by Deanna Ting | November 01, 2012
Rio de Janeiro's most famous statue, Cristo Redentor

Toward the end of the 2012 London Olympics Closing Ceremony in August, a flurry of colorfully clad performers took to the stage, converting the stadium into a mini Carnival, complete with a raucous samba, exuberant singers, and fireworks. The wildly energetic eight-minute segment put the world on notice that Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which will be the first South American city to host an Olympics in 2016, is ready to host the world. 

That same readiness to host global events and compete on an international scale, applies not just to Brazil, but to Latin America as a whole, and is emblematic of dramatic changes taking place in that part of the world. 

“I’ve been working in this region for 25 years in the hotel industry,” says Carlos Baruki, Hilton Worldwide vice president of sales and marketing for Latin America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, “and I have seen that within the last 10 years there has been a completely different twist in Latin America, in terms of social and political stability and sustainable economic growth.” As for meetings, “Twelve years ago, we didn’t really have ministries or secretaries of tourism,” notes Baruki. “Now, we have chapters of Meeting Professionals International (MPI), the Professional Convention Management Association, and Site.”

This year, Site held its 2012 Executive Summit in Buenos Aires and Bariloche, marking the first time in its history that a Site Executive Summit was held in South America, bringing together more than 200 MICE experts from 14 different countries. In August, São Paulo hosted MPI’s 2012 Latin American Meetings and Events Conference. Next year, Colombia will host the 20th annual Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association Cruise Conference & Trade Show, bringing more than 1,200 cruise partners and tourism authorities to the country. In 2015, Argentina will host the International Congress and Convention Association’s (ICCA) International Congress.

According to ICCA’s 2011 country and city rankings for international association meetings, Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia ranked in the top 32 for the number of meetings held in each country. Brazil ranked seventh worldwide with a total of 304 meetings, Argentina ranked 18th with 186, and Colombia ranked 32nd with 113. The rankings are a clear sign that major associations are interested in the region. And as more U.S. businesses extend their reach into the South American market, the demand for meetings in the region will only increase.

A Region on the Rise
“The primary driver of hosting international meetings in Latin America is because the economy there has grown and most U.S. companies have a strong and growing presence there,” explains Tony Wagner, vice president of the Americas for CWT Meetings & Events (CWT). U.S companies, including Lisle, IL-based Navistar, Inc., and Islandia, NY-based CA Technologies, have held meetings in Latin America primarily because of their companies’ business interests in the region.

“Any time that you can go to the region where your customers or partners are, especially as a U.S.-based company, that face-to-face contact holds so much value for us,” says Jan Penrow, global marketing manager for Navistar, a manufacturer of commercial trucks, engines, and buses. “The fact that we chose Colombia for our 2012 Global Parts Summit was appreciated by our dealers in the region.” Many international meetings held in Latin America consist of an attendee mix that is primarily dominated by Latin Americans, with a smaller fraction of U.S. based leaders and employees also in attendance.

Other factors that make the case for holding a meeting in Latin America include ease of accessibility and airlift from major American cities; same or similar time zones; and South American hospitality and authenticity.

Paulo Campaña, a Brazil-based-procurement manager for CA Technologies, says that he sees more and more U.S. attendees coming to Latin America. In his role at CA Technologies, he has worked with CWT to arrange meetings and conferences throughout Latin America for his company, which specializes in cloud computing. “I think you’ll have more people from the U.S. and from the headquarters coming here in the next few years,” he says. “The importance of Latin America as a business hub is going to rise on a global scale.”

CWT’s Wagner agrees, saying, “The market is expanding and it’s dynamic. It’s being driven by local demand and demand from global companies wanting to have a footprint in Latin America not just through offices, but also through experiences and events.” 

The strength of the economies in Latin America has also bolstered the region’s business growth. Since the U.S. economic collapse in late 2008, U.S.-based meeting owners like William Vendl, director of site selections for R.T. Travel & Incentive in Tustin, CA, have found exceeding value in South America. “Latin America opened itself up when we had problems with the U.S. dollar and the European euro,” he says. “While the costs of holding meetings in Europe and Asia has fluctuated dramatically, the cost of holding meetings in Latin America has remained fairly stable.” Vendl has planned meeting/incentive trips for his clients in Colombia, Uruguay, and Chile.

