Shipping may seem like a no-brainer compared to other responsibilities when meeting beyond borders. But actually, there's a lot to it, and messing up can have big consequences. One lost or late package or exhibit could spoil your event. Here is your cheat sheet for getting a grip on shipping:

  • An international freight forwarder will transport your shipment from one of its consolidation points in the United States to the airport or seaport (some will also transfer shipments from your warehouse to the consolidation point) and will help with documentation. But if you ship exhibit booths and exhibit materials, such as products for display, consider an international exhibit freight forwarder. This specialized forwarder is more expensive but provides additional services, including delivering the freight to the stand (as booths are known outside the United States), unpacking, storing empty crates during the show — and reversing the procedure at the end of the show. In other words, the international exhibit freight forwarder usually handles drayage, which in the U.S. is the responsibility of a separate contractor. (Caution: It's generally done this way, but not always. Ask if the freight forwarder handles drayage.)

  • A customs broker receives goods at the destination, declares the value of the shipment, processes the paperwork, and handles the payment of any fees required to clear the goods. Although you can contract separately with a freight forwarder and a customs broker, it ultimately makes more sense to select a forwarder who is also a licensed customs broker. The commercial invoice is a list of all items being shipped (including exhibit booths) with their dimensions, weight, and value. For items that will be displayed and then re-exported, not sold, list the cost of manufacture, not the selling price.

  • The packing list itemizes the contents of each package, and it must be accurate and specific: “exhibit materials” or “meeting room supplies” won't do. There is no official form for either the commercial invoice or the packing list, so you may develop your own forms, even combining the commercial invoice and packing list into a single form. Preparing the forms in both English and the language of the country where the show is being held is advisable. The commercial invoice/packing list is almost always required.

  • ATA Carnet. This is a “merchandise passport” issued by the United States Council for International Business ( It demonstrates to customs officials that you are bringing in the merchandise only temporarily; if you do not re-export the merchandise, you will be subject to penalties. The ATA Carnet may be used for most business-related items, including commercial samples, professional equipment, and goods for exhibitions. A carnet is not required, but there are several advantages to using one: 1. It is valid for a year, and can be used for unlimited entries and re-entries; 2. It eliminates temporary import duties and value-added taxes (VAT); 3. It is far less expensive than Temporary Importation Under Bond, which can reach 150 percent of the value of the shipment; 4. It simplifies customs procedures and re-entry into the U.S.

  • The Shipper's Export Declaration is required by the Department of Commerce for some shipments valued at more than $2,500. It is completed by the freight forwarder. If you use an ATA Carnet, the USCIB can provide the SED forms.

  • Temporary Importation Under Bond. If you do not use a carnet, you must post a bond to guarantee that the merchandise will be re-exported. A bond must be obtained for each country on arrival. That's way more complicated than using a carnet.

An experienced international freight forwarder can tell shippers which of these documents they will need. Some documents are always required, some vary by country or commodity, and some are at the discretion of the shipper. For customs information for your shipment, you can also contact the nearest U.S. Customs office. Check your phone book under Treasury Department in the U.S. Government listings.

There are several things to ask in evaluating freight forwarders. How long have they been in business? If you are shipping specialized equipment, have they handled it before? Request a detailed list of their services. If materials are being shipped to a trade show, will there be an on-site contact? (And will that person speak both English and the local language?) What are the rates? (Request a quote on something specific. The forwarder should provide a close estimate, which can be used as a basis for comparing price/value ratios for the forwarders who are under consideration.) Get current references. Affiliation with industry associations is a good indicator of professionalism.

Rayna Skolnik has written about meetings and expositions for more than 25 years.

Shipping to or Visiting Canada

When holding a meeting or incentive in Canada, Tina Wehmeir, executive director, meeting and incentive travel sales, Canadian Tourism Commission, recommends registering your meeting with Canada Customs and obtaining a Letter of Recognition, which can help expedite shipments for your meeting.

To do so, contact the Canada Revenue Agency's regional conventions coordinator for your destination about three months before your event. (Find them listed at The agency will request basic information about size, purpose, and location of your meeting, what you'll be bringing in, and from where. You can request a Letter of Recognition, which can speed your transit, and you may be eligible for on-site, border-to-show clearance, which allows your goods to go through customs once they arrive at your meeting site rather than at the border. You can also make arrangements in advance for temporary import status, which will relieve you of responsibility for duties and taxes on goods brought in for the meeting.

Wehmeir recommends using a customs broker who understands procedures for bringing meeting materials and exhibits into Canada. “You should always have an initial conversation with a customs broker,” she says. “Even if you decide not to use one, they are experts and will provide lots of helpful information about the process. For example, there are certain goods you cannot bring across the border in quantity — for instance, alcoholic beverages — so if you're planning to give your speakers bottles of wine, you're better off purchasing them in Canada. There are also restrictions on bringing in clothing manufactured in certain countries, so if you're giving away T-shirts, consider having them made in Canada.” She adds that besides saving on shipping, the goods may cost less.

Merchandise returning to the United States after the conference also needs to be registered on U.S. Customs Service Form CF-4455, Certificate of Registration, before or at the time it is exported, and must be accompanied by a duplicate Form CF-4455 when it is reimported. Textiles and textile goods may require special permits. Please inform your customs broker of any re-importation of meeting materials, exhibits, and other goods back into the United States.

Visiting Canada

Although U.S. citizens can cross the border with a certified copy of a birth certificate and a government-issued photo ID (such as a driver's license), the CTC recommends a current passport for ease of entry and re-entry back into the U.S. Visitors from other countries are subject to different rules. Attendees and presenters who are neither U.S. nor Canadian citizens will need valid passports to enter Canada, even from the United States, and they may have difficulty returning to the U.S. if they do not have a U.S. temporary resident card or resident alien card. Such visitors should check with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to make sure they have the right documents for re-entry.

Visitors to Canada from outside the U.S. need proof that they have the means to return to their home country and enough money to support themselves during their stay. They must not have a criminal record and must not pose a health risk. In addition, visitors to Canada from some countries need visas. Check the Immigration Canada Web site at for a list of countries whose citizens must have visas for entry into Canada.

A comprehensive guide to holding meetings in Canada is available online at