by Agatha Gilmore | November 03, 2014
How many times have you sat across the table from an executive and heard the question: "What's the ROI on this?"

Planners are expected to demonstrate the return on investment for every meeting, conference, and event they organize. But the stakes are exponentially higher for international meetings and events, since the time spent away from the office and the costs associated with worldwide travel are significantly greater.

It is critical for a meeting organizer to be able to justify an international destination to both executives and attendees. Luckily, there are demonstrable advantages to hosting an international meeting that offsets the challenges, says Kim Hester, senior account executive for Irvine, CA-based event planning firm JNR Incorporated.

"If I can find added value at minimal cost, then it's well worth it," she says.

Hard and Soft Benefits
Of course, the first step in planning any meeting is sitting down and figuring out what the host organization wants to accomplish and what are the intended takeaways for the attendees. If a company or association wants to expand, this is where international meetings shine.

"[International meetings] open up new target audiences: organizations wanting to grow markets, increase members, expand, or simply internationalize," says Chris Lynn, London & Partners' vice president of business tourism for North America and emerging markets.

Matthew Marcial, senior director of events for Meeting Professionals International (MPI) in Dallas, frequently plans international meetings, including MPI's annual European Meetings & Events Conference (EMEC). Next year's conference will take place in Krakow, Poland -- a decision that was made in part to expand MPI's presence in that destination.

"We have a number of chapters and clubs; our Poland club is a very small contingent of our membership," Marcial says. "Being able to bring an event like EMEC to Krakow really helps us to engage those members. [It brings] the organization to life in that destination."

Marcial adds that corporations may also want to establish or grow a brand presence in a certain destination "because they see the potential to get profit in that area."

In order to network with and showcase itself to the Spanish market, a U.S. financial services company might want to hold a meeting or conference in Madrid, which is Spain's business capital and home to 90 percent of the large companies operating in the country. Or a technology or engineering company that wants to broaden its reach might consider Vienna, which Fast Company magazine has ranked as the world's No. 1 "smart city" when it comes using information technology to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources.

"There's direct exposure that they'll gain in that international market that they can't get here," Marcial says.

There are also many intangible advantages to hosting an international meeting. First, the atmosphere for innovation is ripe, says Flynn.

"International meetings bring together diverse cultures and new ideas, leading to innovative and creative thinking," he says.

Additionally, the networking opportunities are incomparable.

"For a company that has any sort of global subsidiaries, people in other countries, it's great when you get to network with them in their environment," says Hester, who recalls a positive business connection that resulted from a recent trip to South Africa that she helped plan. By the end of the trip, she says, one of the attendees was organizing a vacation to Martha's Vineyard, MA, with one of his hosts. The host told her that the client was now his "for life, as he will never book anywhere else."

Hester adds that international meetings are often the only times that overseas workers have access to the company's senior executives, which is important for fostering a unified brand and keeping morale high. "To be able to rub shoulders with the brass of the company? Talk about inspiring loyalty and an understanding of what the company is all about," she says. "You can't do that over webcasts."

The bonding opportunities for employees within the same office are equally as meaningful. When these employees are experiencing a new place together -- away from their routines and comfort zones -- the connections they make, the ideas they exchange, and the innovations they create are much more powerful, says Mark Cooper, CEO of the International Association of Conference Centres.

"Sometimes, the further you take people, the closer they come together," he says. "The power of the exchange can outweigh any additional cost."

Those human relationships are invaluable when it comes to doing business down the line, adds Malcolm Smith, vice president of business development and general manager of IPW, the U.S. Travel Association's annual global trade show. For example, consider this: If you come into the office in the morning and have 75 unread emails in your inbox, isn't it most likely that you will respond first to the person you recognize?

"I think it's human nature that you will gravitate to those you have a relationship with," Smith says. "The more technology drives our business, the more important the relationships become. You can't attach a dollar amount to it."

Cindy Hoddeson, director of meeting and incentive sales for the Monaco Government Tourist Office in New York, adds that oftentimes, an international location can offer a group a benefit they can't get back at home. For example, a wellness company learning about acupuncture might hold a meeting in China and bring in local experts "who may have a different perspective on it, [and] share best practices," she says.

Hosting a meeting abroad also opens up the organization to additional speaker opportunities. These keynoters can offer new insights, thought leadership, and international viewpoints, Flynn says. And since attendees are away from home, "they'll also give the event their full attention, as they won't be able to justify leaving early or staying home," he adds.

Further, international meetings provide a way for U.S.-based employees to gain a better global perspective of their brand and foster cultural understanding. For example, each year, Hester helps plan an annual congress for an international skincare company. The meeting has been held all over the world -- from Istanbul, Turkey, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to the upcoming show in Las Vegas. Attendees come from offices in such disparate locales as Sweden, Poland, and Thailand.

"They all sell the same product, but they all sell it in different ways and they sell it to different people," she says. "[They] learn about the global nature of the brand, how different it is in every country, and how it became a unified brand."

These international gatherings are a great way to reward and motivate employees, since travel will always be a luxury and international trips, specifically, offer unique cultural experiences that attendees might not be able to have on their own. For example, Hester recalls the time the group visiting South Africa traveled to Robins Island, where Nelson Mandela had been held captive. They were treated to a special tour by Mandela's former cellmate. "How can you put a price tag on that?" she says.