In Colombia, foreign groups and travelers are exempt from hotel taxes. “I once saved a group more than $25,000 by taking advantage of this benefit,” says Eli Gorin, CMP, CMM, vice president of global client relations at Miami-based ABTS Convention Services.

That cost-effective value, however, is subject to change, thanks to the overall strength of Latin America’s economy. In CWT’s annual “Travel Price Forecast” for 2013, Brazil was cited as the No. 1 market to watch, and per-attendee-per-day cost increases are predicted to be the highest in Latin America, with an increase from 10 to 12 percent. 

Brazil’s diversity — in terms of destinations and demographics — and its sheer size have an intriguing appeal for internationally based organizations and companies. “Brazil has a very strong economy and is a global leader in many of the major industries such as oil and banking,” adds Gorin. “Many major global organizations use Brazil as their Latin American headquarters.”

Costs in Brazil are expected to rise due to increasing demand from organizations and companies, and in Argentina, the sales tax can be as much as 21 percent. Planners should also note that Argentina quotes prices in U.S. dollars while Brazil quotes in its local currency.

In Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia, both Devin M. O’Donnell, program manager for New Providence, NJ-based Meeting Logistics, LLC, and Carol Wagner, senior program manager for Caledonia, WI-based M&I, a Meeting, Incentive and Association Management Company, have come across vendors and hotels who expect payment in full at the onset. “They want every last dime up front and in some places, like São Paulo, they want 120 percent up front,” says Wagner. O’Donnell believes this procedure is motivated by the fact that these companies are concerned with getting paid by companies that are not based locally. “I think it has to do with the fact that we are so far away and they want the money up front,” he explains.

Governments Step In
Governments in the region have also upped their game when it comes to attracting international meetings — especially from North America. “Often, organizations, mine included, make decisions on where to host international meetings and conferences based on the level of importance the nations’ governments place on attracting meetings,” says Alberto Cortes, the Miami-based marketing director for the Latin American and Caribbean Air Transport Association (ALTA). “The governments in Latin America are being very aggressive about getting meeting business. Conferences are very expensive, so any help from the government helps tremendously in tipping the scales.”

Cortes says that the Colombian government’s tourism, foreign investment, and exports promotion board, Proexport Colombia, was critical to the success of the programs he has organized in Cartagena and in Bogota. “At the government level, they are very good, and they have a good commercial mentality, which allows organizations like mine to negotiate in the same way as you would with a supplier.” He adds, “It’s a totally different country now. It’s very open and very professional and, of course, willing to compete at the international level for every conference that they can, especially at the government level.” At ALTA, Cortes organizes six to seven conferences per year throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, including a June 2012 Aviation Safety Summit held in Bogotá.

Vendl also says that assistance from Proexport Colombia was crucial in his decision to bring a client to Cartagena “There was no way I could have taken a client down to Colombia until Proexport showed it to me. Claudia Davila, the USA tourism director from Proexport, took me down on a fam trip and showed me how much Colombia has changed. The government has stepped in and made it so much safer.”

Cortes agrees with Vendl’s observations on Proexport’s dedication to attracting international meetings. “Colombia may not have as many resources or convention centers [as other Latin American countries] but they are passionate, they want to do it all, and they want to be at the very top,” Cortes says.

According to Maria Claudia Lacouture, president of Proexport Colombia, new tourism developments will only add to Colombia’s appeal as a MICE destination in the coming years. “There are thousands of new hotel rooms in Colombia,” she says. They include properties from brands such as InterContinental, Hilton, Sofitel, JW Marriott, Four Points by Sheraton, Aloft, Melia Hotels & Resorts, Iberostar, Sonesta, Ibis, and Wyndham. 

