For growth-minded international associations, convening in new locations outside the United States is a key way to raise awareness of their educational offerings and, ultimately, gain new members across the world. It’s also a way to serve international members by bringing education and networking opportunities to locations accessible to them. Thus, the convention planners for these associations are effectively charged with helping to build and maintain a global community of trade professionals.
“Going to these rest-of-the-world destinations is really part of our mission and vision of providing education around the world,” asserts Lisa Astorga, CMP, director of meetings with the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH). The ISTH’s convention currently alternates between the United States and Europe, and visits the rest of the world every fifth year. Upcoming international destinations include Melbourne in 2019, London in 2022 and Montreal in 2023. Destinations being considered for 2024 include South America, Asia and Africa.
Similarly, RIMS – The Risk Management Society holds its Risk Forum at a variety of international locales with the goal of creating “a community of risk professionals,” says Stuart Ruff-Lyon, CMP, DES, vice president, events and education. “RIMS has 10,000 members from about 60 different countries, and as we grow globally, we’ve seen the need for increased meeting and product development in our target regions. We’ve been creating regional Risk Forums to target different parts of the world. Right now, we do the forums in China, India, Latin America, the Middle East and Singapore.”
“We may go from a North American city where we’re using three to four hotels to a city like Milan where we’re maybe getting 25 to 40 rooms in a hotel, and we may be looking at 40 different hotels.” — Lisa Astorga, CMP
The education level at the forums, which usually draw around 300 participants, is naturally tailored to the local community. “For example, in North America, it’s a very high-level risk manager that exists, so we do a lot of our deep dives. But abroad, we find it can be a much newer profession, for example in the Middle East or in China, and we’ve had to reconsider some of those deeper dives, longer format [sessions] as we build the profession in those markets.”
Of course, within a broad market like the Middle East or China, there will be numerous site possibilities. Just like domestic site selection, international site selection is informed by the city’s drawing power, the local meetings and business infrastructure, cost and space availability. As to the first criteria, the ISTH has seen the value of choosing popular cities.
“For our meeting last year in Berlin, we just missed 10,000 attendees,” Astorga relates. “Part of why our numbers hit in Berlin, and in Dublin, as well, was the destination draw. We’ve just been increasing attendance year in and year out.
“We do anticipate probably a little lower attendance in Melbourne next year,” she adds. “But that is something everyone recognizes when you go to Australia based on the distance and the cost.”
For RIMS, the local business and government infrastructure also comes into play in city selection. “In the case of China, for example, the two choices were Shanghai and Beijing for us. But we felt strongly that Beijing was building the government relations that are necessary to our future success,” Ruff-Lyon explains. “Whereas in India, the city [choices] were down to New Delhi and Mumbai; Mumbai being more the business center. So we opted to have our meeting there.”
Sometimes, however, the ideal city in terms of drawing power and a robust business infrastructure is rather pricey for members and the association itself.
Fortunately, there are often viable second-tier options, just as there are domestically.
“Many U.S. associations are looking at second-tier destinations instead of cities like London or Paris, which are becoming so expensive and so booked up,” observes
Cynthia Cortis, events director with SmithBucklin.
That congestion can impede the annual growth of a convention regarding its additional space needs. “Oftentimes, the more popular cities like London, Paris or Rome don’t have a lot of options right in the heart of downtown,” she says. “So a lot of associations are looking toward cities like Glasgow [instead of Edinburgh or London] and finding that’s a really attractive city that’s drawing a lot of groups now.”
Cortis also cites second-tier hot spots Brussels, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Prague, Toulouse and Zurich. They offer business specializations that will be advantageous for associations representing certain industries: For example, Toulouse is home to the Airbus headquarters, and Brussels and Zurich are financial hubs. And the local congress centers in these second-tier cities can be quite formidable, whether it’s Copenhagen’s Bella Center or Glasgow’s SEC Centre.
“Glasgow has done such a good job of building a convention center, putting a hotel package around it and then marketing their product,” Cortis notes. “So if you can’t get into Edinburgh or London or you can’t afford it, then Glasgow is a really good U.K. alternative.”
In selecting an international convention center, a little care should be taken to ensure that the facility is suited to meetings, as well as exhibits — if, indeed, the convention will include educational sessions. “We think of congress centers as having trade show halls, but a lot of the larger venues in Europe will be almost all very large halls,” Cortis says. “So if you’re having an event that’s very education-focused, you have to make sure you are looking at a true congress center as opposed to a trade fair.”
Planners should also be clear up front on the service package the congress centers are offering. “International congress centers will say they like to have things inclusive, so their exclusive providers are much larger. They’ll include basic AV, for example, and you really don’t have an option to exclude that,” Astorga points out.
The exact service provided, however, will differ across centers in Dublin, Milan, Melbourne, Berlin and so on. “They’ll say it includes labor. Well, what are the hours of the labor, and what is the level of the technician? So that’s one thing we find very challenging to navigate,” she explains.
Also challenging is the higher cost of meetings in many international congress centers compared to U.S. convention centers. “I think it’s a whole different business model because many of these centers are privately owned and maybe don’t have that financial support from the city,” Astorga suggests. That’s where the second-tier cities can cushion the financial blow.
“We just finished a program in Prague,” Cortis says, “and costs were substantially lower than what we had paid at our U.S.-based show a couple months earlier.” To control costs, Cortis recommends planners file for value-added tax (VAT), which ranges from about 18 percent to 25 percent across most European countries. Planners can then reclaim the amount paid on F&B, meeting rooms and more.
