Cynthia Lett, CPP, principal, The Lett Group, has had her own meeting planning company Creative Planning International, since 1983, and currently offers private and corporate consultation and seminars on the skills necessary to compete in the international business arena.

Before striking out on her own, she served as director of meeting services for American Healthcare Institute and worked for three years as chief of protocol and manager, corporate events and meetings, for MCI Communications Corp. For the past 18 years, she has been a frequent speaker at various industry meetings on the subjects of international protocol and business etiquette, and she specializes in training the trainers. She formed the International Society of Protocol & Etiquette Professionals in 2002 and serves as its executive director. We interviewed Lett recently for Beyond Borders.

Betsy Bair: How and why did you found the International Society of Protocol & Etiquette Professionals?

Lett: I founded it in May 2002, initially as an organization that would provide advanced training to protocol and etiquette experts and trainers, and I still run it. My company, The Lett Group, was receiving so many calls, more than 140 a month, from people who needed to hire a corporate etiquette consultant. With the popularity of the Internet, all sorts of fake Web sites, including ones on protocol, began to pop up.

Those who called didn't know how to find and choose a protocol expert or how to know if they were reputable. When the question often arose — “Is there any kind of certification for protocol professionals?” — I always had to say, “No, there isn't.”

There also was no continuing education in the field. Some of us learned proper etiquette and protocol from the school of hard knocks. There are a few licensing programs offered by etiquette training companies (including our group), but they only address the basics.

I knew other organizations offered certification of some kind, including meeting professionals, so why couldn't we do it? I had many friends and experts in the field of international protocol who wanted to help but who didn't want to take full responsibility. So I made some of them my board members and together we created a mission for ISPEP. I wrote a brochure, wrote a certification program with educational consultants, and created a Web site.

BB: Tell me more about the certification process.

Lett: ISPEP provides its members educational and professional development opportunities during its regional and annual meetings. To qualify to sit for the Certified Protocol Professional certification program, you have to have at least three years of experience in the industry and qualify as an active member. Newcomers can become apprentice members for up to three years and then become active members.

It's a four-hour exam, and includes questions on the basics as well as about special international situations.

We had our first annual meeting and exam in July 2004. Six people took the test and passed. We have applications from 12 more members who will take the exam this year. ISPEP will be offering study courses for 2005 to 2006 beginning in June. Certified Meeting Professionals and anyone else wishing to qualify for the CPP will be welcome to attend.

BB: Are you finding more of a need for knowledgeable international protocol officers these days? And if so, why?

Lett: Things started mushrooming six years ago when you started hearing “going global” from every corporation. It meant putting people on an airplane and sending them to other countries, but we forgot to teach them how to do business when they got there.

Corporate executives made so many mistakes, forgetting to address people formally, for example, and using the American style of calling people by their first names. In many cultures, at that point, the person being incorrectly addressed stops listening. And the next time you make that business call you'll hear, “I'm sorry, I can't take your call.”

Then the press started picking up on the need for Americans to do business in foreign countries, and so companies started looking for trainers and coming to people with expertise such as mine.

BB: How did your business adapt and thrive?

Lett: We started getting a lot more business, and companies started asking us to train the in-house corporate trainers.

We also train a lot of international people in government, sometimes those from ministry of tourism offices. Those of us who have been doing it for a while are doing well. The need is still very much there. At ISPEP we say there are no competitors, only colleagues.

However, we are becoming more specialized, much more specific in our training. We are teaching how to negotiate, how to deal with people who are down on America, and how to network.

I also do a lot of training for foreign companies who have visitors to the United States and for planners who are doing multicultural meetings. For example, people need to know what they or cannot use to eat. A good third of the world eats with their hands, for example. So I teach a lot of catering executives, too, about different religions and customs.

BB: What is your definition of business etiquette and protocol?

Lett: It's more than just knowing what [utensils] one can or cannot eat with. It's not just about logistics. But it is about making your meeting a comfortable and welcoming experience for people. Proper business etiquette is nothing more than enjoying doing business with people by treating them with respect. It's all about letting people know what to expect. Protocol, on the other hand, is the list of rules recognized the world over that explain specific logistics and behaviors. Seating charts and receiving lines are protocol, not etiquette, issues.

BB: What is your best advice for a professional planning a meeting or event in a foreign country for the very first time?

Lett: Get a book about that culture and read it. Then find someone who can fill in the blanks.

Show you have respect for the culture. That alone gives you brownie points through the roof. You don't have to be an expert.

You don't have to be fluent in that language, but know how to say hello, goodbye, and thank you.

Three books I recommend are the Do's and Taboos of Hosting International Visitors; Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to do Business in Sixty Countries; and Rules of the Game: Global Business Protocol. (For more information on these books, see “Resource Guide,” page 57.)

But probably the one thing an American planner should do before going to another country is to look at a map and know exactly where that country is in relationship to the rest of the world. A little geography goes a long way!

Cynthia Lett has been teaching the course, Business Protocol, for the George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs, Washington, D.C., for the past six years. She will be speaking at three World Quest events in July. Visit for more information.