If there’s one thing that stays constant about planning meetings around the world, it’s the fact that things change. Just ask Phelps R. Hope, CMP, senior vice president, meetings and expositions for Kellen Meetings, Atlanta, Georgia, who was recently named PCMA’s Global Meetings Executive of the Year. “There are some staples that change all the time,” he says, noting geopolitics, currency, taxes, visa requirements, customs and shipping as examples. “These are always moving targets. Because you did a program in Brazil 10 years ago or five years ago, doesn’t mean the same stipulations are in play.
“Every country on the planet is constantly changing,” he continues. “You can’t assume — and that’s the biggest thing — because I do it this way at home, it’s going to be that way overseas. Or if I’ve done it at the same place overseas, it will be the same way again. Or if I did it this way in Thailand, therefore in Malaysia it should be the same. You’ve got to go overseas with your meeting planning knowledge, believing that you are a novice. You have to ask questions at the most basic level. You can’t assume ANYTHING.”
“Every country on the planet is constantly changing. You’ve got to go overseas with your meeting planning knowledge, believing that you are a novice. You have to ask questions at the most basic level. You can’t assume ANYTHING.” — Phelps R. Hope, CMP
Martin Sirk, CEO of the International Congress & Convention Association (ICCA) based in Amsterdam, reported on the trends he’s seeing develop in regard to U.S. associations hosting international meetings. “What I’ve noticed is that ‘international’ is on more and more strategic agendas — this has been steadily growing over the last decade. It’s not a new phenomenon. What’s also clear is that U.S. and European-based associations are competing hard to gain prominence in other regions, and especially in markets such as China and the rest of Asia-Pacific and in Latin America. Whichever associations have the easiest-to-access portals and the most comprehensive, up-to-date knowledge and expertise in their fields are likely to become global leaders. Being a regional powerhouse doesn’t automatically give the same regional monopoly of influence that it used to — choice and competition have become global.”
When asked what some of the advantages are of an association holding its annual meeting outside of the U.S., he replies,” It depends entirely on the business objectives of the association and its members and stakeholders. Where those objectives include engagement with international colleagues and markets (e.g., to build membership, sell products and services, facilitate partnerships, promote accreditations or qualifications, or simply to advance a humanitarian mission), the question then is whether it’s a more effective strategy to bring those international contacts to meetings in the U.S., or to organize meetings (not necessarily the annual event) outside the borders. Many associations are doing both. Naturally, any international meetings strategy has to be aligned with a range of other international initiatives, perhaps including representation in key markets, growth of chapters, language versions of websites or print collateral, etc. The meeting itself should always be seen as a means of achieving the objectives, not as an end in itself.”
“One of the most strategic things meeting planners can do with an international meeting is to choose a destination that matches the expertise area and industry of their client or company,” says Laura d’Elsa, regional director, USA/Canada of the German Convention Bureau. “In Germany, we work closely with planners through our convention bureaus and local economic development organizations to bring even more value to meeting delegate experiences.
“Do your homework and ask the in-country resources if they can recommend expert speakers, site visits, unique locations, etc., that will bring fresh insights to your audience,” she advises planners. “For example, if you are doing an automotive industry event in Germany, Stuttgart could be a great choice with the Mercedes and Porsche HQs and museums. For aerospace, Cologne offers zero gravity chamber experiences. Leipzig is a hub for medical research, and so on.”
Heidi C. Borter, CMP, is senior event planner for Pennsylvania-based SAE International, an organization with a membership of more than 135,000 engineers and technical experts in the aerospace, automotive and commercial vehicle industries. SAE conducts approximately 30–40 meetings annually with about 30 percent of them held in international destinations such as Europe, Canada, India and China, and the events attract anywhere from 25 to 2,000 attendees.
SAE has achieved success by meeting in cities that are closely aligned with the industries its members belong to. “We’ve held numerous meetings in Stuttgart, Germany, because of the amount of automotive companies and potential attendees in that area,” she explains. “It’s worked really well for us, and the German and Stuttgart CVBs have been incredibly supportive and helpful. We also held the SAE 2011 AeroTech Congress in Toulouse, France, because Airbus is based there, and they were our host company. In 2013, AeroTech was based in Montreal because Bombardier was our host company. Having these key sponsorships and the support of their local CVBs was critical in deciding to locate the event in these cities. The corporate support could be either financial or content-related, and the CVB support could be either financial or assistance finding potential speakers or exhibitors.”
Patricia Silvio is global marketing manager for Pacific World, a global DMC, which operates in 26 countries and also has formed a strategic alliance with Access Destination Services in the U.S. She sees sponsorship opportunities as an upcoming trend. “There are some tourism authorities and convention bureaus offering very attractive sponsoring packages to associations in order to attract important congresses, which is a great opportunity if the destination offers good accessibility, appropriate infrastructure, etc.”
In terms of choosing a destination, Silvio says, “It is always a little bit easier to increase the delegates’ attendance when choosing a known destination, and the higher the number of delegates, the more likely it is to attract more sponsors who would like to be part of the congress.” That being said, she noted that emerging markets are more and more in demand, but that planners who are working on large-scale conferences need to carefully evaluate these destinations to ensure that they will work logistically in terms of hotel and venue capacity, transportation and other factors. These emerging markets include Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil, Russia, India and China.
When planning an international meeting, Hope recommends starting with the big picture by doing some basic research about what’s going on in the country. He says a good place to start is to check news sources and the U.S. State Department website. “You can go to state.gov and put in the country,” he notes. “That’s where travel advisories are, and the State Department gives an overview assessment of that particular country.”
