This article was adapted from a tutorial held at a past RCMA conference. The session was led by Stella Beene-Venson, meeting planner, Section of Chaplains, The United Methodist Church, Nashville; Marcia Bullock, manager, Groups and Conventions, Jamaica Tourist Board; Paula Hill, associate publisher, international, The Meetings Group-Primedia Business; and Martin Ytreberg, CMP, meeting planner, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Nampa, Idaho.
Look for more great information on overseas meetings in Beyond Borders, a supplement that will arrive with your June issue of RCM.
When planning a meeting outside the United States, your first step should be contacting the tourist board in the country in which your meeting will be held. Tourist boards can answer questions and dispel myths about holding a meeting at a specific destination. Prior to meeting with the tourist board, consider asking about the following issues.
The location you choose will determine how much extra preparation goes into planning your meeting. A meeting held in Canada, for example, is very similar in many ways (hotels, transportation, airport security) to one held in the United States. Most of Europe is very modern, with similar conveniences to the United States.
In Africa and India, though, the picture changes, and meetings require extra, special planning. Remember, things are different, not necessarily worse, and you will need to prepare more and prepare your attendees for what they will experience.
Overseas customs laws for shipping and moving are a lot different from those of the United States and require specialized knowledge. For example, all materials shipped to the host country must be specifically documented.
Customs brokers or international freight can provide this information, but you might not need to hire a broker, depending on the country. In the Caribbean, for example, many tourist boards have a process that eliminates the customs broker and work to have your duty fees waived.
For Canada and Europe, if the goods coming into the country are going to be given away, there's usually no duty. But if the goods are going to be sold, you're going to have to pay duty and probably collect the necessary taxes, or pay on behalf of the goods you sell. Certain countries may have unusual restrictions on certain items. For example, T-shirts are a restricted item in Canada, and you need to obtain special permits to take T-shirts into the country.
Generally, the more remote the location is, the less dependable the ground transportation can be and the greater the need for contingency planning. Other considerations:
Buses come in different shapes and sizes in different countries. But in most cases, buses that serve the tourist industry are air-conditioned and new.
Ask the tourist board to provide you with a list of those companies that cater to the group market. Some companies might just do transfers. You want ground-transportation companies that are familiar with meeting planners' needs.
In the United States, attendees are familiar with how to use a taxi at an airport; however, the process and experience could be different overseas, and you might need to provide transfers from the airport to the hotels.
Overseas airfares don't have to be expensive. Most overseas destinations do not require a Saturday night stay for a good fare, and most international carriers have group desks where you can negotiate a group fare, no matter where attendees are coming from. Other issues:
If your meeting dates happen to fall in the off-season (April 15-December 15 in the Caribbean, or the winter and spring in Europe), you have bargaining power.
There can be fewer restrictions to negotiating a good fare. Ask for special services, such as an airline desk at your host hotel. Air Jamaica has a service, for example, called beachside check-in, where customers check in and receive boarding passes and avoid lines at the airport.
In Europe, hotels may have a ballroom, but they may not have the number of breakout spaces you need. As a result, it's essential that you be involved in the up-front negotiations and have a clear understanding of your program's needs.
Convention centers are the meeting centers in Europe, but the centers have no hotels, just meeting space. You might have to be very imaginative in creating meeting space.
Depending on the season, typically there isn't much room foron room rates unless you are using meeting space. And definitions of room sizes might surprise you. A single room might have room for only one person, and a “double room” might not have two beds, just a larger bed than a single room. The beds themselves might not be the same size as in the United States, either.
Before 9/11/01, a driver's license was all that was needed to travel back and forth between the United States and Canada. Now you need a second piece of identification, indicating that you are an American citizen or that you have the right to be in the United States. Other issues:
If you have attendees who aren't normally travelers, they might not realize that they need a passport. Make sure to notify them well in advance that a passport will be required, and if they will need a visa.
If you're expecting non-U.S. attendees, requirements might be different from those for U.S. attendees.
The site visit can be critical. A name-brand hotel, for example, might not have the same standards of quality in a given country that it does in the United States. You might have no idea of what's available in an area or what a local area “feels” like.
Some religious organizations have apresence and local members who understand your group. If you have a trusted counterpart in the host country who understands your meeting's goals and needs, a site visit might not be needed.
If you are planning a meeting that is several years out, it's up to you to examine yourperiodically regarding insurance and security. Make adjustments, if necessary, if circumstances surrounding your meeting change. As the world changes, you need more flexibility in your contracts.
Also, make sure that security plans are a part of every aspect of your meeting, whether it's breakouts, meet-and-greets, or transportation to and from the airport. Prepare your team for any possible type of crisis.