by Deanna Ting | May 01, 2013
When you take your meeting outside of the U.S., things can get a bit complicated. With 196 countries total, and more than 6,500 different spoken languages around the world, not to mention borders, time zones, cultural and business differences, and entry requirements, putting together an international meeting can be daunting.

However, given these challenges, and even as budgets continue to scale back or remain relatively low, there are organizations that continue to meet outside of the U.S. - and that value the significance of an international meeting.

Staying on budget and pulling off an effective international meeting are not mutually exclusive. Successful Meetings spoke to various experts and planners to find out the best methods for planners to work with and negotiate with international suppliers to pull off a powerful event abroad.

Step :1 Do Your Research
Before a planner even begins the formal negotiation process, she needs to do her homework. "At the onset, I would say it's not about negotiation. It's about researching and understanding what's being offered and what you need," says Laura Alten, CMP, director of global accounts for HelmsBriscoe in Cable, WI. In her role, Alten acts as a third-party site selector for various clients, from medical associations to corporate organizations, and has helped book meetings and events in 11 different countries over the past four years. Her strategy places great emphasis on pre-planning.

"I need a very thorough understanding of everything that is being offered and what I can expect," she says. "I would want to know ceiling heights, for example."

Jeremy M. Luski, director of event operations at UBM Global Trade in Newark, NJ, uses a similar approach. "I look at everything, from health and safety to appropriate function space and room accommodations," he says. Over the past 10 years, Luski has organized international conferences and events in nearly 30 countries worldwide for UBM Global Trade, the International Council of Shopping Centers, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He adds that he also uses his own "internal checklist to make sure any supplier I am considering is up to par from a global organizer's perspective and what our delegates want to achieve and to enjoy."

Luski and Alten both agree that once a planner has a general idea as to where the meeting will be held and how much is being budgeted for it, that planner should start to delve deeper into the details of that particular destination and any potential supplier partners. Items to research may include time zone differences, major holidays, dates of other citywide events, and general news. Alten, for example, recently encountered challenges booking a group in Paris because the group's dates conflicted with the annual Paris Air Show in June, as well as in Munich because of the InterSolar Europe conference that was taking place at the same time. Both Alten and Luski stress the importance of staying informed regarding international news and events. "You have to know what's going on in the world, at all times, especially when you're putting on events outside the U.S.," says Luski.

Keeping up to date on the latest news is essential, but so is being aware of any potential cultural differences that may surface. In a survey of meeting planners and suppliers who host international meetings conducted by Eli Gorin, CMP, CMM, vice president of global client relations at ABTS Convention Services in North Bay Village, FL, the biggest concern for both suppliers and organizers was understanding cultural differences (52 percent of 160 respondents). While cultural differences may not necessarily have a direct impact on the negotiation process, says Luski, it's important to take note of them. "There's a Westerner's perspective that we have of doing business here, but once you leave the U.S., it's a whole other side of the coin where it can be a very different experience."

Step 2: Reach Out

Even though Alten has access to information about more than 120,000 different hotels around the world as part of HelmsBriscoe's proprietary e-RFP program, HB Connect, she says that relying on the advice of colleagues is a crucial part of her research and negotiation process. "Even with a tool like that, I find that seeking help and advice from colleagues and convention bureaus is very important," she says.

Knowing how to utilize the right resources in both the research and negotiation process is crucial to an international meeting's success. "Think of this period as crowdsourcing on steroids," explains Jane E. Schuldt, CITE and president of World Marketing Group in Minneapolis. "This is a crucial part of the planning process for an international meeting."

For Darrin Scherago and Herb Burklund of Jersey City, NJ-based Scherago International, relying on a close, on-site source was key to putting together their meeting. Last year, Scherago, the executive vice president, and Burklund, the president, were tasked with bringing the inaugural Plant and Animal Genome (PAG) Asia conference to Singapore. While the two have helped put together international conferences and events before, and have organized the annual PAG conference in San Diego for the past 20 years, the PAG Asia show in March 2013 was a challenge for them. "This was a big deal for us," explains Scherago. "We're not a big operation - we've only got 18 employees - and this was one of the first times where we were responsible for everything related to the conference, from organizing it and planning it to implementing it, finding contracts, and so much more."

