Whenever she has to plan a meeting in a country that's new to her, Karen D. Tucker makes her first call to a tourist or convention bureau. Tucker, president of the Newton, Mass.based consulting company Meeting Services Connection, has learned that it helps to have an inside partner in countries where business customs, language, and cultural values differ. "You don't need to know everything about everywhere," Tucker says. "What you need to be good at is knowing what questions to ask, finding good resources, and really using them."

How can tourist boards help you?

Free Information * The first thing you need is information--on everything from hotels and special event venues to what's going on in the city during your stay. Not only is information the tourist board's specialty, they give it out for free.

Promotional Materials * Further down the road, your tourist board or convention bureau can provide free or inexpensive promotional materials, such as posters, brochures, or gifts small enough to fit in a box for you to send to attendees.

Site Inspections * Tourist boards can handle all the details for your site inspection. They can make your hotel reservations, pick you up at the airport, put together your itinerary, and give you a personalized sightseeing tour.

Specs for Meeting Spaces * Once you begin to look at hotels and convention centers--or congress centers, as they're often called--tourist or convention bureaus can look at your specs and tell you what's available. In Europe, says Tucker, many new hotels are on the outskirts of cities, while most of the hotels within cities were built at or before the turn of century. "They're ornate and beautiful, but not what we consider to be meeting friendly," she says. This doesn't mean you should avoid them, but tourist boards and CVBs can help you work out options for setting up rooms and using AV equipment.

Venue Suggestions * Before Tucker went to Barcelona for the first time, the city's tourist board sent her literature on venues for opening night events. A few weeks before she arrived, the Gaudi House, built by a famous Barcelona architect, became available. "It wasn't in any of the printed literature," she says, and she would never have known about it if it hadn't been for the bureau.

DMC Recommendations * Tourist boards/convention bureaus can set up interviews with destination management companies. This way, says Tucker, "you're not committed to choosing one in advance. It allows you to interview DMCs and evaluate who's going to be best." CVBs aren't supposed to recommend one vendor over another, but one good question to ask is which DMCs handle the most U.S. business. "That's a real clue. It means they understand our attendee base and how we conduct business here."

Travel, Customs, and Shipping * If you are bringing equipment and gifts, a tourist board or convention bureau will help you meet the country's regulations. They can also give you advice on which travel documents will be necessary for attendees from the United States and other countries.

Business Advice * Your tourist board contact can help you bridge communication barriers or cultural differences. In Europe, for example, says Tucker, "the day starts later ... which affects everything from museum hours to available services for afternoon meetings." Another example: "In many cultures, saying 'no' means a loss of face. So when you get 'yes,' it doesn't always mean 'yes.' It can mean 'I can't say no.'"

For More Info Locate the nearest tourist board or convention bureau. Some are country-based, others are city-based--many have offices in New York, Chicago, and other major U.S. cities. When you call, speak directly to someone in the meeting and incentive department.

Or check out the following Web sites: * www.iacvb.org (International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus)--Connects you with 480 bureaus in 30 countries

* www.iapco.org (International Association of Professional Congress Organizers)--Lists member PCOs in different countries

* www.aacvb.org (Asian Association of CVBs)--Contact information for CVBs in nine Asian countries

* www.efct.org (European Federation of Conference Towns)--Searchable database of available meeting space in 34 European countries

* www.icca.nl (International Meetings Association)--Searchable database of tourist boards and convention bureaus worldwide

* www.mpiweb.org (Meeting Professionals International)--MPI has chapters in 58 countries, the United States, Canada, Central/South America, Europe, and Japan