The Masters of Global Meetings

Veteran planners of international events share their best practices

Edward Perotti

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.


1. A WORLD OF MANY TONGUES
"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.

 

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.'"



3. VISA WOES
Whether coming into the U.S or going abroad, visas are an issue with any meeting with attendees from many countries. There's an argument to be made that getting the correct visa is the attendee's job, not the planner's.

"In my very first communication with the members about any GENIVI meeting, we always have a little blurb at the bottom that says, 'If you need a visa letter, contact me.' They know well in advance if they need a visa, but it's on them, basically, to get that done," says Hanson.

That said, Hanson does her best to help smooth the process, posting visa information about each event on the GENIVI Alliance's wiki and opening registration early in some cases for meetings in countries where getting a visa is a time-consuming process.

"Planners need to make sure they are staying up-to-date," says Harris. "Your attendees may be coming from a country where there are some shifting requirements, based on shifting relationships between countries."

An excellent source of assistance, she says, is the local destination marketing organization, which can help planners and attendees navigate local visa policies, and in some cases have relations with border crossing officials.

Of course, the meetings industry has been complaining long and loud about the impact of the difficulty of foreign attendees getting U.S. visas. However, the U.S. isn't the only country that can make getting a visa difficult, Perotti says. "We have a program going into Beijing next April, and I'm flying out there in June," he says. "The process for me to just get a China visa [the form] is four pages long. It's a little over $400, so that's pretty pricey. Then there's the amount of time it takes to actually get it. But when I go to Istanbul, I can fill out the form online, pay for it online, and within a matter of minutes my visa is in my e-mail inbox. I print it out, and I'm good to go."

There are less obvious bumps in the road. "Canada's a perfect example," Perotti says. "I have to actually ask the team from America, if we are going to Canada, to be mindful that any attendees with a drunk driving conviction -- which you're not even supposed to know from an HR standpoint -- may not get in."


4. GETTING THERE
No planner who's run a program of any kind in the last couple of years needs to be told that the price of air travel is going up while planes get more crowded and airlines fly to fewer places. But when you're planning a meeting for attendees who are coming from a wide variety of countries, time zones, and airlines, it gets more complex.

"It doesn't matter if you're talking emerging markets or not, the destination needs to be looked at from a couple of different angles," Harris says. "One is air transportation, to and from -- making sure you do some kind of analysis so that you know, with a multinational group, what it's going to take for attendees to get there, and is there good lift in and out is one factor."

The harder a destination is to get to, the more difficult it is for multinationals, adds Myhre. "For big multinational events, you want a hub location where there's lots of in-and-out opportunities for airfare."

Understanding and building the timing of your meeting around when attendees from different countries can get there is also vital, says Harris. "People may be getting there from Asia-Pacific at what is 2 a.m. their time, and be expected to walk into a meeting. There may be some challenges within that."



Questions or comments? Email [email protected]



This article appears in the May 2015 issue of Successful Meetings.



2. CULTURE SHOCK
Cultural differences, whether language issues, dining preferences, or even the timing of events, each have their own nuances that must be navigated when planning an international event. The key is to avoid stepping on people's toes and take advantage of the differences to enrich the meeting experience.

"There are cultural differences around the world, and people do business in different ways," Myhre says. "You don't hold an event early in the morning in Greece, because no one will be there. You don't order a stand-up buffet in China, because people like to sit down when they eat."

More than that, he adds, planners "really need to engage local stakeholders early and make them feel like they're part of the [planning] process, rather than being dictated to. That's really important, particularly for U.S. companies that are taking events overseas. They have to recognize that not all good ideas are sourced in the U.S. and that local countries have their own cultures, their own ways of doing business, and those things need to be accommodated and integrated into the process. That doesn't negatively affect the brand, but rather enhances it in the local market."

Taking notice of local culture can enhance the brand among attendees as well, says Harris. "One of the things we look to do when designing meetings is to give attendees a sense of place, a sense of having been somewhere. It can help make your meeting stand out and make the entire experience of the meeting more memorable." That doesn't mean having dinner at the top of the Eiffel Tower, she notes. It just means incorporating local cuisine or teaching your attendees a couple of local customs in pre-trip communications, so that they feel a part of the culture. Those are small things, but they can make "a really big difference in the experience of the meeting," Harris says.

"When we do our global events, we're very mindful of making sure that the experience is consistent for all employees," Perotti adds. "If we're doing a program that's going to happen in the Americas, or Asia-Pacific, or in EMEA [Europe, the Middle East, and Africa], the first goal is, how do we make sure that the experience for every employee coming to these events is going to be the same? Local cuisine is rule one. It would be absolutely silly to be in France and not serve French cuisine."

Another important best practice is to encourage people from different cultures and languages to mingle, otherwise they will tend to group along cultural and language lines.

"When we're organizing the gala dinner [at IMEX Frankfurt], there's a melting pot of countries, and we try quite hard not to have tables with just one culture, because we do think its nice for people to meet people from other cultures," Bauer says. "Hopefully we're putting them with people that they'll get on with, but stretching it as well, so you don't have an all-Asian table and an all-American table. You need to give people that opportunity."

