When we called our shipping expert, Paul Griggs, president and CEO for Events on the Move, a customs broker and freight forwarder in Vancouver, B.C., he had a surprising piece of advice: Don't ship so much!

“Even though we make a living from shipping things around the world, shipping relies on trucks and planes — top contributors to carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. The less we ship, the better off the planet will be,” he says. “With the technology we have today, for example, it doesn't always make sense to me why we ship paper around the world. I'm a big supporter of buying locally and supporting the local economy that we drop in on with our meetings.”

Few organizations will get anywhere near “zero shipping,” of course. And the longer and more complicated the journey your materials have to take, the more you need someone like Griggs to help you. Here, he shares with us the basics of international shipping.

Beyond Borders: What is the difference between a customs broker and a freight forwarder? Do I need both?

Paul Griggs: A customs broker specializes in the importation and exportation of goods across international borders. Some specialize in meetings and conventions. Most countries require customs brokers to be licensed or affiliated with a professional organization to be able to offer customs brokerage services. A freight forwarder specializes in shipping goods. Some freight forwarders will specialize in local pickup and deliveries and some will specialize in shipping to or from certain countries. Some specialize in shipping for meetings and conventions.

In my opinion, a true freight forwarder is a “non-asset-based” company, meaning they do not own their own planes or trucks. This makes them more flexible in that they can move any goods of any size to and from anywhere. They can also move goods at different speeds — ocean or air — giving them flexibility in rates. Some customs brokers are also freight forwarders, meaning you don't need to hire two companies. Remember, however, that companies specialize in certain types of business and certain countries. So while one may do well shipping to India, it may not be proficient with the customs. In all cases, ensure your freight forwarder and customs broker understand the business of meetings and conventions. It is very different from regular shipping. With trade shows, for example, carriers must be able to pick up boxes during a precise timeframe, so you need a carrier that is available seven days a week.

BB: How early in the process should I contact a customs broker and/or freight forwarder?

PG: Sometimes shipping ends up at the bottom of a planner's to-do list. But why not include it in your site-selection process? You may find it valuable to talk to a customs broker before making your city or country selection to determine the costs of duty and tax for your association, group, or exhibitors. You may find that these costs will help you determine which destination fits your needs the best. You also should ensure that you are not sending items that will cause delays with your shipment.

BB: What is the best strategy for packing materials?

PG: If you are shipping boxes, think like a box! It is amazing the transfers that your freight will go through from A to B. It will get bounced, rattled, and stacked no matter how far it is traveling. Consider using packing tape to reinforce all the sides and corners. I always suggest using smaller, more lightweight boxes.

Remember that these boxes are being handled by people like you and me. The lighter and easier to manage, the better the chances they won't be mishandled. Shipments get stacked, and naturally the larger, heavier pieces end up on the bottom with the smaller, lighter ones on top. If you were a box, where would you rather be?

BB: What should planners keep in mind in terms of duties and taxes?

PG: Whenever we ship something into another country, we are in effect importing those goods, and there may be a duty or tax on goods that remain in the country or could remain in the country.

Generally the duty and tax that could be charged is based on the value of the goods. If your shipment is not staying in the country (displays, registration materials, etc.) a customs broker can enter the goods in a certain way to avoid the duty and tax. However, there is a fee for this service. In the case of high-value items (such as computers), this makes sense. In the case of low-value shipments (such as name badges and office supplies), it may be cheaper just to pay the importation duty and tax even though the items may not be staying in the country.

(Note that if you are considering Canada for an upcoming meeting and if your event qualifies, there are provisions in place that allow for duty- and tax-free shipping on all your materials.)

BB: Is there anything you recommend not shipping?

PG: Every country will have a different position on importing and exporting commodities. Most countries will have guidelines on what commodities they control and to what degree.

A good customs broker, specializing in the meeting industry, can advise you of what goods you should or should not consider shipping. In the world of meetings and conventions, there is nothing universally that I suggest you don't send anywhere. But one should exercise common sense. Food and drugs, for example, are a controlled commodity in most countries. In my experience, textiles (T-shirts, bags, jackets) are sometimes tricky to import and often have duty and tax implications, particularly when you need to ship back into the U.S. the textiles that were not used.

BB: Why shouldn't I just pack up my boxes and call DHL or UPS?

PG: There is nothing wrong that. DHL and UPS are great shipping companies and often pioneer great things for our industry. But I would not treat DHL or UPS any differently that any other carrier you may consider calling. You still need to ensure that they can offer the right level of service to meet your needs and budget. You want to make sure that they have the success of your meeting in mind.

I always suggest using freight companies and customs brokers that specialize in the uniqueness of your industry. Some carriers are great at business-to-business, Monday to Friday, deliveries. But meetings involve hotels or convention centers, and often your material must be delivered on weekends or after hours.

You need someone on your side who understands the importance of your materials arriving on time and someone who can be available 24/7 if there are problems.

BB: What is the best way to find a customs broker or freight forwarder? What are the most important questions to ask before I choose one?

PG: There are some associations for freight forwarders and customs brokers that are a good start but may not give you the companies that specialize in meetings. Ask your local CVB for suppliers they recommend in the host city you are working in. And of course the Professional Convention Management Association, Meeting Professionals International, and American Society of Association Executives are good resources. Questions to ask include:

  • Are you accustomed to the needs of meeting and convention clients?

  • What experience do you have in the country where my meeting is being held?

  • Do you use agents in my meeting city and, if so, how do I contact them when I am there?

  • Ask for a rate schedule and then ask for a quote based on your estimated shipment. Ensure that this is “door-to-door” service with all duties and taxes.

Remember that your suppliers make a living from being successful in their industry. But mistakes happen. By taking into consideration all the things that could go wrong, your meeting will be in a better position if they do go wrong.

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Paul Griggs is the founder of Events on the Move, a customs brokerage and international freight forwarding company dedicated to the meetings, conventions, and exhibitions industry. He is an active member of Meeting Professionals International, the Professional Convention Management Association, and the American Society of Association Executives.