“We are scared to death about next July,” says Linda de Leon, CMP, RCMA board member and meeting planner for next year's Seventh-day Adventist Church General Conference in St. Louis. The conference occurs every five years and typically attracts about 70,000 delegates. The source of her fear: Nearly half of those delegates hail from outside the United States.

“People are coming from more than 200 countries, and we are very concerned about them getting visas and being able to attend,” de Leon says. For those needing visas, the Silver Spring, Md. — based church is furnishing application instructions, including a list of the documents American consulates will demand in interviews. But de Leon and her counterparts in other denominations increasingly are also crossing their fingers.

Across the board, religious meeting planners fear that more invasive security measures for visitors to the United States might prevent them from attending meetings.

Visitors from many developing countries already face a daunting and often protracted process for obtaining visas to attend U.S. conferences. In January, the US-VISIT program went into effect; it involves capturing fingerprint images and photographing all entering visa holders. As of October 2004, even visitors from the 27 countries that are part of the visa waiver program — those who can enter the country with a passport — will be forced to undergo the same biometric identification process at immigration points.

New Requirements

Originally, the Patriot Act decreed that visitors from visa waiver countries carry passports with embedded biometric data no later than October 2004. At press time, however, tourism officials and Bush administration staff were lobbying Congress to extend that deadline by two years because only a few countries are expected to have the technology in place by October. Even the United States won't have the capability to read the high-tech passports at all points of entry this year. So an extension on the deadline seems likely.

The potential fallout from making visitors submit to these new requirements is difficult to predict. “I think people will resent the biometrics in the beginning, but if it expedites the process, it will help,” says Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, which operates the largest trade show in the United States. “A lot also depends on the attitude of the officials.”

Tacked onto the arduous road that many face in pursuit of a visa for the United States, however, is the fear of an even more negative effect on travel to the United States, which is already off more than 30 percent compared to pre-9/11 levels.

Visa delays or denials are wreaking havoc with some conferences and trade shows. A new policy implemented in 2003 requires a personal interview with a consular or embassy employee. That demand has not only taxed the overseas State Department employees, it has inconvenienced visa applicants in countries such as China and certain African nations, who may have to spend time and money traveling hundreds of miles for interviews. “Now, they have to take a trip before they take a trip,” says Edward Fluhr, manager of legislative affairs for the Travel Industry Association of America.

“There is a lot of stuff going on, a lot of new rules being created and implemented, without enough attention to resources,” Fluhr says. “That's why you're getting such long waits for visas.” He advises anyone organizing an international meeting in the United States to start early to ensure that attendees are applying for visas in a timely manner.

Branded as Illegal

Religious conferences may be hit especially hard because many of their attendees, as church employees, will appear on paper to lack the financial wherewithal to return home and will be branded as potential illegal immigrants — one of the prime reasons for denying a visa.

The United Methodist Church reported that large numbers of foreign delegates to its April 27 — May 7 general conference in Pittsburgh had not obtained visas because they were unable to schedule interviews in time for the event.

Of 106 delegates from Africa, only a handful had received visas by March. Consular offices also reportedly were limiting the number of visas they would issue. Registered attendees from the Philippines were rejected because the embassy did not believe the General Assembly's policy of paying delegates' expenses.

The rejected applicants were told they lacked sufficient assets to support themselves while in the United States.

Although The International Association for Exhibition Management does not track lost business, a number of its members have blamed visa hassles for attendance drops and no-show exhibitors.

Some, such as George Little Management, have had to revise their contracts and include refund clauses to cover visa-related travel glitches.

In Hawaii, an August life insurance conference that was expected to attract more than 3,000 attendees, many of them from China, was canceled. A smaller meeting was postponed for the same reason.

Many of these meetings face competition in other parts of the world that have fewer entry barriers than the United States.

“All of us support extra security measures, but if we are destroying our ability to compete in the world, we're going to find more elegant ways to screen international visitors,” says Stephen Hacker, IAEM's president. His association and others are lobbying for a fast-track visa program that would streamline the application process for foreigners with a history of business-related travel.

To Learn More

U.S. meeting planners expecting a lot of overseas attendees can bone up on the new US-VISIT requirements by downloading a brochure from www.dhs.gov/us-visit.