When planning an event outside the United States, getting materials to and from the meeting destination requires careful planning and execution — and, very often, expert help. Here's an overview of the process — and how you can prevent headaches and save money.
Choosing a Customs Broker
In the world of shipping, meetings and conventions pose unique challenges, so choosing a broker that knows this business is critical. For example, there are few other industries requiring absolute guarantees that materials arrive on time. Customs delays of days, or even hours, can mean the difference between having your material at your event — or having nothing. Moreover, often events move in or out after hours and on weekends, requiring your broker to work those same nonstandard hours.
The customs broker should also have experience in the country where your event will be held. Each country is unique in the treatment of importing goods for trade shows and exhibitions. A good customs broker, knowledgeable in the country you are exporting to, can not only ensure your goods clear customs but also minimize duties and taxes.
You also need to consider time zones. The bottom line is that your broker needs to be in the same time zone as your event. If there is a problem in Spain, it will not do you any good if your broker is in Florida.
One of the challenges for a meeting planner when working with a customs broker is understanding the rates and charges the customs broker will expect. Make sure you have in writing what the “door-to-door” costs will be, as there are always four to five fees that will build up an invoice, and these fees generally don't include the duties and taxes that may be applicable. It's very important to ask your broker to explain what the charges reflect when you get a quote.
Ask for the broker's rate sheet for the company's services, which are most often based on the value of the goods you are sending combined with the services that the broker is providing. There will generally be some fees for importing your goods into the country you are working in as well as fees for importing the goods back into the United States. Make sure you are getting both of these services from your broker.
Rates are related to the manufacturing (or wholesale) value of goods. The reason for the relationship with value is the risk associated with tax, duty, bonds being posted, and other guarantees your broker will give to the importing government.
Remember, you dictate the value of the goods on your commercial invoice, thereby dictating the fees you will be charged. So don't overestimate the manufacturing value as it will trigger the rate your broker will charge as well as the amount of duties and taxes you will pay. Moreover, the more times you bring goods across a border (or the number of entries), the more work your broker will need to do and charge you for. In all cases, it will be less expensive to ship one entry into the country than to ship the same amount over three or four entries.
Avoiding Customs delays
Quite possibly the most frustrating aspect of shipping internationally is to receive notification that your freight is “stuck at customs.” In fact, there is no physical place where your freight goes when it is held up. Your shipment is usually still with the carrier — either in a truck or at the carrier's warehouse awaiting some sort of clarification, paperwork, or payment. Generally, most issues can be dealt with via e-mail or a phone call and should not take more that a few hours to fix. The key, of course, is to ensure that delays won't affect the delivery time.
The most common problems with shipments getting stuck in customs are paperwork errors and the broker not having enough information. Delays are rarely due to problems with the actual commodity being imported. Logically then, the easiest way to get the freight out of customs is to get the paperwork sorted out. This usually involves talking directly with your freight carrier and your broker. If these delays happen on site, you may need access to your original paperwork. Having your paperwork with you will help if you need to refax forms to the right people.
The commercial invoice is a legal document that gives your customs broker all the information needed to move your shipment into a foreign country. It is the most important document for customs. Essentially, the commercial invoice is a declaration by you telling the broker what you are sending. It involves a complete list of each item you are sending, the country of manufacture, and the value.
A list printed on your company letterhead with your signature often will suffice. Otherwise, each broker will have a blank commercial invoice that you can complete. Completing the commercial invoice can take a little time, but it is well worth it if it enables your broker to submit your shipment properly. You can also ask if your broker can prepare the document for you and you can simply copy it onto your letterhead for signature.
What about other information that might be needed? Some commodities will need radio-frequency identification numbers found on the back or bottom of electronic equipment. Some countries are more stringent than others, so talk to your broker about what is required. Most brokers will also require your Federal Tax ID Number.
Before you commit to the materials that you will take with you, write out a preliminary list and send it to your broker or shipping company to confirm that entries will not be turned away or subject to delays. Keep in mind that your customs broker may need some time to research all your items. Allow yourself enough time to make changes if you find the cost of shipping your materials is prohibitive.
Remember that you are importing goods into another country and will be dealing with governments and their agents. These things take time, so plan for it.
