The motivations for meeting internationally are many. Association executives may wish to bring the annual convention to a region where the membership is strong, use the meeting to incubate a membership in a certain region, or perhaps partner with a related organization based outside the United States in staging the event. Englewood, CO-based Toastmasters International, for example, chooses global destinations based on the first motivator. “Typically, a location is chosen to support the club growth that has already experienced an increase in membership,” explains Wendy Roberts, CMP, meeting planning manager for Toastmasters International. “We will host an event in those locations to recognize the outstanding efforts of our volunteers and leaders that have helped to drive that growth.” But the second motivator, membership development in a geographic region, is also significant. “If hosting an event in the new international location that was chosen due to its established club growth brings more awareness to that region or district and increases membership for those clubs, then we accomplished two great goals,” Roberts adds.
“We are very fortunate to have incredible volunteers all over the world that we are able to consult when considering a location.” Wendy Roberts, CMP
The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), based in Skokie, IL, has often been motivated by local partnership opportunities in selecting international sites. ISSCR’s International Symposia will take place in Seoul, South Korea this year, and the meeting will be held in collaboration with the Korean Society for Stem Cell Research. In June last year, ISSCR held their Annual Meeting in Melbourne, Australia, partly because the “scientific community was very strong there and incredibly supportive,” notes Cathy Vijeh, CMP, director of global events for ISSCR.
With all the reasons associations may have for meeting in diverse global locales, planners do well to be versed in international meeting planning, if they are not already. As always, the process begins with site selection, but when it comes to the international meetings market, it may not be as important to stay abreast of up-and-coming cities as it is in the U.S. market. That’s especially true in the case of Europe, notes Phelps R. Hope, CMP, senior vice president, meetings and expositions with Atlanta, Georgia-based Kellen. “Cities in Europe don’t change quickly, as opposed to the United States, where maybe a new convention center is being built in a second-tier city and now that city gets on the map of a convention cycle,” he explains. “Europe is very established, so it’s not a matter of staying on top of who now has entered the market as a second-tier city. It’s more about understanding who is out there in the second-tier cities and who can service what we need as a convention. So it’s more research driven than finger-on-the-trends driven.” Hope gives the example of discovering Basel, Switzerland, a city not commonly known among U.S. associations, yet it boasts Switzerland’s largest congress center. The state-of-the-art Congress Center Basel is surrounded by hotels and restaurants, and the city itself is easily accessible via EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg or Zurich Airport.
When it’s important that the city be more recognizable in order to bolster the draw, there are plenty of options that don’t come along with the price tag of a first-tier city such as London, England. Vijeh cites Amsterdam, Netherlands, where ISSCR held its International Symposia earlier this year. “Amsterdam always seems to be a very nice draw. It’s easy to get in and out of; the airlift and trains are extremely accessible. And it’s affordable,” she observes. The conference took place at KIT Royal Tropical Institute, a neo-renaissance building at the edge of Amsterdam’s scenic Oosterpark. The city’s primary meetings venue is Amsterdam RAI Exhibition and Convention Centre, a multifunctional facility that hosts more than 500 events a year.
Generally, it’s important that a city be both promotable and cost effective. In meeting these criteria and others, Roberts finds the assistance of local volunteers invaluable. “We are very fortunate to have incredible volunteers all over the world that we are able to consult when considering a location,” she says. “It could be that a city has rich history, a unique cultural experience or allows members a stress-free and affordable travel experience. There is a multitude of information we can gain from someone who knows an area well and is able to help our team share those highlights to members that may be debating attending the event based on the many factors associated with the chosen locale.”
She adds, “Our local contacts give us insight into the economy in many destinations and can be a wonderful resource when determining if a room rate or a delegate package would be considered cost effective for a local living in that same region.” As helpful as these local contacts are, Roberts maintains that “You can never have too much information or consult with too many knowledgeable resources when making decisions on international locations,” and so she also relies on tourist boards and DMCs.
Yet another resource is the hotel chain representative, assuming the chain has properties in the cities being considered. Hope points to key differences in hotel booking for meetings in Europe. “You don’t protect a room block at the same level as you do in the U.S., just because people find their own way around,” he says. And unlike the scenario in many American first- and second-tier cities, the overall room block in Europe is often spread among a great many hotels for a large convention. “They don’t build ‘big box’ hotels over there,” Hope says. “You go out to San Diego, for example, and you’ve got the Hilton Bayfront with 1,500 rooms on one end of the convention center, and you’ve got the JW Marriott on the other end of the convention center and with 1,800 rooms. You’re not going to find that in Europe.”
The common need to partner with multiple smaller hotels can certainly be a burden on a planning team’s time. “You’ve got to go qualify each one of those hotels, understand where each one is in their quality level so you’re marketing them correctly, make sure they’re priced appropriately in respect to the others, and negotiate many different hotel contracts,” Hope explains. “So it just expands the workload.” Further complicating the task is the frequent opening of boutique hotels that must be researched, and some of the hotels don’t market themselves very well to groups. “They may be a great hotel but you don’t know about them because they’re not in the mainstream of the convention marketing area that locals might know about it,” he says.
Other differences arise in the negotiation and contracting process with international hoteliers. Typically, they will not extend credit, nor give planners any slippage on attrition. “You want to block 100 rooms, you’re paying for the 100 rooms,” Hope says. “It is tougher, and many items that are thrown in for free or as a part of the service in the U.S. are cost centers overseas. In the United States, hotels will often give you the ballroom for the meeting because you have three other F&B functions. In Europe, if you want the ballroom, you pay for the ballroom and the F&B functions.”
