Planning an overseas meeting or event is part art, part science and a lot of hard work. In a world without boundaries, financial and insurance companies must contend with a complex set of issues to make an international meeting or event go smoothly.
Keri McIntosh, senior vice president of The Castle Group, a full-service meeting planning agency with headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts, says the first question planners need to ask is: Can this location accommodate and service the meeting objectives effectively? It is important to understand the infrastructure of the destination. Also, are the accommodations and service level similar to what the group is used to or what you are expecting? How reliable is the technology and what is the cost? Is the currency exchange favorable? Is English widely spoken? How many international flights are offered per day? How close is the airport to your selected hotel? How many vehicles and what sizes are available from your transportation partner? How safe is the destination for U.S. travelers?
“Another key is to understand the demographics of your audience,” McIntosh says. “For example, what is the size of the group? Are they frequent international travelers or novice travelers? Do any attendees require visas for entry? Are they arriving from predominately one location (i.e. headquarters in New York) or are they traveling to the program from all over the world?”
The larger the group and more varied the participants in terms of demographics, the more complex the planning becomes. Also, understanding the demographics is key to establishing an effective communications plan with the audience. Those who have never traveled internationally may need some additional handholding.
Other key questions to ask include: What is the custom for “gift-giving” and what gifts could cause offense? How do you greet someone: bow, shake hands or with the European two-sided kiss? Certain hand gestures also can be construed as offensive in other countries, and meeting planners need to learn about the hierarchical standings and formalities in the chosen locale. In Germany, for example, it is considered bad manners to address someone by the first name, and it is imperative that you address them by their title: doctor, mister, your excellency.
For Linda Nelson, CMP, president and CEO of To Plan Ahead, cultural considerations are of obvious foremost importance.
“It’s important to have a good knowledge and understanding of the culture and customs of the destination country,” Nelson says. “The things we take for granted in the U.S. may not be available elsewhere. For instance, what are the smoking laws and alcohol laws? What time is dinner typically served? In some countries it may be as late as 10 p.m., or lunch may be the main meal of the day.
“In the U.S., if a person finishes his/her meal before others at the table, the waitperson very often will take their plate away while others are still eating — this is considered bad manners in Europe. Also, planners need to learn what type of food service is typical: Finger or fork buffet? Russian service? Plated? Also, place settings tend to be more formal in Europe with many different knives and forks and glassware. The same knife is never used for more than one course.”
Mazda Miles, CMM, president of Perfection Events, stresses that the prevailing culture and customs inform the entire process as well as the outcome of an international meeting and event.
“If a planner embraces this, they can plan and execute beautifully as well as give attendees a wonderful experience in an international destination,” Miles says.
For example, planners need to consider whether their desired food and beverage choices are available in the country hosting the meeting. Some countries are red meat and pork-heavy, while others are grain and vegetable-heavy. Some countries are known for their beer, while others are known for their wine. When choosing menus, always consider the locale, make a special request if necessary, but be understanding if they are unable to provide what has been requested. Try to find a way to celebrate and incorporate the best of the locale and provide attendees with a superb experience.
When planning a program internationally, McIntosh generally relies a great deal on global vendors and suppliers. These may include destination management companies (DMC) and global hotel sales representatives. The Castle Group also uses the Cvent supplier network to source locations.
“We vet our suppliers by seeking referrals from industry colleagues, asking local convention and/or travel bureaus and soliciting feedback from the suppliers’ past clients,” McIntosh says.
She also relies heavily on local industry partners for destination expertise, insider tips and local relationships. For example, these partners can suggest safe areas for dining/entertaining, the best transportation options and favorable rates. DMC partners can conduct due diligence on all local vendors, such as tour operators, to ensure appropriate business licensing, necessary insurance requirements and proper safety training.
Convention and tourism bureaus also can be great resources as well as the national and local hotel sales reps for the destination. The U.S. Department of State travel website (www.travel.state.gov) is the go-to resource for travel alerts and warnings. The U.S. embassy in a given country can be a great resource for planning and prioritizing your group in that destination.
“One critical element to the success of an international meeting is having professional and highly experienced travel staff onsite,” says Michelle McSpadden, CMM, who specializes in strategic meeting planning, incentive travel and live event design. McSpadden, a principal at Overflow Storytelling Lab, a firm dedicated to accelerating idea adoption, adds, “While it may be tempting to bring colleagues or volunteers as staff so they can experience the destination, it’s often not the correct business decision and can be a wreck onsite. Contract top-level travel staff with first-hand destination experience — and contract them early.”
When it comes to the financial aspects of planning meetings abroad, make sure that the venue contract is negotiated in English and U.S. currency, and that everything is very specific, leaving no room for misinterpretation.
