The Risks and Rewards of International Meetings

Planning Ahead
Perhaps the most important part of making sure an international meeting goes off without a hitch — even when there are complicating factors — is pre-planning. Brenda Miller, global program director of strategic meetings management at Carlson Wagonlit Travel, has helped organize events in Japan, Europe, and Latin America. She partners closely with her client’s security team when initially selecting a site, which ensures the site has been vetted upfront and allows for some research to be done beforehand into all the possible risks associated with that particular destination.

This comes in handy when writing the hotel, venue, and other contracts, according to Washington, DC, attorney D. Benson Tesdahl. That’s because the critical element in these contracts is the force majeure clause — the one that permits the meeting holder to cancel a meeting without penalty. Force majeure typically is defined vaguely as “any event outside the control of either party that makes it impossible or unreasonably dangerous to hold the event,” explains Tesdahl. Natural disasters would routinely fit the bill, but the rest is up to interpretation. Therefore, planners should define these terms as clearly as possible; doing preliminary research into a destination can help a company tweak the policy to address specific concerns.

“Try to think of all the things that could go wrong with your event in that part of the world, and try to, as reasonably as possible, build that into the clause,” says Tesdahl. “For example, I had a client whose attendees were especially worried about an outbreak of bedbugs. So we defined an outbreak of bedbugs within one month of the event as a force majeure trigger that would allow us to cancel, and the hotel agreed. Or if you’re really worried about drug violence, you say, ‘We can cancel if…’ and describe in concrete terms how severe the drug violence needs to be — like if there’s an emergency announcement by the government.”

The crucial factor here is to work into the contract the stipulation that an event would need to be not only impossible or unreasonably dangerous, but also commercially impractical in order for force majeure to take effect.

“If the clause literally says it has to be impossible to hold the event, then I have seen situations where there’s drug violence in an area but the government hasn’t issued a travel prohibition from going there, so the hotel would say it’s not impossible,” Tesdahl notes. “Or I’ve seen instances of weather that’s bad, but not so bad that people can’t get there. For that reason, I try to build in the words ‘commercially impractical.’ Try to push that phrase as far as you can.” 

Organizing meetings in international destinations involves a set of risks and responsibilities that are far more challenging than events held domestically. “In addition to the normal risks that you’d have anywhere — inclement weather and things like that — in certain parts of the world, terrorism is certainly more present,” notes D. Benson Tesdahl, a senior attorney in Washington, DC, and Successful Meetings columnist, who does extensive work in the area of conference and meeting contracts. “Diseases and epidemics can be more of a problem than they are in the U.S. In Mexico, for instance, there is drug violence in some parts of the country that has caused meetings to be canceled or people to be afraid to go to certain areas.”

These issues have been particularly relevant in recent months, thanks to reports of cruise ship disasters, tourist holdups or kidnappings, and other incidents around the globe. “There are so many things outside of your control,” Tesdahl says.

However, with a little foresight, some solid relationships, and the right communication strategy, organizations can mitigate any additional risk associated with — and reap the full benefits of — international meetings.

The Power of Relationships
Brenda Miller, Denver-based global program director of strategic meetings management at Carlson Wagonlit Travel, recalls how her client, a major pharmaceutical company, had a meeting scheduled in Bangkok during the intense flooding that gripped Thailand last October. 

“Certain sections of Bangkok were being restricted because of the flooding, and one of the hotels with which we had a meeting scheduled, while still open, fell within a high-risk area,” she says. “[The client’s] security department asked us to reschedule or redirect this meeting. It was a global chain hotel, and we went to them, explained the situation, and essentially we leveraged our relationship with their global account executive to help us reposition the meeting a few months down the road. This is an act that could potentially have turned into force majeure but didn’t. Our global partnership with the hotel created a situation where they were willing to work with us.”

Miller says planners facing similar situations should remember to focus on the positive, which is the conversation of rebooking. Reiterate that your company really did want to hold the meeting at the originally scheduled property, and “if you can’t get out of a cancellation penalty, suggest putting the 
penalty toward a rebooking credit,” she advises. “The negotiation should be about striking a deal that both sides can benefit from.” 

It’s also extremely helpful to have relationships with the people on the ground in the foreign destination, because they know the local customs, laws, roads, and other crucial information better than anyone. “Having access to that expertise can really mitigate some of the risks,” notes Issa Jouaneh, Toronto-based global vice president for meetings and events at American Express Business Travel.

Jouaneh recalls working closely with American Express Business Travel’s global network to rapidly house or redirect 1,500 employees of an investment bank who had been in Tokyo  for an event during the tsunami last year. “We used our global team, obviously operating in different time zones, to source and secure hotels for all of those employees,” he says.

Another key way to moderate risk for international meetings involves cultivating strong internal relationships. It’s critical for the meeting owners to collaborate internally with their legal, security, procurement, and financial departments. 

“It takes a village to have a meeting — especially if it’s an international meeting,” says Miller. “If you don’t have visibility [from a variety of perspectives] into the meetings that are happening, you can’t manage that risk. Stakeholder engagement is something that always should sit at the forefront of your mind when you’re designing and engaging the program.”

William Vendl, director of site selections for Tustin, CA-based R.T. Travel & Incentives, didn’t even have Colombia on his radar when he met Claudia Davila, corporate tourism director for Colombia Proexport, at EIBTM last November. 

“With high-end corporations you have to be sure of safety and security,” he says. “I said to her, kidnappings, drugs, shootings — I can get that in Los Angeles, I don’t have to go to Colombia for that.”

Davila assured him that his perception of Colombia was 10 years out of date and invited him on a site visit to take a look. Vendl was expecting to get the typical beach-resort site inspection experience. Instead Davila took him to the slums of Medellin, where he spent one full day experiencing the progress that has been made in the last decade. 

“I was blown away. First by the fact that they would take me there, then by what the government has been able to accomplish,” says Vendl. “Afterward, we did the typical resort thing, but the fact that she took me to the worst part first went a long way toward building trust between us. I was able to go back to the boards of my clients and confidently say that safety would not be an issue in Colombia. I’m bringing two groups there in the future, and the trust I have in my relationship with Claudia is what made them possible.”

Partner and vendor relationships are equally as important — perhaps more so in the event that a disaster or disruption actually occurs. 

Keep Communicating
The final key to ensuring a smooth, successful international meeting — especially in the face of a possible catastrophe — is communication. 

“Communicate with your attendees to advise them of the status of the situation; be clear, and demonstrate that there is ongoing monitoring and assessment of the situation,” Jouaneh says. “Demonstrate your confidence and awareness of the situation to the attendees so they know it is being actively managed.”

Kathryn Bowling, an account executive at Chicago-based BCD Meetings and  Incentives, says constant communication with partners and attendees was critical to the successful launch of one of her events several years ago. “I’m thinking back to our swine flu days,” she says, referring to the 2009 pandemic. “We were all ready to send a group down to Panama. Then the swine flu hit, and everything blew up.”

It was a month before the event, so Bowling and her team heavily researched the situation — including reaching out to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, calling industry associations in Washington, DC, and keeping abreast of media announcements — and kept attendees informed each step of the way. “It was important to communicate with them to give them timely status updates of what actions we were taking and when they could expect to be updated again,” she says. The upshot: The event was canceled and rescheduled for later that year, after the scare had abated.

Ultimately, as Jouaneh puts it, “the reality is that in the meetings and events industry, and the travel industry more broadly, those types of situations will occur. The key here is to have the discipline, process, and framework to mitigate risk prior to the event, and to have the scale and resources to be able to respond in the case of an event.”