RECENT CHANGES in security measures for foreign visitors have the potential to affect international meetings held in the United States. A new program called US-VISIT was implemented at 115 airports and 14 major seaports on January 5, 2004. The new security measures require that most foreign visitors traveling to the U.S. on a visa have their two index fingers scanned and a digital photograph taken to verify their identity at the port of entry. While this procedure is not expected to add much time to the immigration clearance process, it could have a profound impact on how visitors feel about coming to meetings in the United States.
For foreign visitors contemplating attending meetings in the United States, these new regulations can be intimidating or even frightening. The process to obtain a visa is now more complicated, waiting times at airports are greatly increased because of new security measures, and visitors are subjected to more procedures upon arrival. Depending upon their country of origin, some visitors may be subject to a high level of security screening.
Stressed and Fearful
“It is not a very gracious feeling to be singled out,” says Pedro Vera Garduño, board member, Global Alliance for CME, and vice president of Intersistemas, S.A. de C.V., a medical publishing and meetings company in Mexico City. His company has extensive arrangements with medical education organizations in the United States, and he frequently travels here. “We in Mexico have very mixed feelings about the new security measures. Why so many increased security measures for Mexicans, but not Canadians? We are all part of NAFTA.” (The fingerprinting program does not apply to Canada.) “Some of my peers are stressed and fearful of what to expect. They are important people in their country, and these new measures can be inconvenient. Some plan to hold videoconferences instead of so many face-to-face meetings. “My company has no choice. The Mexican economy is 85 percent dependent on the United States, so we travel back and forth frequently. It's not a good idea to get in a fight with your best client, so we accept the new regulations and try to plan ahead when we travel.”
Leisure travel could also be affected by the new regulations. People may prefer to vacation locally or to go to Europe where security measures are not perceived as hostile to visitors. Many physicians combine vacations within the United States. Even if they still decide to attend medical meetings in the U.S., how will they feel about subjecting their children or their spouses to these new regulations? They may opt to leave their families at home.
Smooth the Way
While there isn't much that medical meeting planners can do about the new regulations, it is important to remember that international attendees may be confused and upset. Good PR and a kind ear will help. Be proactive:
Include information about what to expect in all of your travel documentation.
Put links on your Web site to updated information services from U.S. Customs.
Have greeters at the airport who speak multiple languages to assist with any questions.
Assign “meeting ambassadors” who are experienced in a variety of cultures to answer questions and simply be available to listen.
Find tourist information in a variety of languages to help visitors feel more at home; have it waiting for them in their room.
Be prepared to soothe some sore feelings when your international attendees arrive.
For more information about the US-VISIT program, see page 41.
Jennifer Goodwin is president of The Goodwin Group, a global medical communications consulting agency. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.