Planning a meeting in a foreign country offers both the organization and the event planner plenty of opportunities to deliver new and unique experiences for attendees. An international event also brings a new set of logistical challenges that will test even the most savvy and experienced event planner. Your plan should cover a wide range of contingencies for such topics as valued-added taxes (VATs), customs delays and communication miscues. Following are some logistical considerations compiled by the Event Services team at SmithBucklin.
Take the time to learn about the country you’re visiting. For example, Japan has a week-long holiday for Golden Week in May. Because so many Japanese nationals are on vacation, we adjust our planning cycle to ensure no transactions are processed during that week. The same holds true for the Chinese New Year in China, the High Holy Days in Israel and Ramadan in Turkey. A useful trick we’ve learned is downloading a country’s holidays into our Outlook calendar.
Understand the culture differences regarding time. In Latin America, you may have a meeting set for 3 p.m., but your attendees might start showing up at 3:15. Be flexible and adjust your schedules and itineraries accordingly.
Make sure you research and follow each airline’s and airport’s luggage restrictions for both carry-on and checked luggage. Imagine if your checked bags containing all 1,500 of your event badges were lost or held up in customs? That’s why, when meeting outside of the U.S., we pack anything crucial to the event in our carry-on bags (and we make sure those bags meet the airline’s specifications). Depending on your event location, you may want to pack your badge holders in your carry-on, too. You do not want to worry about locating 1,000 badge holders in Shanghai on a Sunday after an unexpected storm has delayed your shipment.
Another key partner is the customs broker, a representative licensed in the local customs laws, shipping procedures, trade documentation and more. All goods and luggage must pass through customs, but protocols differ by country. A local customs broker can advise you on what items may trigger high customs taxes, helping you to avoid unnecessary expenses.
The customs broker should not be confused with a shipping company. While your shipping company may deliver internationally and is usually reliable, they are not responsible for ensuring your conference materials meet all of the country’s customs regulations. That means, if your shipment gets stopped in customs for any reason (and this happens frequently!), you will be the one dealing with the local government to get your items cleared.
In one case, a client organization’s shipment arriving in Poland was delayed at customs, and the customs broker had to drive to three separate government agencies in one day in order to release the boxes in time for registration. Meanwhile, the planner was able to focus on pre-meeting preparation.
Cultural attitudes toward business practices are vastly different. In Japan, the word “no” is rarely used, and politeness is a cultural staple. However, Japanese businesspeople will negotiate, so don’t be afraid to say what you want — be firm and polite at the same time.
We’ve also seen different approaches to handling contracts. Some countries, like China, might be resistant to include clauses that are standard in the United States. However, we have found Chinese convention centers are open to negotiating those clauses as they become more familiar with them.
African countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Nigeria and Ethiopia prefer agreements that are more free-flowing, sometimes not binding. This means you should always have a Plan B, C and D at hand.
If your event is going to encounter a pitfall, VATs (value-added taxes) is likely the place. While it’s easy to get caught up in the exciting, big-picture aspects of the event, it’s the nitty-gritty accounting details that are critical. If VATs are filed incorrectly, your event could face serious penalties and, therefore, cost overruns. Plan your budget so that you can contract a VAT expert in the city, region or country of your event. Make sure you and your VAT expert are up-to-date with the constantly changing VAT rules for registering, filing and maintaining compliance.
Not everyone you encounter in your international event planning will be fluent in English — some might not speak or understand English at all. We experienced some translation challenges while staying at a convention center in central Asia, and our team found very creative ways to communicate through using photos and clip art.
Americans tend to speak very fast and use a lot of jargon, and people speaking English as a second or third language often struggle to keep up. Additionally, the same word can mean different things to different people. For example, when the venue in Germany said it would provide a snack as part of the all-day meeting package, we assumed it meant brownies, cookies — the usual sweets. You can imagine our surprise when we found out that the snack consisted of a single apple per person.
Make a conscious effort to slow down and use more formal language. In Frankfurt, we had ordered two banners but the email correspondence became confusing, so we referred to them as “Banner A” and “Banner B.” When two of the same banners came, we were able to explain the problem and ask them to re-send “Banner B.”
When in doubt, call your local contacts. To avoid a high international phone bill, use www.freeconferencecall.com. Negotiations also can be done over the phone.
Ask what method of communication your contacts prefer. Some people read English better than they speak it, and vice versa.
Find local contacts with expertise and experience in handling event logistics in that region, and establish partnerships with them. These relationships are essential to ensuring the smooth operation of your event. Local connections can help navigate language and cultural gaps, assisting with local transportation, hospitality and security, among other needs. Also, seek out your contacts for clarification about cultural nuances.
The level of sophistication in convention centers abroad might be a pleasant surprise, especially in their dedication to providing excellent service. Don’t assume the American approach is always the best. Local vendors often offer talents that will delight your attendees.
These logistical considerations barely scratch the surface. In fact, our planning process guide includes more than 200 contingencies and variables. But the key takeaway is that when in doubt, ask for help. Whether it’s a convention and visitors bureau (CVB), the hotel manager, a destination management company (DMC) or a local professional conference organizer (PCO) — there are local professionals who can help you navigate the logistical challenges of international event planning. AC&F