Negotiation can also help to improve costs, and certain associations have the advantage of representing industries that are attractive to cities and congress centers. A case in point is ISTH’s upcoming meeting in London, one of the more expensive cities in Europe.
“London knows that the medical sector is a huge congress generator, and it’s important for any city to bring them in,” says Astorga. Even if that leverage doesn’t result in lowering costs, it can result in the city and its venues going the extra mile in terms of service.
Cortis has found, however, that sometimes association business does not carry as much weight with European venues as the corporate market. “As more associations do go to Europe, they are becoming more familiar with [that market],” she explains.
Currently, hoteliers’ level of familiarity with association business is not ideal, she has found. “When they pick up the phone and it’s Pfizer or American Express or Microsoft, that’s something they can relate to and then they have a trust behind that [in regards to the group’s] financial [responsibility]. When they pick up the phone and it’s the Association of XX, they don’t know that. So you may have to work a little bit harder to explain to them who you are, give them some history, give them contacts of some other international shows that you’ve done and be prepared to pay deposits. And, it’s very rare that you don’t end up coming to an agreement.”
There can be a negotiation advantage in working with a global hotel chain that the association has a history of booking, as opposed to a local chain or independent property. But in many European cities, partnering with the latter kind of property often can’t be avoided when many hotels are needed. The properties tend to be smaller, so large groups can’t simply book a few “big box” Marriott or Hilton hotels, for example.
“We may go from a North American city where we’re using three to four hotels to a city like Milan where we’re maybe getting 25 to 40 rooms in a hotel, and we may be looking at 40 different hotels,” Astorga explains.
Ruff-Lyon actually prefers the indigenous properties for the RIMS’ Risk Forums, which are hotel-based programs. “When we’re going into new markets and targeting people from those markets, we’ve been exploring brands that are unique to those countries,” he says.
“So, our China event was not held in a traditional Marriott or Hilton property. And, our inaugural event in India was not held in a U.S.-based property, either. I don’t think this [practice] has any data behind it, but we just feel that we should be in brands that the locals already know and are comfortable with, particularly with China and India.”
Although Ruff-Lyon’s team does not do site visits for international programs, they receive invaluable assistance from RIMS’ local partners. “We get a lot of pictures taken from hotel staff, and we have our local partners do that on our behalf sometimes,” he says. “For example, the Mumbai program is at the ITC Grand Central Mumbai, and that’s a brand that we would not be aware of typically in the U.S. It’s unique to the Indian market. And being able to have our local partners suggest it, visit it on our behalf and give us a ‘thumbs-up’ goes a long way toward our comfort level and reassurance.”
The virtual tours that many hoteliers offer can also be reassuring for planners unable to visit the properties beforehand. Or a planning team can fashion its own virtual tour. “For our smaller programs, what we have found very valuable is using some of our local partners who will go into a hotel and FaceTime us live as they do a walkthrough of the facility,” Cortis says.
SmithBucklin relies heavily on its network of local DMC partners for international programs, she adds. “They’re our eyes and legs on the ground. So they can help us with everything, from getting our customs cleared to letting us know that there is a religious holiday next week.”
Local partners are, in fact, cultural resources and can help an association design a culturally appropriate program. “We definitely don’t take the same meeting we could do in Cincinnati and plop it down in India,” says Ruff-Lyon. “It goes through a lot of finessing and work, and (we receive) input from our local advisory group to ensure that the education and the event format that we’re offering to people is truly right for that market.”
A major aspect is the timing of the sessions: Early start times are not ideal for many international markets, for example. “Our meetings in the U.S. can start very early, sometimes as early as 7:30 in the morning; whereas, in some other parts of the world, we know that we have to start at 10 a.m.,” says Ruff-Lyon. “So, we have to alter the start time quite a bit based on the local market.”
In addition, more time should be allotted to lunch for European programs. “Lunches are longer and more leisurely,” Cortis observes. In general, “Europeans are not as rigid about meal times. We have had a lot of success with having F&B offerings throughout the day. We’ll have lunches a little later and longer, but we’ll also have grab-n-go food throughout the day. That way, we can kind of be on everyone’s time zone.”
The more casual approach to meals is somewhat paralleled in the less formal approach to sessions that Europeans tend to prefer. “We’re finding that Europeans enjoy more panels and interaction” as opposed to the “talking head”-style presentations, Cortis says.
She also finds that European attendees are becoming more accustomed to audience polling. “They’re still getting used to it, but they’re definitely enjoying that aspect of having more participation in the sessions.”
When it comes to networking events, local attendees can certainly enjoy local entertainment, as long as it’s a quality performance. So a planner need not be concerned that guests will lose interest in a kind of act they’re already familiar with.
“We try to stay away from the overly stereotyped entertainment and just get something that’s local,” says Cortis. “Not only do the Americans like it, but even the locals really enjoy a well-done flamenco show when you’re in Barcelona.”
Interestingly, cultural considerations have led RIMS to eschew its post-session networking events for Risk Forums in the Middle East. “We’ve found that it’s sort of unnecessary because of the timing of the day there and how they like to operate. They get to work much earlier, and they tend to go home and don’t drink alcohol,” Ruff-Lyon says. “We were finding that our networking receptions were attended by our U.S. and European members more than the local members.”
The discovery was among the “lessons learned” when designing programs for a variety of international markets. But overall, “I think we do the best job we possibly can in building partnerships with people to ensure that we’re delivering a stellar event that is relevant to that market,” he concludes.
Such events will ultimately build the worldwide risk management community RIMS envisions and is already developing, thanks to its international meetings. AC&F