The next step, he says, is to find peers who have planned meetings in the same location, whether they’re members of an organization such as PCMA, MPI or IAEE or whether they’re found through another resource like a LinkedIn chat group. “You need to interview people that have got the experience, that have done it.”
He gave an example of one pitfall planners often overlook, the matter of an exit fee. “In other words, you’re finished with your convention, your attendees are leaving the country, but they have to pay $25 or $50 to get out. You’ve used up all your money and they take cash only. Those are the little traps you don’t think about.”
Hope is a big believer in leveraging local resources. But, he cautions, “Don’t take the first one’s advice carte blanche. It might be a DMC, it might be an audio-visual company, it might be a hotel company, a tourism organization or a CVB, but it’s local wherever you’re going. If you get story ‘A’ at DMC number one, then go to DMC number two and ask the same questions and see if you get the same answers. You can’t assume that just because one person told you something, that’s the way it is.”
Naturally, meeting in a foreign destination may involve overcoming some language barriers, but U.S. planners may be surprised to learn that they may even encounter these barriers when meeting in an English-speaking country. “Jump around the English-speaking countries and see what you run into,” Hope says, adding that America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Scotland and South Africa are all English-speaking countries, but they’re not the same. “It’s the use of the language,” he notes. He gave the simple example of requesting a podium. In America, that would be a lectern, but in some other English-speaking countries, a podium is a dais, or a stage. “We may have the same language, but are we speaking the same jargon?”
It also can be extremely helpful for planners to learn as much as they can about cultural differences and traditions in the country they’re visiting. “If you go to India, and you’re going to have a high percentage of Indians attending your conference, well then you better have a lot of vegetarian food,” Hope explains as an example of cultural differences.
He also shared a story about a meeting he planned in China. The room was all set up when a representative of the convention center came in with a huge floral arrangement and placed it on top of the lectern. Hope knew it would block the speaker’s face, so he placed the arrangement on the floor in front of the lectern. The man from the convention center became very irate and placed it back on top, and the two men went back and forth. “It looked like a comedy routine!” Hope laughs. He explained that his convention services manager finally pulled him aside and informed him that placing flowers on top of a lectern is a sign of respect, whereas placing them on the floor shows disrespect and is considered back luck. Oops. “The message to all of that is you have to have your eyes and ears open and you have to be flexible because you’re going to run into things you just wouldn’t think to ask.”
The process of negotiating a contract can also can vary widely overseas. “America is a very litigious society,” Hope describes, “so there are a lot of checks and balances in the contract template that just don’t exist overseas.” He says it’s common for overseas vendors to require payment up front. He explains, “If you’re doing a program in Singapore or Kenya or in London, are they going to come to Los Angeles to chase down your money? No. A legal contract is to fight a battle afterwards. They don’t want to fight a battle. They just want your money. It’s just a negotiation of how much money you pay ahead of time versus on the back end. I always hold something back to get a little bit of leverage in negotiation.”
Hope says there are also different nuances in foreign contracts. “They won’t deal with attrition. You want 200 rooms, you pay for 200 rooms. (The attitude is) if you don’t want 200, tell me how many you want.
“Revenue centers look a little bit different than revenue centers for U.S. hotels,” he continues. “European hotels have a high emphasis on meeting room rental and a high emphasis on DDR (Daily Delegate Rate), your packaged food and beverage and audio-visual rates. In most cases, the DDR is a good convenience to have. (However), a half-day rate is usually a big-time rip-off because they usually put too much in there.”
What about Internet service? “You go to Asia and a lot of the hotels and the convention centers throw in the Internet for free because that’s part of the facility rental. That’s part of the culture in Asia. They’re a very wireless/cellphone kind of community. In Europe, the majority of hotels are providing complimentary wireless in the lobby and the public areas. That’s because they want you to sit in the lobby and order a beer or sit in the lobby and order a cheeseburger. (The attitude is) if you’re going to use the Internet in your guest room, it’s usually because you’re doing some work, and if you’re doing some work, you should pay for it. But you can negotiate it into your room rate.”
In July, ICCA conducted a hybrid workshop on the Future for Association Outsourcing, which involved pre-workshop online interviews and surveys, live interaction with more than 300 online participants in 43 countries and input from 150 members onsite. A majority of the associations surveyed had recently brought back in-house some outsourced services, essentially to take closer control of areas that are seen as “mission critical.” However, both suppliers and associations agree that there will be significantly more outsourcing over the coming five years, and that competition between companies offering outsourcing will increase.
“From what we’ve seen in an ever more complex and competitive business environment,” Sirk explains, “international associations are looking for any solutions that will either help to control costs or will improve quality standards or enable them to utilize new technology. A key consideration is whether outsourcing has the potential to damage the critical relationships with members. Many outsourcing companies seem to concentrate entirely on the bottom-line impact, without realizing that associations are primarily concerned with the long-term engagement of their membership, which is mission critical to their survival.”
In the end, flexibility and resourcefulness are two of the most important skills needed to plan an international meeting. “Eighty percent of meeting planning anywhere in the world is the same,” Hope says. “People have to sleep, they have to eat, they have to be able to see, they have to be able to hear, they’ve got to feel comfortable, they’ve got to feel safe. Those are the basics that you cover for anybody at anytime, anywhere. But it’s the nuances above that where your skill set comes in. Are you paying attention? Are you being inquisitive? Are you using the resources around you? Because I guarantee you when you get there, it’s going to happen, whatever it is. You have to have a certain element of MacGyver in you because you just don’t know what you’re going to have to do, and you can only use what you’ve got.” AC&F