Working With Freight Forwarders
Freight forwarders are companies that broker freight on a multitude of different carriers. The primary advantage of using a freight forwarder is their flexibility. They can move small boxes to large crates of exhibit materials anywhere in the world at any speed you need. Unlike other carriers, the freight forwarder can choose a carrier to meet your specific needs and will often use two or three carriers along the way. Some of the largest freight logistics companies in the world are freight forwarders. In fact, many freight forwarders are also customs brokers, ensuring a smooth transition though international borders.
The criteria for choosing the right freight forwarder are the same as for choosing a customs broker: You want a company that has experience in the convention and meetings industry as well as in the country where your event will be held. Shipping internationally is very different from shipping in the United States. There are restrictions, permits, and bylaws that change from country to country. Even terminology in the shipping industry changes quite dramatically from one continent to the next.
Moreover, having your carrier or freight forwarder on your time zone when you are at your event is very important. Unlike customs, where most of the challenges should have presented themselves days prior to delivery, the freight forwarder's timing is down to the hour. This is when you need to know the status of your delivery as they are bringing it to you.
Ideally, you want to pick a freight forwarder who is also a customs broker. However, the likelihood that freight forwarders are licensed in every country you are working in is slim. Typically, they will have working relationships with brokers in the country you are working in. This is OK, but be sure to get the name and contact number for the actual customs broker that you will be dealing with on site.
In most cases, carriers willtheir overseas work to other cartage companies. This means that the company that delivers your material will not ordinarily be the same as the one that picks it up. Your local freight forwarder will always be responsible for the entire journey, but if there is a problem when you are overseas, you will want to talk to the actual company that has your freight. Therefore, get the name, number, and contact person at your destination. And find a company that you can contact 24/7.
Avoiding Pitfalls of Freight-Forwarding
You and the carrier will have an agreement that you sign called the bill of lading. This is the single most important legal documentation for your carrier. It will override all other agreements between you and your freight forwarder. This will indicate how many pieces you are sending, where they are going, and how fast they are going to get there. Additionally, it will limit the carrier's liability if there is a problem with the shipment. The instructions on the bill of lading will always override any verbal instruction you give to your shipping company or to the driver. Bear in mind that your shipment will probably be delivered by a different company, in a different country, and often in a different language.
Every time you sign a bill of lading, you are agreeing to the terms and conditions found on the back of that document. If you ever feel like reading it, you will find that the carrier limits their liability to a very small amount of money (often far below the actual value of the shipment). If your shipment is lost or destroyed, the carrier will be responsible in most cases for about $50.
Purchase full cargo insurance if your carrier offers it, or arrange to have your commercial general liability insurance (CGL) from your office cover your shipment while in transit. This may already be covered or you may need to purchase a rider.
Record the size, color, and shape of each piece along with a number on the shipping label. This may sound like a lot of work, but when your carrier tells you that only nine of the 10 pieces are in San Juan, Puerto Rico, you need to know which two are missing. The description of the piece (a blue Rubbermaid bin, for example) will help the carrier locate what's missing when they do their warehouse check. In the meantime, you know what is missing and can begin planning for other options.
Tracking your shipment is the job of a good freight forwarder. However, if you want be in control, track your shipment yourself. Sometimes, your shipments can be tracked online. If you are tracking your freight and you see it sitting in a city for more than a day, there could be a problem. This is called a “stalled shipment” and often indicates a service issue.
The most important step in the shipping process is the final proof of delivery (POD). This is when the bill of lading gets a signature and the carrier is no longer responsible. When you have the POD yourself, you can verify that everything is in good order. However, when you ask the hotel or convention center receiving the shipment to do it for you, you are trusting that staff will take the time to ensure that all the pieces are there and that there is no damage. It is essential to get the name of the person at the hotel who signed for your shipment.
There are some documents that are going to be especially important to the success of your event, such as business cards, presentation folders, registration forms, evaluation forms, awards, and certificates. Take one hard copy of each in your briefcase or carry-on, and save another on your computer. If everything else fails, you can take that one brochure or registration form to a local printing or copy center.
Find out whether there are any national holidays in the days and weeks prior to your event. Holidays backlog the supply chain from warehousing, trucking, and customs. Working hours — particularly with customs — can be different in the country you are going to. It is good to know what you are up against when you are planning your shipment.
