Meetings held in a country other than the planner’s home nation and convenings that attract an international audience pose some unique challenges for meeting organizers. There can be regulatory barriers to overcome, questions around cultural norms and expectations, uncertainty about how websites or money transfers will work.
There are certainly some aspects of global meeting planning that are getting harder. “Sometimes it seems as if the issues are getting more intense, and, of course, everything is getting more expensive,” says Roberta A. Kravitz, executive director for the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM), an international, professional association devoted to the promotion of research and education in magnetic resonance. She also leads the Society for MR Radiographers & Technologists, a subsection of ISMRM. The organization sponsors an annual meeting, 8 to 10 workshops, and a number of board meetings and retreats throughout the year. “And certainly we all know the geopolitical issues continue to grow. Many of these issues, though, have always been there, in one form or another.”
But on the whole, the planners we talked to seem to think international gatherings are getting easier to organize. “Everyone is connected 24/7, so I feel like the biggest delay I ever have in an email is 12 hours,” says Molly O’Neill Moir, CMP, vice president, programs and meetings for the Parenteral Drug Association, which provides science, technology and regulatory information and education to the worldwide pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical communities. She works on 12 to 15 international events held within the United States every year and collaborates with colleagues and members to plan events in Europe and Asia. “Bank transfers are really easy now. It’s becoming more common, so people have to implement policies that work for everyone. We’re working in tier-one cities, so we have it easy because the expectation is that business is global now.”
Our experienced planners had another shared takeaway for anyone working on global meetings: It takes a village to make any cross-continental event successful. Developing a network of international members and planners who work on international meetings is an important part of building your capacity and making your organization’s gatherings successful.
“The big tip for global is you can’t assume (people from other countries) do business the same as you do,” says Phelps R. Hope, CMP, senior vice president of meetings and expositions for Kellen, an association management company. “So for everything you know to be true, you have to test your own thinking or be prepared to be flexible.”
Financial issues tend to be one of the biggest areas where planners run into headaches. “Outside of the U.S., businesses and venues expect to be paid in full before you start your program,” says Hope. “In the U.S. we’ve become very accustomed to establishing credit. The rest of the world works in cash.
“When you’re doing online registration, you want to make sure that the country you’re in doesn’t have barriers that are going to preclude you from using your online payment system,” he adds. The Chinese government tightly restricts what websites people can see. It also restricts the amount of money citizens can put on credit cards.
“One of our biggest challenges is currency exchange,” says Jeanne White, director of conventions and meetings for the International Studies Association, a global organization for scholars involved in the field of international studies. She’s involved in planning an annual convention, one to two international meetings, six regional events and several executive meetings that are held throughout the year. The International Studies Association gives out travel grants, but not everyone is able to accept a wire transfer. That means sometimes the grants are made through Paypal or even gift cards that people can use to purchase things like airline tickets.
“Some countries have limitations on how much currency you can take out of the country,” she says. Others restrict how much money people can bring back, which means attendees need to spend down grant funds before they go home.
“We are always striving to keep registration fees consistent and reasonable even though the meeting costs swing significantly from region to region,” says Kravitz. “Not only can facility rental and ancillary costs vary significantly, but also freight and customs; speaker, board and staff travel and housing; and VAT/GST recovery, as well as currency.”
There are venue considerations to think through with international gatherings. Infrastructure, including electrical currents and the availability and speed of internet service, are likely to vary widely in other countries, says Hope. So do the availability and expectations of service providers, including AV companies, caterers and printers.
Communicating with people across time zones can be a very real challenge for planners. “Just planning those calls requires a lot of flexibility from our members,” says Moir.
Marketing an event in another country can be quite different than pitching one to a domestic audience. “We have international chapters, so we try to ask our members or committee members who are local what kinds of conferences they’re seeing,” says Moir. “What are the registration rates? What kinds of topics are they covering? How long are they?” That helps her association understand how to structure their own events.
Here’s an idea for marketing conferences to professionals overseas: “Get champions from those areas and share their experiences — either that they’ve gone and recommend it, or that they’re going,” says Hope. “They should be well-known people from each of the countries that you can promote are coming.”
There also are cultural issues to take into account when planning global meetings. “Sometimes, even though you have partnership agreements written up, what sounds like a yes in our country may really be a no,” says White. “In Japan, their culture doesn’t permit them to say no to anything. So you have to make sure their yes is really a yes.” She uses the book Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conway (Adams Media) to learn about business customs and practices in other countries.
“We’ve never had anything blow up,” White says. “We’ve had to deal with some challenges on the financial side of things at the end because someone else thought we were paying for things or we thought they were paying for things. It requires a lot of diplomacy, but we’ve always been able to resolve things amicably.” To ensure disputes can be solved quickly, she always has a senior executive travel to events.
One issue that Kravitz expects will come up more in the future is concern about the environmental impact of meetings. “There are seriously escalating challenges with global warming that are going to continue to force us to assess how we lessen our footprint and yet provide our attendees with the experiences and opportunities they crave,” she says.
Because English is such a universal language, planners said they typically don’t run into problems with language barriers. But Moir had some thoughts about how to make events more enjoyable for non-native speakers.