In Argentina, the Ministry of Tourism created the National Institute of Tourism Promotion (Inprotur) in 2008 as part of a strategy to make attracting international meetings a top priority. Although the country has seen recent economic struggles related to rising inflation costs and debts, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s government continues to focus on growing its tourism infrastructure by encouraging more investments from outside entities. “From 2003 to 2009, [the last period for which tourism data is available], $1.43 billion of the total tourism investment was designated to build international hotel chains. Most of this investment is focused on properties with meeting facilities and state-of-the-art technology following international quality and sustainability standards,” says Leonardo Boto, Inprotur executive director, referring to Sofitel, Hyatt, InterContinental, Holiday Inn, and Starwood. Since Inprotur’s creation in 2008, the number of international events in Argentina increased by more than 200 percent.

Rio de Janeiro, is focusing on investing in its tourism infrastructure to prepare for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Currently, it has more than 28,000 hotel rooms with plans to add 15,000 more units within the next two years, according to Paolo Senise, executive director of the Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The city will receive investments to improve its infrastructure for airports, ports, roads, public transportation, accommodation, leisure, and services,” says Senise. Recently, Rio has also welcomed conferences and incentives organized by BMW, Siemens, Nokia, Novartis, Abbott Laboratories, and MCI.

Stiff Competition on a Global Stage
Each country is vying to attract meetings and business not just from the U.S., but also from the world. “There is a lot of competition out there [for international meetings and events in South America], and no country [in Latin America] wants to be below the average,” says Alejandro Verzoub, Site Global president and a native of Argentina. 

Allison Summers, managing director of Site and Site International Foundation, adds: “[Latin American countries and tourism ministries] are speaking to a global stage and not just to a specific market, and they are growing rapidly with a foundation of many more shows that are related to the MICE space.”  

As more international meetings are hosted in the region, expect the levels of sophistication and efficiency among CVBs, tourism ministries, hotels, and other meeting suppliers to increase as well, says Summers. “They’re good at observing, learning, and wanting to be better.”

Changing Perceptions
As eager as Latin American governments are to attract U.S. meetings, they are equally motivated to dispel any negative misconceptions about the overall region. “The greatest challenge that Latin American meetings face is trying to overcome ignorance,” says Hilton’s Baruki. 

Gorin of ABTS Convention Services says that a number of misperceptions about the overall region remain. Prior to joining ABTS in 2010, Gorin ran gMeetings, a company that specialized in working with technology distributors, pharmaceutical, and automotive companies to host meetings in Latin America. “When I would pitch 
programs to planners, I found that many people didn’t realize what was really down there. Unfortunately, people in the U.S. are very influenced by news, and the majority of the news coverage you see is very negative.” 

That news coverage includes the violent drug wars over cocaine in Colombia, which largely ended in the 1990s; the turbulent reign of recently re-elected Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez that continues to today; and the widespread kidnappings that continue to take place.

Major concerns about safety and security have prompted Heather Heidbrink, Maritz Travel’s director of sourcing, to not take any groups to Colombia. She cites a U.S. State Department-issued travel warning issued in February and recently updated on October 3. 

Gorin argues, however, that the level of safety in Colombia is much better than some perceive it to be. “If you look at the per capita homicide rate, for example, you see that Chicago and Bogotá have the same rate — and Chicago is even more dense in terms of population,” he says. “People just don’t understand the region.” 

More than any of its other Latin American counterparts, Columbia has had to fight negative perceptions related to its former struggles with drug wars, violence, and high crime rates. Clearly, as its ICCA rankings show, the country is attracting meetings on an international scale and that is, in large part, because of President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón’s administration’s aggressive role in not only wanting to make Colombia safer but also addressing the misperceptions that lingered from its past.

That Latin America is a force in the international meetings industry is without question. With more than a dozen different countries, it can be a challenge to understand what it’s really like to plan a meeting; each country and city possesses its own unique set of obstacles and rewards. Some challenges are logistical while others are related to understanding cultural differences. The rewards of holding a meeting in the region — and the value of that meeting — vary for each organization.