 

This is done a bit more formally at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Annual Conference & Exposition, which attracts more than 15,000 attendees from 90 countries. On the first day, there is an international networking reception, says Howard Wallack, global markets executive of SHRM. Last year, attendees were given mock passports and asked to meet someone from four of the six regions of the world represented at the show. Those who did were entered into a drawing for a jersey from the World Cup, which was taking place during the show.

Making it easy to network informally is also key, Wallack adds, recommending that planners "create opportunities and spaces for informal networking outside of standard conference or event sessions," he says. SHRM has a number of networking lounges, as well as lunch rooms in which up to 250 attendees can sit at tables where they informally discuss topics of interest to international attendees.

Finally, its worth noting that, "you can't be sensitive to every single culture all of the time," Bauer says. "It's about trying to find a middle ground, so you're not doing anything offensive. But you're also not trying to incorporate the variations of every single culture. It's a road to nowhere. You'll never win."

Timing Is Everything
Learning what's going on in the city during your event is vital, particularly when planning a meeting in a destination you don't know well, says independent planner Karin Hanson, who has experienced room availability issues from competing events as diverse as a German beer festival and a California plastic surgery convention.

"You've got to be really careful when you're planning and just don't pick a day and find a hotel, and then find out later that there's a huge event going on," she says. "Another thing that we try to do is not hold our events during holidays. That's a no-no, especially in Europe. Europeans are so much better at taking their holidays than we are."

That's a trap VMware Senior Director of Global Meetings, Events, and Travel Edward Perotti fell into last year when arranging a VMware incentive cruise from Athens to Istanbul. "Everything was wonderful, and I completely had a miss," he recalls. "We were sailing out on May 1st. Well, May Day in Greece is a holiday. Especially for unions and the political left." About three months out, Perotti and a cruise line representative realized the problem.

"We're on the phone and we're saying, 'Did we just realize that no one's going to be at the port?,'" Perotti says "That all was taken care of, but the hotel everybody was staying at was right by the Palace, and a week before the trip we find out that the paperwork had been put in for big political rally there."

The solution Perotti's team came up with was getting the attendees and their bags out of the hotel by 9 a.m. for bus tours in and around Athens. They would return directly to the port for a 1 p.m. embarkation.

"The attendees had no idea," he recalls. "The team was running around for a week trying to figure out how we were going to move 800 people and not have any flags go up in their eyes. That goes back to having a quality team, and partnerships. How could I, the California guy, navigate Athens with all that's going on? I needed to have somebody there that I completely trusted who could handle it and keep me abreast of what was going on.



2. CULTURE SHOCK
Cultural differences, whether language issues, dining preferences, or even the timing of events, each have their own nuances that must be navigated when planning an international event. The key is to avoid stepping on people's toes and take advantage of the differences to enrich the meeting experience.

"There are cultural differences around the world, and people do business in different ways," Myhre says. "You don't hold an event early in the morning in Greece, because no one will be there. You don't order a stand-up buffet in China, because people like to sit down when they eat."

More than that, he adds, planners "really need to engage local stakeholders early and make them feel like they're part of the [planning] process, rather than being dictated to. That's really important, particularly for U.S. companies that are taking events overseas. They have to recognize that not all good ideas are sourced in the U.S. and that local countries have their own cultures, their own ways of doing business, and those things need to be accommodated and integrated into the process. That doesn't negatively affect the brand, but rather enhances it in the local market."

Taking notice of local culture can enhance the brand among attendees as well, says Harris. "One of the things we look to do when designing meetings is to give attendees a sense of place, a sense of having been somewhere. It can help make your meeting stand out and make the entire experience of the meeting more memorable." That doesn't mean having dinner at the top of the Eiffel Tower, she notes. It just means incorporating local cuisine or teaching your attendees a couple of local customs in pre-trip communications, so that they feel a part of the culture. Those are small things, but they can make "a really big difference in the experience of the meeting," Harris says.

"When we do our global events, we're very mindful of making sure that the experience is consistent for all employees," Perotti adds. "If we're doing a program that's going to happen in the Americas, or Asia-Pacific, or in EMEA [Europe, the Middle East, and Africa], the first goal is, how do we make sure that the experience for every employee coming to these events is going to be the same? Local cuisine is rule one. It would be absolutely silly to be in France and not serve French cuisine."

Another important best practice is to encourage people from different cultures and languages to mingle, otherwise they will tend to group along cultural and language lines.

"When we're organizing the gala dinner [at IMEX Frankfurt], there's a melting pot of countries, and we try quite hard not to have tables with just one culture, because we do think its nice for people to meet people from other cultures," Bauer says. "Hopefully we're putting them with people that they'll get on with, but stretching it as well, so you don't have an all-Asian table and an all-American table. You need to give people that opportunity."