During the pre-planning phase, Burklund and Scherago relied heavily on the guidance of a Singaporean "mentor." An established scientist who had deep-rooted connections with the Singapore government and major scientific organizations and companies like Temasek and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, he was introduced to Scherago and Burklund three years prior to the 2013 PAG Asia, and they credit him with helping them make the right connections to pull off a successful conference. "I can't stress the value of having a mentor who was Singaporean," says Burklund. "Through him, we met so many people who helped us put the conference together and then, when I went to Singapore for site visits, I was really able to show these potential suppliers that this wasn't a one-show kind of thing. It developed credibility. Laying down that groundwork - establishing those relationships - was critical to the success of our event."

In Scherago and Burklund's case, the Singapore Exhibition & Convention Bureau (SECB) was pivotal in helping them with their conference planning process. "They walked us through the whole process," says Scherago. He says that the SECB's MICE manager for the eastern U.S. and South America, Divine Lim, met with them in their office for three hours to gain a better understanding of what Scherago and its client envisioned for the PAG Asia conference. "She interviewed us and put together this list of venues that might work for us, sent out the bid to the hotels, received them, and then sent them on to us."

Laura d'Elsa, regional director for the U.S. and Canada for the German Convention Bureau, says that, unlike Scherago and Burklund, some meeting planners are often reluctant to work with CVBs, fearful that the CVBs will only direct them to sponsors or partners that pay for promotion from the CVB. "There's this stereotype out there that's completely false," she says. "My main role is to put planners and organizers in contact with the right people who can help them and their specific organizations, whether they're keynote speakers, industry strategists and specialists, A/V or tech companies, or whomever. I want meeting organizers to know that I can help them in all areas, and can be their one-stop shop if they allow me to be."

At VisitEngland, Kirsteen Scott, business visit and events manager for North America, echoes d'Elsa's sentiments. "We just want to help you find the right destination and match you with the right people in England who can make your meeting an absolute success," she says. "It's just a matter of picking up the phone to ask me, and I will do everything that I can to put you in touch with the right people."

Another great resource for planners, says Marina Bay Sands Vice President of Sales Mike Lee, is to contact major associations like the American Society of Association Executives' International Sections Council or the Professional Convention Management Association's Global Taskforce. "Leveraging these peer resources can help planners gain insight and valuable tips for planning their respective meeting programs in Asia or anywhere else around the world."

Step 3: Make Contact
Once a planner knows whom to get in touch with, he must carefully consider just how to make contact. While it may be appropriate to simply send an email to a potential supplier in the U.S., in other countries, there may be particular communication channels, and introductions, that you must go through in order to get the attention of potential suppliers.

"When you work internationally, you really have to think about how you transmit information to people," says Michael Gates, vice chairman of Richard Lewis Communications and a noted specialist in cross-cultural negotiations, based in Finland. "Some cultures like email. Some prefer a more personal touch. Some prefer a hard copy. Some prefer a lot of information and others don't. Some cultures want all of the information well in advance while others may want it last minute; you may have to do both." The key, Gates says, is to be flexible.

If a proper introduction from the CVB or another resource is needed first, a planner shouldn't hesitate to ask for one. The same applies to the use of a translator. Even in countries where English is spoken, as in Singapore, Scherago says he still sometimes found communication barriers. "Everyone speaks English but they speak what they call 'Singlish,' too," he explains. "Sometimes, because of their heavy accents and speech patterns, it can be a little difficult to understand what they're saying so I had to ask them to repeat things."

To find the best hotels for his events, Luski will often work through the global sales director of major brands to get a formal introduction to the right property. "With international hotels that I want to negotiate with, I will go through my global sales contacts because they know my buying power and my history and can advocate on my behalf with local sales directors," he says.

