International MeetingsJune 1, 2015

How Planners Manage Meetings Outside Their Comfort Zone By
June 1, 2015

International Meetings

How Planners Manage Meetings Outside Their Comfort Zone
The Kingmills Hotel in Inverness offers seven grand event spaces. Credit: Visit Scotland

The Kingmills Hotel in Inverness, Scotland, offers seven grand event spaces. Credit: Visit Scotland

Many association planners are used to working within their domestic comfort zones, regularly circulating the annual meeting among well-known U.S. cities and facilities. But new developments in an organization’s membership and/or the field it represents can motivate an international site choice, requiring a planner to step out of that comfort zone.

Facilitating International Participation

Both of these drivers have been in place at the Chicago, Illinois-based Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), which will be holding its Annual Conference in 2017 in Glasgow, Scotland — the first overseas conference since the society’s early years. “This year the SAH is celebrating its 75th anniversary, and as we are growing by leaps and bounds in our international membership, we thought it was the right thing to do to host an international conference,” explains Kathy Sturm, director of programs. “It’s a goal moving forward into the next 75-plus years to expand the opportunity to our global membership, especially those who just cannot afford to travel to the U.S., for whom it may be more affordable to travel to Scotland.” Developments in the SAH’s field also justify international site choices: Sturm identifies a “growing interest in international topics,” such as Asian and German architecture, evinced by the scholarly papers being submitted. “We felt that Glasgow presented a very intriguing case of a city that has reinvented itself over the years and incorporated modern architecture in with historic architecture,” Sturm says.

“This year the SAH is celebrating its 75th anniversary, and as we are growing by leaps and bounds in our international membership, we thought it was the right thing to do to host an international conference.” — Kathy Sturm

Similarly, Chicago-based PRISM International (Professional Records and Information Services Management), a trade association for the commercial information management industry, is considering staging international meetings and events in new global locales in response to developments in its field. “Those associations that are less U.S. or North America focused are realizing that the growth of industry and potential attendees is really overseas, and they are putting money toward developing their level of education overseas,” says Darlene Somers, CMP, senior meetings manager at Association Management Center, which plans conferences for PRISM. “The movement from paper to virtual is spreading across the globe, and PRISM International is really looking at widening their reach to include India and Asia-Pacific. So we have to focus on an area where the industry is either really hot for the association or an area where we feel like we can develop the industry more. But we also have to select cities that people are willing to travel to.”

Unpredictable Turnout

In moving with the trend of globalizing memberships and industries, planners may end up choosing sites where meetings have an unpredictable turnout, either favorably or unfavorably. Of course, that element of uncertainty is part of stepping outside one’s comfort zone and taking meetings to new frontiers.

For example, Jessica Wong, conference officer for The Cognitive Science Society, University of Texas – Austin’s department of psychology, notes a lower turnout for the society’s first annual meeting outside of North America and Europe. The meeting is held three years in North America and one year in Europe to reflect a membership that is about two-thirds North American and one-third European. But the 2012 meeting in Sapporo, Japan, was “a nod to our Asian membership,” says Wong. “We picked Sapporo because our Asian membership is strongest there. But the issue was that we had one of our lowest attendances: still over 800, but not at that 1,000-plus level we normally get. For many students (travel expenses) were a bit out of the price range.”

On the positive side, the following conference, 2013 in Berlin, saw the society’s highest turnout at 1,300, due in part to “the rebound effect for those that hadn’t gone to CogSci the year before,” says Wong. And even if an association experiences a lower than expected attendance at a new international site choice, the exposure to a new region and the greater engagement for a certain geographic segment of the membership can benefit the association.

Keeping Costs Down

The other side of maximizing ROI is controlling costs for international meetings, and Sturm has seen this objective become easier to attain with the incentives that some cities are offering groups. “Part of the reason we looked at an international destination was that there seems to be a more embracing opportunity to take conferences outside of the U.S., with more benefits being offered to organizations that come from other countries,” she says. “There are benefits offered by Scotland, and as an organization, that’s very cost-conscious — we wanted to be able to tap those benefits and opportunities. It almost becomes a responsibility.” Keeping costs down for delegates is particularly important in associations with a significant academic membership, such as the SAH. “With the limitations in funding to attend scholarly conferences over the years, we’re constantly looking at ways to keep our costs as low as possible so they are all able to attend,” says Sturm, who is working with Visit Scotland and the Glasgow city bureau to secure negotiated rates at a variety of lodging options, from hotels to hostels and campus housing. The conference venue likely will be the University of Strathclyde, says Sturm.

For similar reasons, affordability is the top site search criterion for the Cognitive Science Society, but the organization forgoes the savings that can come with university meeting venues. “We tried to use a university venue a couple of years ago, and the problem was that university settings don’t have the infrastructure in place like a convention center does,” says Wong. “To get a hold of people and make sure things are set and ready tends to take a bit longer. Convention center and hotel venues, even though they cost us a little extra, definitely help us when it comes to planning and execution.”

While there are plenty of affordable international cities with convention infrastructures that may work for a given association group, some are more marketable than others. And planners certainly want a city with some tourism appeal. “I think it’s an ongoing battle for meeting planners to find wallet-friendly cities that are also a draw,” observes Heather M. Seasholtz, CMP, director, meetings and events with Talley Management Group. “We often look at the second- and third-tier cities in Europe. For example, Lisbon, Portugal and Manchester, England, are becoming very popular destinations that don’t have the high price point of Paris or Vienna. Nice, France, although it can be expensive, is still an easy flight hop for our attendees (and lacks the) Paris pricing.” Somers notes that in general, Europe is becoming more affordable for groups as the euro “gets closer in parity to the U.S. dollar.”