Considerations of Culture
Today, some of the most popular Latin American destinations for meetings are Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia. What really sets apart a meeting held in these countries — and the biggest added values — are the cultural aspects. “Whatever you do, you need to integrate the culture,” says Cortes. “Come together at the table with your partners — the airlines, the hotels, the governments — to say that you want to increase your number by this percentage and that you want to have these value-added cultural features.”

In Argentina, Heidbrink gave her attendees have a taste of the tango with impromptu lessons in their hotel lobby. In Brazil, says Baruki, many visitors overlook the fact that Brazil is so culturally diverse; in São Paolo, for example, there is a very large Japanese Brazilian community. In Colombia, Gorin has purchased small handcrafted, hand-woven hats called sombrero vueltiao from Cartagena and gave them as pillow gifts to his attendees. “No matter what meeting I did, there was always an educational cultural aspect to it,” Gorin adds.

Before any planner even begins to organize a meeting or event in Argentina, Brazil, or Colombia, she also needs to take the time to learn and understand the cultures in each country. Although the three do share many of the same cultural values and customs, there are differences among them, says Terri Morrison, co-author of business culture and etiquette guide, Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands.

“While class consciousness applies to all three countries, Argentina is the most aware of elite schools, titles, and attire,” she explains. For this reason, it is crucial to show your respect to everyone you work with, and to use names and titles correctly. Marcelo Eduardo Bombau, a lawyer and partner in Buenos Aires-based M. & M. Bomchil Abogados, says that it’s also not uncommon for meetings to be delayed as much as 15 minutes. 

“If there’s bad news, people will try very hard to hide that from you, especially in Brazil,” Morrison adds. To avoid any problems, Morrison advises that planners be vigilant in terms of having a physical presence in the country itself. She also warns planners to try to avoid major conflicts. “If you disagree with or chastise one person, you harass 100 — you have a conflict with the entire network.” 

The concept of networks applies to all three destinations, especially in Colombia. Here, as in Brazil and Argentina, group think, or decision-making led by trusted groups, sometimes known as parentelas, reigns supreme. “Someone can make his own decision but he will be influenced by his group,” she explains. “It’s a network of people who are important to you and define you.” In Brazil, she says, this often extends into a form of nepotism.

Whatever you do, your strategy should include a focus on relationship building. “The people in Latin America are so nice and so helpful but if you go in there like a steamroller, it’s not going to go well,” explains M&I’s Wagner, who has arranged meetings in Cartagena, Panama City, Buenos Aires, and Brazil. “It’s all about building relationships.”
Planners should also take note that not everyone in South America speaks Spanish (Brazil’s national language is Portuguese) and even if they do speak Spanish, it’s not always the same language. ALTA’s Cortes explains how, in one instance, he had a Chilean attendee who wrote to “cancel” her registration, meaning that she wanted to cancel her balance and pay for her registration, not to unregister. 

“A lot of people think of Latin America as this mono-linguistic block but so many of the cultures and countries are so different from each other,” says Hilton’s Baruki. 

To avoid any major challenges, planners advise that you be explicitly clear with your communications, and that you try to receive confirmation for everything. “I don’t think they understand that you need to get confirmation of every service that you need to provide,” says Devin M. O’Donnell, program manager for New Providence, NJ-based Meeting Logistics, LLC. “I think that one of the challenges that I find across the board when you are working outside the U.S.” 

O’Donnell, who has arranged pharmaceutical meetings in Brazil and Argentina, notes that, “I learned how to protect myself because the contracts from hotels and vendors are very different and very limited, so negotiate as best as possible, and make sure you use very detailed writing and verbiage for everything.

Regardless of any challenges that a meeting planner may face when holding a meeting in Latin America, they are guaranteed to have a different kind of meeting experience — and that’s a good thing, says CWT’s Wagner. “It’s a different experience — having a meeting in Latin America. It’s very authentic and it gives you a number of experiences that you wouldn’t necessarily have anywhere else in the world.”

Latin America’s rich cultural histories, set within such a dynamic and economically powerful region, make it an ideal setting for the exchange of ideas and face-to-face interactions. “It’s about exchanging cultural and social currency,” explains Baruki. “Just by changing the environment, you gain so much in terms of that cultural currency.”