hotel rooms for delegates, 3,100 luxury hotels, and 57 international and 28 national airports.
From 1999 to 2002, the number of congresses and conventions in Mexico increased 551 percent, expos 93 percent, events in fair halls 125 percent, and the amount of fair hall floor space 160 percent. Some 539 expos and 7,500 congresses and conventions were held in Mexico in 2002 alone, including the United Nations Conference on Funding for Development, which drew 55 heads of state to Monterrey.
Many Mexican destinations are important business centers in their own right. Mexico City, for example, is one of the world's largest cities. But many of Mexico's meeting spots are located next to beaches, archaeological sites, nature preserves, or other attractions, enabling visitors to combine business with pleasure. The Cancun Convention Center lies next to some of Mexico's most beautiful beaches and also near the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá.
The new zero sales tax law, which does not apply to incentives, went into effect in January 2004. Now international meetings and conventions and associated services held in Mexico are as much as 15 percent less expensive than before the Value-Added Tax was repealed. Lodging; transportation to and from the airport, or any seaport, to a hotel; and food and beverage are now exempt from VAT. Add to this the fact that the U.S. dollar is weak against the euro and strong against the Mexican peso, and it is easy to see why many international companies are considering Mexico for international events.
Organizers of events in Mexico pay no import taxes on the equipment or displays for these meetings so long as they are re-exported. Giveaways are also exempt. These and other incentives have made Mexico a successful destination for such renowned event organizers as E.J. Krause and Messe Frankfurt, which have set up operations in Mexico.
AMPROFEC, the Mexican Association of Exhibition Management, can fulfill all the organizational needs of meetings, from marketing to registration to setup.
Last year the Mexico Tourism Board created the Mexico Convention Bureau to coordinate Mexico's network of convention and visitors bureaus, provide helpful data about meeting sites, and offer site visits to meeting and incentive planners. Call (800) 929-4555 or visit www.visit-mexico.com.