Once a planner does make contact with any potential supplier, she needs to be as clear as possible about what it is that she's looking for. "More information is always better than not enough," says Schuldt. "Avoid crossing wires and avoid using jargon, sports analogies or colloquial phrases when you are working with international suppliers."

As the CEO of the IMEX Group, Carina Bauer finds herself having to change her communication style depending on whether she's working with her colleagues in Frankfurt or Las Vegas. "In Germany, for example, I know that I need to change my communication style when I speak with them, even if we're both speaking English," she says. "In the U.K., where our company is based, we might say 'that's interesting, I'll look into that," but we really know that's not the case," she explains. "Whereas, our German colleagues would take our word literally and believe that we will definitely look into something."

Both Luski and Alten pay special attention to whatever written communication they have with their suppliers; Luski even uses his own model agreement to send to potential hotel suppliers instead of submitting a formal RFP so he receives all of the information he needs. Alten has even gone so far as to email a property, asking it to film the walking journey between the hotel and the nearby convention center to get a better understanding of the distance between the two.

Asking a lot of questions is key to a successful event. For PAG Asia, Scherago needed to request a total of 16 easels to hold up signs for the conference. Two weeks prior to the event, he asked his contact at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel Singapore if he could request them and she told him she could only provide eight, and that the other eight easels would come at a hefty price. "Well, I thought this was strange so I called her, and found out why they cost so much - they were extremely high-end steel easels, so the hotel only had eight on site," explains Scherago. "Had I waited until the last minute to ask her about these, I would've been scrambling, and I might have had to fork over thousands for these things. Don't ever assume that anything is done exactly as it would be done here in the U.S."

While emails and phone calls are the most pragmatic channels for communicating with international suppliers, Luski points out that tools like Skype, Apple's FaceTime, or Google Hangouts are also extremely helpful tools. "In countries where English isn't the first language, using tools like these really help, especially if you don't have the time or budget to travel for just an hour-long meeting. It's not just great for negotiation but also for organization."

Even with universal access to tools like email, phone calls, and Skype, however, planners must bear in mind that international suppliers will also be impacted by their respective cultural and business environments, says Schuldt. "Take the time to understand the supplier's culture and market conditions because this will impact how they communicate and the context in which they receive your specs or RFPs."


Step 4: Change Your Perspective
As effective as Skype or FaceTime may be for piecing together a virtual meeting, nothing quite compares to meeting a potential supplier in person. Scherago and Burklund spent five days in Singapore on site visits, meeting with potential hotel, DMC, A/V, and other related suppliers.

"Meeting with potential suppliers is so important," says IMEX's Bauer. "You never really know what the differences - cultural or professional - will be and to what degree until you arrive there."

However, with time and budget constraints it's often difficult for planners to arrange in-person site visits. While Alten hasn't yet been able to do an international site visit of her own, she hopes to soon, and she tries to arrange it so that her clients' locally based colleagues can go on site visits to experience the destinations before their events take place. "Not doing site visits is a huge challenge, which is why I try to be so thorough and meticulous with all of my questions," says Alten. "Asking all of those questions helps me reach the right comfort level that I need to have before I begin to negotiate for a contract and I think it's the same for the supplier, too."

Face-to-face meetings held in the U.S. are also extremely important. For Luski, a scheduled meeting with a hotel contact wound up saving him thousands of dollars for one of his meetings. "I was planning to sign a contract with this off-site venue when I just had a meeting with someone from another hotel brand who asked me about my other business. She said, 'Give me a few minutes,' and one hour later, she was able to confirm with her staff at one of the properties I'd been eyeing that they did have space availability and at a cost that was 35 percent lower than what I was planning to sign," says Luski. "They brought my proposal down by 50 percent, just because of this meeting and their dedication to just sitting down with me to negotiate on my behalf."

