by Leo Jakobson | May 01, 2015

As business becomes an increasingly global affair, meeting planners are finding that their jobs now frequently require them to take on the role of international ambassador as well as organizer. According to Successful Meetings' annual International Meetings Trends Survey, the percentage of planners saying that their organizations will host more global meetings than the previous year has jumped to 31 percent in 2015 -- up from 22 percent last year and 18 percent in 2013.

With this change, more companies and associations are facing up to the costs and complications of planning them. Twenty-seven percent of planners responding to the SM survey said that their budgets for meetings held outside the United States had increased -- nearly twice the 15 percent who said those budgets had decreased. After the cost and travel time required to go abroad, respondents said the five most challenging aspects of planning international meetings were communications and language barriers (44 percent), security concerns (36 percent), understanding local customs (27 percent), air access (24 percent), and passport requirements (18 percent). Many of these concerns apply regardless of whether the meeting is held in the U.S. for a global audience, or abroad.

With business becoming more and more global as the world continues to shrink, planners in the meetings, conventions, and events industry are finding that the gatherings they organize are no longer single-country, or even single-region, affairs. This creates a broader, more diverse audience that offers planners unique challenges to overcome, from language and cultural differences to visa problems and air travel logistics. What follows is a look at some event-tested best practices for doing just that.

"One reality of the world today is that English has become the standard language of business. But it can't be taken for granted that it is always the best way to communicate to attendees," says Kim Myhre, senior vice president, international, of Dallas-based brand experience and event marketing agency FreemanXP. "If it's promoted in advance that the event is going to be in English, then attendees make up their own minds whether that's something that they can live with or not. But it is also possible and in some cases preferable to offer local language tracks, where certain content is provided in the local language. Then the third and old-fashioned option is to employ translation services."

The annual IMEX Frankfurt group travel trade show in Germany attracts nearly 4,000 hosted buyers from 80 countries, so language is a key consideration, says Carina Bauer, CEO of the IMEX Group. "The common business language across the world is English, so we do use English, but we try to be sensitive and not use colloquial English -- such as phrases that only British people or Americans would understand. We avoid cultural references to things like [cricket or baseball] analogies."

At the same time, the show has a large German contingent -- 700 hosted buyers, plus 2,000 to 2,500 who pay their own way -- so there is some German-language education for them. But, this is "on very German-specific topics," she adds, pointing to an education session on tax issues for German associations' finance directors.


At IMEX Frankfurt and IMEX America,
many exhibitors make it a point to
include a bit of cultural flavor
in their booths on the show floor.

Cultural issues are another reason to have local language tracks or translation, says Edward Perotti, senior director, global meetings, events, and travel, for Palo Alto, CA-based-based VMware, a cloud computing firm that hosts more than 1,000 meetings around the world every year. "We found that most international attendees want sessions in English -- except when it comes to Asia-Pacific," he adds. "Then we need to look at basic Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. I need to have it translated and localized for them. It is a sign of respect."

The decision should go back to the strategy, says Stephanie Harris, director, global marketing, of American Express Meetings & Events. "What do you want to accomplish with this meeting?" she asks. "If there are concerns over a language barrier, ensure that you have translators available if a key message is being delivered and it's really critical that the message is understood by everyone who speaks every language in the room." Another reason to abandon or augment an English-language presentation is if there is technical complexity, such as when discussing medicine or law," Harris adds.

Which isn't to say every technical subject requires translation. Karin Hanson, owner and event architect of Las Vegas-based Karin Hanson Events, plans meetings and events for the GENIVI Alliance, a nonprofit alliance of Asian, European, and U.S.-based auto manufacturers and suppliers focused on car infotainment systems such as GPS, video, and vehicle sensors. "We don't use translation or local language sessions that often," Hanson says. "English is the main language. It's all engineers, software architects, and computer chip-makers. They have a universal language. If they're showing computer coding on the screen [in a presentation], everybody's going to get it. It's in their 'language.'"