 

GlobalLounge
A popular feature of the Global Lounge for attendees of the Society of Human Resources Management's Annual Conference is a world map where international attendees are invited to pin business cards to their home country

This is done a bit more formally at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Annual Conference & Exposition, which attracts more than 15,000 attendees from 90 countries. On the first day, there is an international networking reception, says Howard Wallack, global markets executive of SHRM. Last year, attendees were given mock passports and asked to meet someone from four of the six regions of the world represented at the show. Those who did were entered into a drawing for a jersey from the World Cup, which was taking place during the show.

Making it easy to network informally is also key, Wallack adds, recommending that planners "create opportunities and spaces for informal networking outside of standard conference or event sessions," he says. SHRM has a number of networking lounges, as well as lunch rooms in which up to 250 attendees can sit at tables where they informally discuss topics of interest to international attendees.

Finally, its worth noting that, "you can't be sensitive to every single culture all of the time," Bauer says. "It's about trying to find a middle ground, so you're not doing anything offensive. But you're also not trying to incorporate the variations of every single culture. It's a road to nowhere. You'll never win."

The Right Place, the Right Space
Multinational companies have familiar venue-selection requirements, such as capacity and availability, but holding the event outside the U.S. offers a wide selection of unique and interesting venues.

Freeman XP Senior Vice President Kim Myhre says, "it's important that there's brand consistency in terms of venue," noting that you wouldn't take a young, hip brand like Apple to an historic European palace. But getting that right is "often difficult when you're choosing a venue from the U.S. and you're not really familiar with the kinds of things are available," he says.

When VMware's year-end European-region Technical Summit grew to more than 900 people last year, its senior director of global meetings, Edward Perotti, felt it had outgrown it's home of three years in the Sofia Event Center in Bulgaria. Perotti ended up moving it to the Estrel Berlin Hotel & Conference Center.

Finding a venue that fits the culture of the company and tone of the meeting is key, Perotti says. "The destination still needs to be relatively sexy, along with making good business sense that matches the company," he adds. "Germany's becoming a rather large emerging market for us, it's a good place to be and it makes good business sense. It's also a great jump as you look towards Eastern countries. From overall lift and flow, and safety and security, getting our people to and from Germany is easy."

Each city has completely different specialties, he adds, noting that Berlin has great energy and options, and a very positive, can-do attitude that he found refreshing. "There wasn't a whole lot of, 'no,'" he says. "There was a, 'What else can we do' mentality there, which was refreshing."

He adds, "Frankfurt is great on financials, and has that a high-end, customer-facing vibe. Munich can be more fun -- you can play a little bit more."



3. VISA WOES
Whether coming into the U.S or going abroad, visas are an issue with any meeting with attendees from many countries. There's an argument to be made that getting the correct visa is the attendee's job, not the planner's.

"In my very first communication with the members about any GENIVI meeting, we always have a little blurb at the bottom that says, 'If you need a visa letter, contact me.' They know well in advance if they need a visa, but it's on them, basically, to get that done," says Hanson.

That said, Hanson does her best to help smooth the process, posting visa information about each event on the GENIVI Alliance's wiki and opening registration early in some cases for meetings in countries where getting a visa is a time-consuming process.

"Planners need to make sure they are staying up-to-date," says Harris. "Your attendees may be coming from a country where there are some shifting requirements, based on shifting relationships between countries."

An excellent source of assistance, she says, is the local destination marketing organization, which can help planners and attendees navigate local visa policies, and in some cases have relations with border crossing officials.

Of course, the meetings industry has been complaining long and loud about the impact of the difficulty of foreign attendees getting U.S. visas. However, the U.S. isn't the only country that can make getting a visa difficult, Perotti says. "We have a program going into Beijing next April, and I'm flying out there in June," he says. "The process for me to just get a China visa [the form] is four pages long. It's a little over $400, so that's pretty pricey. Then there's the amount of time it takes to actually get it. But when I go to Istanbul, I can fill out the form online, pay for it online, and within a matter of minutes my visa is in my e-mail inbox. I print it out, and I'm good to go."

There are less obvious bumps in the road. "Canada's a perfect example," Perotti says. "I have to actually ask the team from America, if we are going to Canada, to be mindful that any attendees with a drunk driving conviction -- which you're not even supposed to know from an HR standpoint -- may not get in."


4. GETTING THERE
No planner who's run a program of any kind in the last couple of years needs to be told that the price of air travel is going up while planes get more crowded and airlines fly to fewer places. But when you're planning a meeting for attendees who are coming from a wide variety of countries, time zones, and airlines, it gets more complex.

"It doesn't matter if you're talking emerging markets or not, the destination needs to be looked at from a couple of different angles," Harris says. "One is air transportation, to and from -- making sure you do some kind of analysis so that you know, with a multinational group, what it's going to take for attendees to get there, and is there good lift in and out is one factor."

The harder a destination is to get to, the more difficult it is for multinationals, adds Myhre. "For big multinational events, you want a hub location where there's lots of in-and-out opportunities for airfare."

Understanding and building the timing of your meeting around when attendees from different countries can get there is also vital, says Harris. "People may be getting there from Asia-Pacific at what is 2 a.m. their time, and be expected to walk into a meeting. There may be some challenges within that."



Questions or comments? Email [email protected]



This article appears in the May 2015 issue of Successful Meetings.