Step 5: Find the Right Price
Give and take is a part of any contract negotiation process, whether domestic or international. But when it comes to international contracts, keeping an open mind is absolutely necessary, as is having done the research. Schuldt advises planners to have a range of relevant information on hand including a two-to-five-year group history; group profile (age, industry, gender mix); markets; budget guidelines; sponsors; date flexibility; types of bids required; proposal due dates; and any deal breakers.

"Come into the negotiations with your checks and balances and know, up front, that you need to give something in return and not take everything; there has to be a happy medium in these global destinations," says Luski. When negotiating with international suppliers, Luski often gives them visuals as to how he envisions his meeting to be, and he brings stories with him to give them a better sense of what he's seeking. "You need to think differently when you're working abroad, and you have to pay attention to your ROI, as well as that of your supplier. Never forget the power of persuasion and sharing just how much of an impact your meeting can have for that supplier."

Gates says that, while not always completely applicable, many different countries or regions tend to fall into one of three cultural categories that often determine how people negotiate contracts or prices. For example, in India, Gates says, a businessman would normally expect to be quoted a rather inflated price that he could eventually bring down during the negotiation process. An American businesswoman, on the other hand, would most likely not take that kind of an approach to negotiation or price quotes.

Kevin Edmunds, vice president of meeting and incentive sales for Hard Rock All-Inclusive Collection, says planners should try to find out all fees and surcharges up front and to take their time analyzing them carefully. "Sometimes, with an all-inclusive for instance, the rate can look very huge at the beginning," he explains. "Many planners are nervous about seeing such a high rate, not realizing that they might be saving costs on other fees like Internet access or phone calls that can really add up. Consider all fees and charges before you write off any hotel or property."

Sticker shock was something that Scherago and Burklund experienced when fielding bids from hotels in Singapore. "Room rates were mostly north of $250 per night and as high as up to $500 a night," says Scherago. "Not only that but in Singapore, as in many other countries, they treat meeting space differently. Hotels are less concerned about room revenue than they are about the cost per attendee and for meeting space rental fees. That's something you definitely need to pay attention to." A similar situation applies to Vienna, says Christian Mutschlechner, director of the Vienna Convention Bureau. "As in almost everywhere in Europe," he says, "you have to pay a room rental fee in convention centers."

Just as diplomacy and general respect are the order of the day in terms of international relations, so too do they apply to international contract negotiations, says Schuldt. "Make use of everyone's time wisely, and respect that in our business and all business, time is money."

When it comes to money matters, says Luski, you may also need to prepare yourself to pay slightly more than you would in the U.S. to make sure your meeting is culturally sensitive, especially when you are dealing with a multicultural attendee mix. "In the U.S., a coffee break is a coffee break. In China, however, you need to have food at a coffee break. You can't just have coffee or tea because that's not what they're accustomed to, and leaving out something like that can have a big impact on your overall event," he says. "Just paying a bit more to have fresh fruit or pastries helps you appeal more to that local market and it can pay off tremendously in the long run."

Step 6: Be Prepared
As with any meeting, whether on domestic soil or foreign shores, things can - and often will - go wrong. In the event that something does go haywire, however, the strength of your supplier and CVB relationships will be immeasurably valuable.

For a meeting that Alten organized for her medical association client, she relied on the last-minute help of the Vienna Convention Bureau's Judith Settele, CMP, marketing and project coordinator for the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Ireland to find additional meeting space just two months before the event.

Planners should also be prepared to stand by the ROI of their international meetings, and defend the value of in-person events. "There's a global shift taking place in business as to how to be competitive," says Gates.

He points to the growing importance that computers and virtual events are playing in how companies conduct business.

"But when it comes to customer relationships, that ability to build relationships across borders and countries is absolutely critical," Gates adds. "If you want to succeed, you need to be able to meet, in person, no matter where you are on the globe. If you think about the cost of losing business through not making relationships, the cost of an international meeting is really negligible." SM Questions or comments? Email [email protected]