Business Etiquette Dos and Don'ts
“You can’t expect everyone to abide by your sensibilities when you travel abroad,” says Terri Morrison, best-selling author of the Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands business etiquette series. “You must understand what’s appropriate in their cultures.” Here are a few of Morrison’s dos and don’ts for conducting business abroad.
• Use the appropriate greeting for a particular country, whether it’s namaste or bonjour. Learn a few words of the
• Exchange business cards that include different languages/translations — and use a card holder when in Asia.
• Be on time, especially in countries like Switzerland or Germany that place an emphasis on punctuality.
• Understand that, in most countries around the world, people still smoke much more than they do in the U.S.
• Pay attention to your dining etiquette and don’t be afraid to try the local cuisine, or to incorporate it into your event.
• Understand that time is relative in different regions, and that time zones are different, as are times for doing certain activities in different countries.
• Think about what your international suppliers may think of you and your respective culture.
• Make inappropriate public displays of affection.
• Greet members of the opposite gender with a hug or a kiss in the following places: China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Nigeria, or the Middle East/Persian Gulf.
• Use any graphics, colors, or symbols that may be offensive on your business cards. For example, it is sacrilegious to use the flag of Saudi Arabia on a business card because the flag has Allah’s name on it.
• Ask overly personal or intrusive questions about family members in the Middle East, or about personal finances/costs in France.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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