Consider your return shipping before you leave and have the bill of lading filled out ahead of time (except for piece count). Take your customs documents and complete your return shipping labels. If a commercial invoice is required, use the original and cross out what is not being returned. Alternatively, save the commercial invoice to disk or on your laptop for easy updating for your return shipment.
Materials handling is the final part of the shipping process and is required by every carrier you will work with. Every shipment requires a signature from someone to legally end the contract you have with the carrier. That signature is important as it signifies agreement that the shipment has been delivered completely to your satisfaction and is not damaged.
Consider having your carrier hold the freight in its warehouse until you arrive at the hotel. As long as the freight is in the city and has cleared customs, it should take only a matter of hours to bring it to your hotel.
If you are shipping to the hotel prior to your arrival, ensure that the recipient (consignee) will accept your materials and store them for you. Find out what they will charge you for this service. Ask them to check the freight for any damages or shortages before they sign the bill of lading.
When you're getting confirmation of the piece count, ask the consignee to actually count the pieces that are in their storage or warehouse rather than read it off of a bill of lading. If you don't tell the person how many pieces there are supposed to be, there is a higher likelihood that they will actually count the pieces.
If there are charges for this service, you may find that there is actually more accountability and systems in place to handle your shipment.
Paul Griggs is the founder of Events on the Move, a customs brokerage and international freight-forwarding company dedicated to the meeting, convention, and exhibition industry, based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Griggs, a member of Meeting Professionals International, Professional Convention Management Association, and American Society of Association Executives, has given presentations on shipping for a variety of audiences in North America.
Labeling and Packing: 7 Ways to Avoid Trouble
- Remove all old shipping labels
Electronic scanners will read the bar codes on old labels. You want to ensure that people will read the right destination for your shipment.
- Label each piece with two shipping labels
Labels can be mistakenly turned inward or out of sight or can fall off. When shipments are stacked, your labels can often face inside the pallet, making them unreadable. This can be especially problematic when you are missing a piece and are asking the warehouse to look for it. Using two labels increases the chances that people will read them.
- Write a contact phone number on each shipping label
You never know who is going to be looking at your box wondering to whom it belongs. Providing a phone number to call (not toll-free unless it can be used from anywhere in the world) increases your chances of your piece turning up.
- Write a piece count on each label
This could be the single most important aspect of labeling yet it is the most overlooked. When ensuring your shipment is complete, warehouses and drivers will often rely on the information on your shipping label.
- Use small boxes
Large boxes will be stacked on the bottom and heavy boxes get dropped. Never ship anything that is too big or too heavy for you to lift easily.
- Always use new strong-cornered boxes, rather than old flimsy ones
This will increase the chances of your boxes staying in form throughout transit. Use plenty of packing tape on all the edges and corners to strengthen the box. Remember that corners of boxes will crease. This can be particularly troublesome if you are shipping presentation brochures.
- Try Rubbermaid containers instead of boxes
Corners will not dent and they will stack well. Often, they have handles making it easier to move around.
Shortcuts: Money-Saving Tips When Shipping Overseas
In the world of shipping, three factors make up the cost: size, speed, and distance. If you can manage any of these factors, your price will go down. It's that simple. Consolidation is another way to save money. If you have 20 boxes to be shipped, it is generally cheaper to send a pallet (one) with 20 boxes. This way, your shipment travels as one piece rather than as 20.
Keep in mind, too, that last-minute changes often result in last-minute shipping, which exposes you to risk and high costs.
- Rates are based primarily on value of goods being shipped and services provided.
- Obtain a rate sheet whenever possible.
- For low-value goods, it may be less expensive to pay the duties and taxes than to pay for brokerage services.
- Rates are based per entry. Avoid sending multiple entries into the country.
- Inquire about duties and taxes before you commit to shipping.
- Apply for tax refund wherever possible.
- Rates are based on the size and weight of shipment and the distance and speed your shipment will be traveling.
- Carriers charge by the total weight or the “dim weight” (whichever is greater). Dim weight is an industry term to describe the “dimensional weight.” To get the dim weight you multiply the length, width, and height. In most cases, carriers charge by the higher of the dim weight or actual weight.
- Larger shipments may be cheaper if you book the entire truck.
- To avoid minimum charges, consolidate wherever possible.
- In North America, this is often charged by the total weight of the inbound shipment and could include daily storage fees.
- Services should include both the inbound and outbound shipment.
- Hotels may charge daily storage fees if you ship in advance.