However, this hard stance should not dissuade planners from politely trying to obtain their usual concessions. Indeed, extensive negotiation is part of the business cultures of some countries (e.g., India). This effort is more likely to be successful if one explains exactly why the item being negotiated is critical to the convention, instead of taking it for granted that the other party will appreciate that. “If you can better explain the ‘why’ behind your contracted requests and be open to considering solutions that are more common practice in the location where the event will take place, you can usually find a compromise that is agreeable for both parties,” Roberts advises.
Also, when trying to negotiate lower prices, it’s helpful to bear in mind that there are already cost savings for international meetings that come from tax reclamation and often, waived gratuities. “When holding a meeting in the U.S., we will have to pay taxes on goods and services and we cannot reclaim any of that, and on top of that many times we’ll have to pay between 20 and 24 percent gratuity,” Vijeh explains. “Outside the U.S., you have to pay the taxes but on many occasions all of that or a portion can be reclaimed. And very rarely are there any gratuities that are added to a bill.” So while meeting space is often more expensive at international hotels, the tax reclamation and lack of gratuities can help to offset the added cost. To recover value-added tax (VAT), the association must register with the local administration and obtain a VAT number.
While many associations will hold their entire event within the convention center and/or hotels, in some cases budget allows for an offsite event that connects attendees to the local culture. Given that there is usually limited opportunity and funds for such events while it’s not an incentive program, after all, it is sensible to give delegates a very representative experience. Tours are a great option in this regard. “While in Paris, we hope to host a dinner on the Seine River, which will allow our delegates to experience many of Paris’s historical monuments all at once and without having to take on a big portion of individual planning for themselves,” Roberts says. “We also like to plan city tours or an activity for attendees to be able to explore a chosen destination prior to the opening ceremonies of our event. Helping your attendees to explore the destination can kick off the networking process and elevate their overall experience.”
Another approach is to book a venue iconic to the city. When in Dublin, Ireland, the Guinness Storehouse is a classic choice. Hope’s team has arranged a tour of the facility for 600 attendees of an association in the internet industry. “It was a multi-floor event with a whole historic Ireland feel to it, including local entertainment and buffet stations. We’re taking advantage of the destination and the venue itself,” he says. The entire Guinness Storehouse can be rented for a 2,000-person event, and there are numerous rentable spaces for anywhere from 16-650 participants.
If such tours and offsite events can’t be included, there are still simple and convenient ways to bring the local culture into the convention center or hotel. As a research-based organization, ISSCR has a very limited budget for “extracurricular” events, according to Vijeh. “But we’ll try to bring in the flavors of a city through our catering at the convention center,” she says. Bringing in entertainment or presenters representing the local culture is another option. “When we were in Melbourne, we had an aboriginal gentleman come in and do a welcome to the country,” she adds.
When the program will branch out into offsite venues, it important to assess the safety of the areas of the city attendees will be passing through, apart from their usual commute from hotels to the convention center. Roberts uses a variety of resources to make those assessments, and to determine if the destination as a whole is viable from a safety and security perspective. “We typically start with resources available through event industry trade associations and then have conversations with volunteers that live in or near the destination,” she says. “We have also leaned on the support and relationships built with contacts at DMCs, tourist boards, hotels and convention centers, sometimes over multiple years, as they are local to the area and can provide information on any shifts that may occur in a location that was chosen years in advance of the event date.”
Advisories about any risks on the ground for incoming delegates are a critical part of pre-convention communications, along with logistical information such as exhibit hall maps and restaurant lists. Hope suggests notifying delegates about hawkers or solicitors at baggage claim, such as individuals offering attendees rides. He gives an example of a destination-specific advisory: “If you do a program in Budapest, make sure attendees order their taxis from the hotel instead of flagging one down on the street because that’s how the nefarious taxis hijack you out to the countryside for ransom or requiring you to pay a higher fee to get you to your original destination.”
While communicating with attendees regarding convention matters, it’s best to err on the side of too much information. But conversely, collecting information from attendees has become a sensitive issue, at least when it comes to European attendees. Implemented last year, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a regulation in EU law that applies to citizens of the European Union and the European Economic Area. Associations with European delegates have had to revise their procedures for interacting with these attendees, and it has been a bit of a challenge for some organizations. “We have to be 100 percent vigilant and in compliance with GDPR,” Vijeh says. “We are continually asking our European delegation to opt in to be able to receive either digital mailings or hard mailings, and sharing with them the importance of allowing us to be in communication with them.”
Opt in is also required for sharing attendees’ information with exhibitors. However, it is advantageous to only prompt attendees to opt in once, as required by law. “If you give the buyers too many chances to opt out, all of a sudden your 2,000 buyers are down to 200,” Hope says. “And so the value of the list, the value of scanning badges, the value of what you’re providing as an association to exhibitors is very diluted.” Instead, Hope suggests only extending that option when an individual becomes a member of the association or registers for the convention, letting the person know how their information will be used should consent be given. “Then we don’t do it anymore. I’ve heard of associations that give them another option when they walk out to get their badge. That’s overreaction. If they opt out, the exhibitors can’t scan the badges to get attendees’ information, which is what they pay to be there for,” he says.
There are undoubtedly distinct challenges that come with planning global meetings, including GDPR compliance in the case of European delegates, the lack of “big box” hotels or the inability to work an attrition clause into a contract. But these issues are minor compared to the advantages. Reaching out to geographic segments of the membership, membership development, generating new revenue streams and building industry partnerships can all be achieved via a “globe-trotting” association meeting. | AC&F |