Fear of customs hassles may be supplanting fear of flying for many attendees and exhibitors at international events held in the U.S. In the security-obsessed post-Sept. 11 climate, incoming travelers and shipments are expected to encounter greater scrutiny.

Most observers predict visitors from western Europe still will have little trouble entering the U.S. "But when you get into the emerging economies, it gets dicey," says Steven Hacker, president of the International Association for Exhibition Management in Dallas. "When you add the issue of terrorism to the mix, it gets even dicier," he adds. He says the Immigration and Naturalization Service in recent years started cracking down on abuses by visa holders who enter the U.S. but fail to return home on time, if ever. Based on their records, the government has targeted countries such as Pakistan, the Philippines, China, India, and certain nations in Africa, Hacker says. Those efforts have taken on added weight since the news that several of the September 11 suicide bombers had overstayed their visas, an embarrassment that the government wants to avoid repeating.

As a result, meeting planners with heavy international audiences will undoubtedly get more requests for help from overseas attendees and exhibitors. That help may take a variety of forms.

Typically, visitors seeking a visa to enter the U.S. need proof of a legitimate reason for being there. "Almost invariably they need some kind of letter of invitation," says Stephen Schuldenfrei, president of Framingham, Mass.-based Exposition Operation Society, and an operations expert. Some consulates require an original letter, and often the visa applicant may wait until late in the game to request it, so meeting organizers should be prepared to act quickly.

That doesn’t mean anyone who requests it should get a letter. "You really need to know who you are inviting," Schuldenfrei says. "You need to make sure they’re qualified and coming in for a real reason." And if anyone who requested a letter of invitation for a visa application doesn’t arrive for the event, a show manager should consider reporting that individual to the authorities, he adds.

The Radiological Society of North America’s annual scientific assembly, like many medical meetings, attracts a great deal of interest from outside the U.S. About a quarter of the professionals who attend the Chicago event each November hail from overseas. For those who run into visa snafus, the society routinely retains the services of a consultant who intervenes with local consulates.

Steve Drew, assistant executive director of the scientific assembly and informatics, didn’t notice an inordinate number of attendees seeking the consultant’s help for the November 2001 meeting. Several exhibitors reportedly did have trouble entering the U.S., however, he says.

While some exhibitors may have been unable to attend the Radiological Society’s annual meeting, their booths and materials made it, thanks to a customs agency that helps them navigate shipping rules. "From what we have seen, there is more trouble with people than with materials," observes Douglas Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in Chicago. He explains that international trade fare bonds streamline shipping of materials for exhibits and help exhibitors skirt inspections at points of entry. So far, he says, getting shipments to the U.S. hasn’t posed a problem.

Schuldenfrei also doesn’t expect exhibits to pose a huge customs problem. "Typically, they are sent from known exhibit houses or major companies," he says. "There might be a little more inspection, it might take another day, but I haven’t heard anyone say yet that someone couldn’t get into a show because their stuff got tied up in customs."

The shipping process is likely to grow thornier, though. The Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines are increasing security measures that are likely to affect international cargo shipments, according to Richard McCrady, Sr., president of Minneapolis-based CF AirFreight. He expects fewer routes, more elaborate security steps, additional requirements such as x-rays and decompression of packages, and other measures that will increase shipping times and demands on the shipper.

"Customers will have to provide more detail about their products when shipping freight," McCrady says. He says the new procedures will likely increase security and insurance surcharges.

International exhibitions with a substantial international component should consider designating staff members or customs experts to help smooth the way for companies. "All exhibitors’ needs are different," Hacker explains. "If you want to grow internationally, you’d better have some people here to assist people coming in with information well in advance."