“One of the issues I do run into with people traveling to the U.S. is that they understand English, but they may not speak it that well,” she says. “Sometimes they’re hesitant to get up to the microphone during a question and answer session.” To mitigate this, they invite people to write a question down on a piece of paper that can be given to the moderator.
“We request that presenters send their presentations in advance, and we post them online,” says Moir. “International attendees like that because they can prepare themselves in advance and think of their questions. We try to remind our speakers and presenters that while everyone may speak English, a lot of accents are very different and hard to understand. We ask them to make sure they’re speaking slowly and clearly so that even with a thick accent, everyone can still understand the same message.”
Moir identified several other things that people visiting from other countries appreciate. “Wi-Fi is a must for international meetings,” she says. “If you don’t have an international plan, your phone is not going to work, but if people have Wi-Fi they can still use WhatsApp or the conference app.
“A lot of international guests like to take public transportation, whether it’s to or from the airport or to dinner,” she continues. “When we say, ‘Just take an Uber,’ they don’t want to hear that.” She encourages associations to put information about public transportation on the conference website or another place where attendees can easily find it.
The timing of meetings also can affect overseas attendance. “Many Europeans don’t like to travel for work on the weekends,” says Moir. “If I have a conference that starts at 8 a.m. on Monday morning, my European attendance may be a little lower because folks don’t want to travel on Sunday.”
Planners should pay attention to the food needs of guests, especially those driven by religion. “Some of this you can head off at the pass with your selection of menus,” says Hope. “Anticipate some needs and pre-plan, then communicate those out.” One nuance to keep in mind: the term “continental breakfast” means different things in the U.S. and Europe.
“European folks are used to getting a hotel room that includes breakfast, and that’s not a typical thing in the U.S. cities where we’re having meetings,” Moir says. She’s worked with hotels to devise a room rate than includes a coupon for breakfast at their restaurant.
Being culturally sensitive is always important when welcoming international guests. But generally, Hope says not to drive yourself crazy by being too accommodating of people. “You’ve got to set your boundaries because you can’t be reacting to each one of their needs.”
Some of that boundary setting may be contingent on whether your attendees are seasoned travelers. If conference attendees are professionals, such as doctors and engineers who regularly travel to international conferences, they’re likely to be more flexible and know what to expect, Hope says. If participants have never traveled overseas before, they may require more handholding.
The key to all of this is clear communication. Make sure you let attendees know what to expect when it comes to language, food, accommodations, transportation and all other major aspects of the event.
In addition to thinking about logistical and participant needs, it’s vitally important to consider what’s happening on the international stage. “As leaders in this community and leaders within our own organizations, we absolutely must stay current with our membership, with our leadership and with what is happening in the rest of the world so that we can minimize and manage the surprises,” says Kravitz. “In other words, we must do our homework. Knowledge of our field, the area of the world we are working in and potential risks, coupled with working with honesty and integrity with our suppliers, will allow us to maintain our equilibrium and effectively lead our organizations through the challenges that are inevitably going to arise.”
To stay abreast of world events, White recommends building a strong network among the international membership. Her executive director has been really good about staying connecting with trusted colleagues overseas who can give him a heads up about political unrest before it appears in the news, she says.
Sometimes it’s clear which countries are too politically unstable to host major events. Sometimes it isn’t. “We’ve had times where we’ve cancelled meetings because, say, there was a coup,” says White. There’s not much that can be done in those instances. But she does have one other tip for avoiding potentially unstable countries. “Remember that things change. If you had a meeting in a country previously, things may have changed with the political or economic environment.”
The ability of attendees to get visas is becoming more problematic, and that raises a number of issues, including what to do when people suddenly can’t enter the country where a meeting is being held. White has some experience there. President Trump’s initial executive order restricting travel came three weeks before an International Studies Association meeting in Baltimore. “We didn’t penalize people if they chose not to travel to the U.S.,” she says.
Besides keeping in touch with people who can keep you informed about what’s happening politically and socially in their countries, it’s important to find peers in the meeting planning world you can rely on. “I have a network of fellow planners who do international work,” says White. “When I’m planning to go to a country, I always find a few planners who have been there and say, ‘What did you run into? What do I need to know? What are the red flags?’ ”
Moir has a colleague who plans the association’s meeting in Europe, so that person is a good touchpoint for questions on events in Europe. For an upcoming meeting in Asia, she’s had to reach out to a different source for information. “I’m planning this meeting in Singapore, and I’ve never been to Singapore, yet alone Asia, so I work a lot with my hotel partners.”
“After your peers, go to a local organizer, like a destination marketing company or an independent planner,” says Hope. “What they’re giving you is confidence and time. That is the hottest currency for people who haven’t done this before. It takes longer to learn about a culture and people’s needs.” A local person or organization can help mightily with that.
“Make sure you work with PCOs (professional congress organizers), which are local organizations in-country that handle planning for people coming into their country,” says White. “They’re usually connected to the government. Having those people has been very helpful for us. They know the ropes. They’re usually a fee-based group, so we end up paying some money, but it’s a great investment.” AC&F