Border-Crossing Blues: Checkpoint vigilance stymies planners

Originally published May 8, 2006 in MeetingNews

Planning a meeting in Canada is getting harder for American planners — and vice versa. Some on both sides of the border recently were turned back as they attempted to cross for a meeting, though that problem can be prevented with proper preparation, others said.

Douglas Hitt, president of Las Vegas-based Event Management Solutions, said he recently was delayed for several hours entering Canada to attend a meeting because of a minor past driving offense. Hitt said he now plans to avoid Canadian meeting venues, adding that he knows several colleagues who have experienced similar frustrations. "It's very common," he said.

U.S. border officials stopped Karen Elliot of Toronto-based ProPlanners from traveling to a conference in Dallas in January. The officials objected to her "taking away" a job in the United States that an American could have performed, she said.

"They said the company that hired me should have hired an American planner," Elliot said. "I was told I needed documentation to give me permission to work in the United States. I said, 'OK, how do I go about getting this documentation?' They basically said I probably wouldn't qualify for it, as my expertise is not in shortage in the United States, such as with nurses. Therefore I was not allowed on the plane.

"People are hired by U.S. companies and vice versa all the time. Maybe I was just unlucky. However, my situation caused a lot of grief onsite for our event."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Kelly Klundt said border officials use their discretion on whom they let into the country. "There are myriad reasons why someone would be denied entry," Klundt said. "This person likely didn't have appropriate documentation."

Sandy Biback, a Toronto-based planner with Imagination+ Meeting Planners Inc., has found cross-border access to be dependent on the individual official one encounters. But in general, it has become harder to cross, she said. "They're asking a lot more questions if you're going down to the States to do work," Biback said.

Monica Compton of Atlanta-based Pinnacle Productions wants to increase the number of groups she brings to Canada because of the advantageous exchange rate. She also prefers the Great White North because groups can experience an international flair, yet have the comfort of being close to home and in an English-speaking country. Still, the increasing difficulty of entering Canada is frustrating.

"It's conflicting that they would try and be more stringent at the border because it doesn't correspond with what the Canadian government is trying to do on the tourism level," Compton said.

Compton said she makes sure she and her attendees are prepared when they cross.

"When planning a meeting," she said, "first go to the tourist board and get information. Don't just trust the website. Say, 'I'm planning this incentive in Canada a year from now. I understand that all my delegates need to have passports; is that going to be the official government rule at the time my group comes into Canada?' It could change the day before, so I get the official word in writing."

Although travelers won't need a passport to cross the border either way until Jan. 1, 2007 by air and sea and Jan. 1, 2008 by land, Compton recommended all attendees bring a passport now anyway.

Meetings-industry attorney Jonathan Howe, senior partner at Howe & Hutton in Chicago, recommended that planners and attendees bring multiple forms of picture identification when crossing, including a passport.

"The key element is for the planner to work with the local CVB or with the government as to what they're going to be confronted with when coming into a particular town, province or state," Howe said.

Biback suggested that planners try to get a Nexus card; currently in testing phases, it allows smooth travel between the borders after an interview and background check.