There are no second chances when you ship materials to a meeting or convention. If materials arrive late - or not at all - you're in trouble. How do you avoid such disasters? By using qualified, experienced suppliers. But remember that suppliers act as agents of the person shipping the materials. You are ultimately responsible for complying with regulations, and will have to pay any penalties for noncompliance - whether those penalties are in the form of duties and taxes or delayed materials. Therefore, all shippers - meeting planners, conference organizers, and exhibitors, if the event includes an expo - need to be aware of the requirements.

Customs Documents The ATA Carnet. This is a "merchandise passport" issued by the USCIB in New York City (212/354-4480; www.uscib.org). The ATA Carnet demonstrates to customs officials that you are bringing in merchandise temporarily; if you do not re-export the merchandise, you will be subject to penalties. ATA Carnets may be used for most business-related items.

The ATA Carnet is accepted in more than 50 countries. It is not required, but there are several advantages to using it whenever possible:

- It is valid for a year and can be used for unlimited entries and re-entries.

- It eliminates temporary import duties and value-added taxes. In Taiwan, for example, the VAT is 5 percent, and duties can be as high as 50 percent of the total value of the merchandise.

- It is far less expensive than Temporary Importation Under Bond (see below), which can reach 150 percent of the value of the shipment.

- It simplifies customs procedures and re-entry into the United States.

Carnet costs include a processing fee that ranges from $120 to $250, depending on the value of the shipment, and a refundable security deposit of at least 40 percent of the value of the shipment (100 percent in Israel and the Republic of Korea). The deposit can be paid by check or surety bond. If it is paid by surety bond, there is an additional nonrefundable charge of 1 percent of the deposit ($10 for each $1,000). That additional charge should be weighed against the interest lost if the deposit is paid by check. There is also a $100 surcharge on all carnets destined for the People's Republic of China.

Carnet application materials can be downloaded from the USCIB Web site or obtained from one of the Service Bureaus listed on the site. You can also use the Carnet Electronic Application, a Microsoft Windows-based program. For more information on this, contact Edward W. Y. Ho, manager, MIS and network administration, USCIB, at (212) 354-4480, or at eho@uscib.org.

For other carnet questions, contact Cynthia Duncan, vice president for carnet operations, at (212) 354-4480, or at atacarnet@uscib.org.

- Temporary Importation Under Bond (TIB). If you do not use a carnet, you must post a bond to guarantee that the merchandise will be re-exported. A bond must be obtained for each foreign country upon arrival. That is obviously far more complicated than using a single ATA Carnet, which is obtained before leaving the United States.

- A Certificate of Origin. This document, required by some countries, states where items in the shipment were manufactured. Be alert to the pitfalls here, cautions William A. Maron, director of ocean exports for A.N. Deringer Inc., a freight forwarder and customs broker based in Valley Stream, N.Y. Maron tells of a shipper who listed "U.S." as the country of origin of sewing machines that were purchased here, but manufactured in Japan: They were detained by customs officials for six months. The freight forwarder completes the Certificate of Origin, and should know which countries require it.

- Temporary Export License. This is a specialized license required by the U.S. government for export of products that could affect national security, including aircraft parts, firearms, and some computers. For further information, contact the Dept. of Commerce, Office of Export Administration, at (202) 482-4811, or the Dept. of State, Office of Defense Trade Controls, at (703) 875-6644.

An experienced international freight forwarder knows which documents will be needed. Some documents are always required, some vary by country or commodity, and some are at the discretion of the shipper. For specific customs information for your shipment, you can contact the nearest U.S. Customs office. Check your phone book under "Treasury Department" in the U.S. Government listings.

What Freight Forwarders Do An international freight forwarder will transport your shipment from one of its consolidation points in the United States to the airport or seaport (some forwarders also transfer shipments from your warehouse to the consolidation point), and will help with documentation.

But if you ship exhibit booths and exhibit materials, such as products for display, it's preferable to select an international exhibit freight forwarder. This specialized forwarder is more expensive, but provides additional services, including delivering the freight to the stand (as booths are known outside the United States), unpacking, storing crates during the show - and reversing the procedure after the show. In other words, the international exhibit freight forwarder usually handles drayage, which in the United States is the responsibility of a separate contractor. (Caution: It's usually done this way, but not always. Ask the freight forwarder.)

Customs Brokers, Airlines, etc. You'll need a customs broker, who receives goods at the destination, declares the value of the shipment, processes the paperwork, and handles the payment of any fees required to clear the goods.

Although you can contract separately with a freight forwarder and a customs broker, it makes more sense to select a forwarder who is also a licensed customs broker. There's one less supplier to deal with, and you're more likely to receive seamless service.

Why not deal directly with the airline for all your shipping needs? Because an airline is strictly a carrier. Thus an airline typically would not be able to arrange to ship items to the air terminal, for instance, or to prepare the documentation that would help your shipments to clear customs. What about using air couriers? For anything more than catalogs, it's generally not a good idea. If any problems with your shipment arise at the port of entry, no one can act as your agent.

Locating Suppliers If you are planning a meeting or organizing a trade show outside the United States, your best bet is to select a U.S.-based company as the official freight forwarder. There will be no language problem, which is especially important when you're dealing with so many technical terms. And the time zone differences will be minimal, or perhaps nonexistent.

If you are organizing an exhibition, the show organizer will name an official freight forwarder based in the country in which the event is being held. That forwarder then appoints agents in all the countries participating in the event. In this situation, you are almost always better off selecting your own forwarder rather than using the official supplier. The exception: Some countries require a special customs bond and give only the official forwarder permission to offer that bond.

For organizations that exhibit independently in an event produced by an offshore organizer, it's preferable to use the official forwarder. If there are any problems, you'll have more clout with the organizer.

There are probably only a dozen U.S.-based international exhibit freight forwarders. Check the directories issued by the International Association for Exposition Management, the Trade Show Exhibitors Association, and the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. A more comprehensive listing of international freight forwarders, not just those that specialize in exhibits, is the directory of the National Customs Brokers & Forwarders Association of America Inc.

Evaluating Suppliers - Experience. How long has the freight forwarder been in business? If you have exhibitors who will be shipping special equipment, is the forwarder experienced in handling such equipment?

- Reputation. Get current references. For exhibit freight forwarders, get the names of show organizers and, if practical, managers at foreign facilities. Affiliation with industry groups is a good indicator of professionalism.

- Services. Request a detailed list of the services that the forwarder can provide. Will he or she pick up materials at your organization's site, or must you deliver to the consolidation point? Who handles the paperwork? Who handles customs clearance? Is the forwarder a licensed customs broker? If the forwarder is an exhibit freight forwarder, he or she should be able to provide door-to-booth and booth-to-door services.

- Rates. The components of shipping costs are the number of pieces, the size and weight of the pieces, the value of the shipment, and the type of commodity. Give the forwarder an example of something that is likely to be shipped and request a quote. The forwarder should provide a close estimate, giving you a basis for comparing price/value ratios of the freight forwarders under consideration.