Logistics 101 for Latin American Meetings

As more U.S.-based organizations and companies expand their businesses into Latin America they also find themselves planning meetings in the region. While each of the region’s more than a dozen different countries is unique, there are some general logistical factors and issues that savvy meeting planners and organizers should keep in mind. To find out what they are, and to help planners avoid any challenges, Successful Meetings spoke to various meeting planners about their meeting experiences in Latin America, particularly in Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia.

Be Prepared for a Potential Tech Crunch
While the majority of facilities and venues in Latin America have state-of-the-art technology and A/V equipment, that may not always be the case, and planners should keep tech equipment top of mind when planning their meetings.

Both Jan Penrow, global marketing manager for Lisle-IL-based Navistar, Inc., and Devin M. O’Donnell, program manager for New Providence, NJ-based Meeting Logistics, LLC, had A/V-related challenges when it came to their meetings held respectively in Colombia, Argentina and Brazil. To avoid any future problems, they suggest planners make sure that any A/V operators can communicate clearly with you and your meeting staff. For Penrow, she found it difficult to communicate clearly with her A/V equipment operators in Colombia, all of whom spoke only Spanish, and not English.

By extension, Allison Summer, managing director of Site and Site International Foundation, says planners should take the time to find out what the preferred method of communication is in each country. She points out, for example, that in Argentina, people prefer to communicate via BlackBerry Messenger. “Validate with your professional conference organizer (PCO) or destination marketing council (DMC) how people communicate,” she says. Whether they prefer to Skype, text, radio, or email, you need to know the best way to reach your business partners and attendees.

Also, planners should be aware that electronic sourcing is not as popular in South America as it is in North America, notes CWT Meetings & Events Vice President, Americas, Tony Wagner.

Stay Safe and Sound
Ensuring the safety and security of your attendees is of prime importance wherever you happen to be and although Latin America, especially Colombia, is seen as a generally safe destination for travelers, planners must still exercise caution. 

Heather Heidbrink, Maritz Travel’s director of sourcing, will not take any groups to Colombia because of a U.S. State Department-issued travel warning issued in February and recently updated on October 3. 

CWT’s Wagner says that, no matter what a planner decides, “security needs to be more prevalent on your planning activities” and that planners must enlist the right local support to ensure that safety and security.

Make the Right Connections
Working with the right people on the ground in each country is essential to the success of any meeting. O’Donnell says that he looked to familiar U.S.-based organizations to find the right qualified, certified, and trusted suppliers and vendors for his meetings in Brazil and Argentina. “They know the standards we’re looking for, and the type of communication that we are looking for,” he says. 

Sticking to familiar brands, especially when booking hotels, is also preferred among most planners. “I try to go with the American brands,” says Alberto Cortes, Miami-based marketing director for the Latin American and Caribbean Air Transport Association (ALTA), “because they are the ones that have the biggest properties and they already know me.”  

When it comes to picking the right PCO or DMC, Summers advises you go with a PCO that doubles as a DMC, or vice versa. PCOs, she says, possess expertise in registration services and people movement, but DMCs have the ability to create unique, authentic, and memorable experiences. 

Some planners, like Cortes, prefer not to work with DMCs. “They can be your best or worst partner …  when the service is done well, it’s well spent but when it isn’t, you end up paying 20 to 30 percent more,” he explains. Rather than rely solely on PCOs or DMCs, Cortes relies on building partnerships with local governments to make sure that his meetings are a success.

Logistics Logic
Knowing the ins and outs of the logistics of your international meeting can make or break it. For one thing, planners must be aware of the visa requirements for each country. Visas are required in Brazil, for instance, but not in Argentina or Colombia. 

When it comes to shipping materials, you must also be careful not to incur major charges or find your materials held up in customs during your meeting. “I had major issues with customs in Brazil and in Buenos Aires,” says Carol Wagner, senior program manager for Caledonia, WI-based M&I, a meeting, incentive and association management Company. “Customs are different everywhere in Latin America and you just need to be very careful. You need to label everything as ‘no commercial value’ or just travel with your materials.”

Inés Gowland, director of Buenos Aires-based Argentina Travel Partners DMC, advises that planners do all of their printing for signage and source any gifts or stationery in the country in which they hold their meeting to avoid customs snafus.

If planners doubt the quality of locally printed signage, they need not. Summers says that Colombia, for example, is known for creating elaborately decorated signs made from florals. “You don’t want to miss out on how Colombia does signage,” she says. “Don’t presume that your approach is best; be open to hearing what your partners in the country have to offer, too.”  

When it comes to getting to South America from the U.S. and moving around once you are there, be prepared for some minor setbacks. Argentina can be an expensive destination to fly into, says CWT’s Wagner. Paulo Campaña, a Brazil-based-procurement manager for Islandia, NY-based CA Technologies says that hotel and airport availability is lacking in many countries in Latin America. “Sometimes it’s hard to find hotels that have the free capacity that you need,” he says. In Brazil, he finds that airports are not yet big enough to accommodate large groups of people but that the airports are currently being refurbished and expanded. Heidbrink also sees limited new hotel development in Latin America when compared to the growth in Asia.

No matter where you travel to in Latin America, you should also expect to encounter some heavy road traffic, especially in major city centers. And with regard to the concept of time, many businesses work with shorter lead times in Latin America. “Lead time depends on the size of the group,” says Cortes. “When you have a group of 300, plan at least one year in advance,” he recommends. Other planners suggest lead times as short as three months or six months for smaller meetings of fewer than 100 or 200 attendees.

When it comes to scheduling off-property dining excursions, planners should also note that dinner usually begins no earlier than eight p.m. in South America. “Restaurants won’t be able to open earlier than that,” Alejandro Verzoub, Site Global president and a native of Argentina, explains. Also, he notes, summer in the Northern Hemisphere is winter in the Southern Hemisphere, so rates could change dramatically in November and in March. 

Come With an Open Mind
No matter where in the world planners decide to host their international meetings, they have to be open, flexible, and on the ground at some point. “Be open, and remember that each country works in a different way,” says Cortes. Adds Penrow: “ If you’re going to plan a meeting in another country, it’s imperative to do a site visit; you can’t do it all from pictures and emails.”

And no matter what, go into the meeting with an optimistic outlook. “You will have the best time in Latin America,” says Cortes.