Sourcing Onsite Vendors

Site selection is only the first hurdle in planning a successful international meeting; a subsequent challenge is the sourcing of onsite vendors. CVBs, tourist boards, DMCs and international hotel sales reps all can offer referrals, but colleagues are also an important touchstone. “PCMA has a really great global professionals group and cohesive communication among that group,” Somers says. “So I can reach out to a number of people to say, ‘Hey, I’m doing a program in Amsterdam; give me your three best options for AV companies you guys have worked with.’ What my peers tell me has carried a lot of weight.”

Sourcing offsite venues for special events also can be facilitated through peer referrals. However, many budget-conscious associations bypass these events, as do some medical associations, especially those with physician attendees where the PhRMA Code must be followed. “With medical budgets being the way they are, it’s hard to do the offsite events, and medical is very different than it was 10 years ago, when the focus wasn’t so much on the pharmaceutical spending,” Seasholtz explains. Yet there are simple ways to express the local culture at the meeting that do not involve venue rental or excessive ancillary spending. At an association meeting in Nice, for example, Talley Management Group presented delegates with some of the splendid pastries the city is known for. “We try to bring in (the local culture) on any design elements of the program, such as the music being played as attendees walk in,” Seasholtz says. “That’s where we’re able to bring it in on a budget.”

Language Barriers

In many destinations, a language unfamiliar to attendees will be part of the culture, but planners can take measures to ensure they are not inconvenienced by communication barriers. If possible, airports without English signage should be avoided, or attendees should be provided with information on how to navigate the airport. “Many of our people do speak English and are looking for that on the signage to get to baggage claim etc.,” says Seasholtz. Wong has also found it helpful to fully inform attendees of transportation options from the airport to the meeting site or hotels. “Cab is the obvious option but then others, such as train, subway or bus. What’s been particularly great is when the tourist board gives us a discount off of the shuttle service.”

As far as the professionals that planners work with overseas, there will seldom be language barriers, as English, “the language of business,” is generally spoken. “We often engage a PCO (professional congress organizer) when we’re outside of the U.S., and many times that’s to assist us with the housing and registration components, and any transportation needs,” says Cathy Vijeh, CMP, director of global events for the Skokie, Illinois-based International Society for Stem Cell Research. “My experience has been that many times the account managers or salespeople that you’re working with are fairly fluent in English. We do make it a point to mention that any kind of a technician or individual that would be working with us directly onsite needs to either be fluent in English or have access to an English speaker who can assist us,” she adds. Says Seasholtz, “When you’re onsite in the city there could be (communication) issues along the way, but that’s when you rely on your convention services manager to help communicate down through the ranks.” Wong reports that she has overall “been quite impressed with the level of proficiency that non-native speakers in the travel and hospitality industry have with the English language.”

Non-Standard Contracts

Somers describes a cultural barrier she has experienced in the European hotel industry with regard to contracts. “The standards for contracts are not necessarily the same in a European city,” she says. “What are considered to be standard group clauses in America that nobody would even blink at can be red flags for companies over there.” For example, one hotelier insisted on a 30-day cancellation policy for those booking inside the group’s block, instead of the normal 24-hour policy, which the hotel maintained for non-group business. Somers felt that this much less favorable policy effectively offset the savings advantage of booking inside the block. “And it wasn’t just a one-night cancellation, it would be for the entire length of stay. I tried to work with the hotel and explain why that would be seen as more of a penalty,” Somers says. “But trying to explain that different perspective was incredibly time-consuming. The hotel wants to make sure that they’re not left holding the bag financially. I want to make sure that my attendees see value in staying inside of the block. I’m not exaggerating that it was probably an eight-week conversation. It was incredibly helpful that my national sales office in Chicago got involved and were the third party in the conversation. We eventually compromised on a seven-day cancellation policy, but that was a huge cultural barrier.”

Fortunately, the cultural differences groups will encounter when meeting overseas are generally positive and rewarding, on both personal and professional levels. AC&F


Meeting Across the Pond

The Chicago, Illinois-based Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) will be holding its Annual Conference in 2017 in Glasgow, Scotland. It will be the first overseas conference since the society’s early years, and the incentives offered to the group by the city paved the way for the site choice, remarks Kathy Sturm, director of programs.

But Scotland is doing much more than that to attract tourism and meeting groups. The tourism industry is expecting $8 billion in investments across the country this year, including new hotels, venues, group activities and technologies.

For example, the National Museum of Scotland has announced $15.5 million in funding to open 10 new galleries across the country by 2016. And in Glasgow, delegates can now take advantage of new apps by Guide Me Tours designed for the exploration of Floors Castle in Glasgow; Traquair House in Innerleithen; Abbotsford in Melrose; Thirlestane Castle near Lauder; and Inveraray Castle in the town of Inveraray. Following is a sampling of new meetings industry developments in other Scottish cities:

Edinburgh. Scotland’s capital has launched a citywide reward scheme for convention delegates consisting of a card and supporting app entitling them to a variety of exclusive offers from 55 of the city’s most iconic venues and businesses. In addition, the four-star, 120-room Mercure Hotel Gardner’s Crescent opened this spring near the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Scotch aficionados will note that the Scotch Whisky Experience recently launched the Scotch Whisky Experience tour, with new private event suites available.

Inverness. The Kingsmills Hotel underwent a $7.8 million expansion, adding 40 guest rooms, 13 Garden Rooms and a 4,413-sf event space.

Perthshire. The Gleneagles Hotel opened the 26,909-sf Gleneagles Arena this spring. The venue accommodates groups of 500-2,000 and includes four indoor tennis courts.

Aberdeen. The Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre recently retained Gold accreditation from the Green Tourism Programme, making it the first venue in Aberdeen to achieve the Gold Award. — PS

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