“Negotiating contracts outside of the U.S. is very different, and again, some things we take for granted may not be included outside of the U.S.,” Nelson says. “For instance, we typically don’t pay for room rental if we are booking a meeting at a hotel where we are booking a sufficient number of sleeping rooms. This practice is typically not the case in Europe and, in fact, they will often charge rental on the prefunction space if it’s being utilized for registration.”
Make sure that the contract includes a clause whereby no meeting space can be re-allocated without prior, written permission from the meeting professional.
Also be aware of language and terminology differences. For instance, in the U.S., we refer to “cell” phones, in England they are called “mobiles,” and in Germany they are referred to as “handies.” Also check each country’s tax laws. Many often apply VAT (value added tax), however, with the right planning and paperwork, this tax can be reimbursed.
Crime is another risk factor, so do your homework. It is vital to consult with an experienced insurance provider before making any firm commitments to ensure adequate coverage for public, product and medical liabilities as well as cancellation or postponement of the meeting. And be sure to ask the hotel/venue for a copy of their emergency plan in case of fire, weather or terrorist activities.
“Not factoring contingencies for international risk into your contracts is also a mistake,” McIntosh says. “Most contracts have a force majeure clause that absolves parties of liability and/or allows for cancellation due to acts of God, forces of nature or terrorism. However, arguing a cancellation on the terms of force majeure is only straightforward if the incident is expressly covered under the clause and in the location that the program is being hosted. In order to avoid dispute, it is important to be as specific as possible and try to make the terms measurable.”
For example, for a contract McIntosh worked on for a Mexico trip where the Zika virus was a threat, her company stated that if the situation rose to a CDC alert Level 3, this would be cause for cancellation under force majeure.
Rigel Bitterman, vice president at Luxpitality, a meeting and event planning firm, says it is imperative to check airlift options in every city where attendees will be coming in from — this especially pertains to VIPs and speakers. Luxpitality recently planned a massive financial summit in Zurich for one of their top clients. Fortunately Bitterman’s business partner, Patrick Burkhardt, is from Switzerland, speaks fluent Swiss-German and was intimately familiar with what needed to be done both here in the U.S. and in Switzerland in order to make this meeting a success for the client.
“Oftentimes, attendance for an international meeting is substantially lower than anticipated due to lack of convenient flight options for attendees,” Bitterman says. “It doesn’t matter if the flights are being paid for by the company — attendees will be deterred if the location isn’t easy, such as direct flights at convenient times, for them to get to.”
The biggest mistake Miles has seen meeting planners make is being too direct with their international counterparts.
“Planners are used to calling the shots, so they may default to assigning tasks for international colleagues to follow suit. However, when planning international meetings, planners must be much more thoughtful,” Miles says. “Planners have to take the time to connect with the local team early on in the process to set and manage expectations and to understand what they expect of the planner, too.”
One common mistake planners make is assuming that everything that comes “standard” in the U.S. is standard in the country where a meeting is being planned.
“I remember planning a meeting in Spain and finding out onsite that house phones were not standard in the hotel meeting rooms,” Miles says. “That was a costly and inconvenient mistake that yielded five days of running around the hotel to notify staff of my needs, and alternatively using my mobile phone to make calls and send texts for every single request. Needless to say, for the Hong Kong meeting the following month, we rented two-way radios.”
McIntosh says planners may not factor in a contingency for currency fluctuation, and they may assume audio-visual equipment will be compatible with U.S. equipment. Other missteps include not filling out the proper paperwork for customs or not allowing enough time or money for shipping.
Says Nelson, “If you anticipate shipping extensive materials and/or products to the meeting destination, then it’s a huge mistake not to hire a shipping/forwarding company who will take charge and ensure everything goes through customs without issue.”
Failure to do this can result in materials being impounded or held up for several days to clear customs. It is especially important to provide this information to potential exhibitors who could be shipping large amounts of materials and booths.
To help make international meeting and event planning a smooth process, experts stress the importance of having a strong DMC partner. At Luxpitality, Bitterman relies heavily on their DMC division to provide not only knowledge and resources overseas, but also boots on the ground in the locations where they plan international meetings.
“The value of being able to tap into the expertise of locals when dealing with the logistics of transportation, planning offsite events or even making restaurant recommendations is off the charts,” Bitterman says.
Finally, it’s imperative to help attendees realize that they too have a personal, vested interest in remaining compliant with the rules and regulations of the country where the meeting is being held.
“Meeting planners don’t want to suck all the fun out of the international meeting, but the reality is that in both the financial and insurance sectors, there is a fair amount of regulatory red tape, and it varies country to country,” Bitterman says. “Making attendees aware of what the rules are is not enough — they should also be made aware of what the repercussions of falling out of compliance are both for their company and for them personally.” I&FMM
Local destination management companies and tourism bureaus in the region a planner is choosing to hold a meeting can be invaluable for providing information about the local holidays, hotels, transportation, etc. Here are more sources: