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An international meetings checklist.


Meeting abroad is becoming increasingly popular with all types of associations. According to ASAE's Association Meeting Trends Survey, 1989, 8,400 associations in the United States spend approximately $21 billion a year on meetings, and a growing portion of that money is being spent within foreign borders. Since 1934, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), Alexandria, Virginia, has been selecting international destinations for both its regional conferences and its World Travel Congress. Any association can take advantage of an international conference to exchange ideas, examine technical advances, compare research findings, or strengthen international business ties.

Planning an international meeting requires

forethought and organization. It is helpful to keep a working checklist of considerations, concerns, and needs. Here's a sample.


Find out about the entry requirements of the country where you'll be meeting. Are there any restrictions that would make it difficult for your members to get into the country or that would cause embarrassing situations? These are the kinds of things you need to research and inform your membership about in advance. Contact both the U.S. State Department office in the country you're considering and that nation's consulate or embassy in the United States. Ask about individual restrictions, customs, taxes, and entry procedures. If problems look imminent, you should hold the meeting elsewhere.

Are customs procedures going to be a problem? Will the cost to get necessary equipment in and out be prohibitive? Again, contact the country's consulate in Washington, D.C., for research.

If you have a trade show as part of your meeting, it is important to assess shipping costs. Often you can negotiate with your official air carrier to transport some of your freight in and out free of charge or at a discount rate.

The city

Examine the city and its public facilities. How does the city rate in terms of safety; cleanliness; and ease in reaching museums, restaurants, shopping, and area sights? Does the city have active counterparts to your association and its industry?

Clearly, it is a bonus to be able to visit related organizations in your host city as part of the meeting. Host cities are usually eager to connect you with related organizations. Speak with the city's chamber of commerce and tourism officials as well as the U.S. State Department and your own professional connections in the host nation.


Does the city in question have the airlift you need? Booking a meeting in a city with inadequate flights and airport capacity to bring in attendees within a 24-hour span could be a major catastrophe, even for a small meeting. Among other things, make sure in advance that you gain the cooperation of the government carrier.

At a meeting in Cancum, Mexico, last April, ASTA faced this problem because of a limited number of flights. We avoided chaos by maintaining heavy contact with our air carrier the last four weeks prior to the meeting to make sure they were handling our business. We also blocked approximately one quarter of our hotel rooms for three days before and after the actual meeting. This way, some attendees came early or stayed late to enjoy Cancun, and we did not have an airlift overload.

Examine the condition of ground transportation from hotels to conference centers. Is it available in the standard to which your members are accustomed? Is the city terribly congested, making transfer time prohibitive? If so, you need to make special arrangements with the city, such as having a police escort or lanes designated for bus transfers to and from the conference.

Meeting centers and hotels

Make sure you know what your members expect from accommodations. When looking at hotels in your chosen city, know the accommodations your members anticipate and be aware of the amenities they desire. For example, do they want a health club or spa, jogging track, concierge service, photocopying and fax services, and a certain room style and location?

Also, make sure there are adequate room blocks available for the numbers you expect. Room blocks, as well as the rooms themselves, tend to be smaller in hotels abroad. Let your members know not to expect spacious, American-style rooms; they are not easy to find abroad.

Some major United States-based hotels abroad have larger rooms and private baths. If you need such rooms, place these requirements in your specifications when researching possible hotels.

Check the features of the exhibition facilities. Do the pavilions have air conditioning? Are there easy-access loading docks? Is the square footage adequate for the numbers of exhibitors you anticipate? Do you have adequate electrical outlets and central lighting?

Questions such as these must be answered, or you may find yourself in a bind. For example, at ASTA's 58th World Travel Congress in Budapest, we ran out transformers while setting up our trade show. They didn't seem to be available anywhere.

In such a situation, turn to a basic international principle: Because of the nature of their service and the thousands of people they talk to regularly, taxi, limousine, and public-transportation drivers know more about where to find last-minute items than do most other citizens.

In this case, one of the drivers hired to work for our congress came to the rescue. Overhearing our dilemma, he went to his bus company and came up with an ample supply of transformers.

Explore availability of equipment and technical people to run it. Check to make sure the lighting, projectors, sound equipment, microphones, and all other technical items you might need are on hand. Sometimes it can be something rather routine that escapes your notice and becomes an annoying aggravation. ASTA found that in Budapest, for example, and gain in Hamburg last October, all video materials must be in a format acceptable to PAL, the European counterpart to our VHS. That means our standard one-half-inch or three-fourth-inch videotapes are not compatible and have to be put into a different format.

Prepare a detailed checklist of every item you need to review. Remember again that other countries don't always use or understand our terminology. For example, the expression "pipe and drape," which U.S. meeting planners use in trade show specifications to describe the curtain-like construction of exhibit booth "walls," is not commonly used overseas.

Therefore, your staff member responsible for the trade show needs to be familiar with international standards and the variations to anticipate.

Some differences can significantly affect the show's cost. For example, in Europe the custom for trade shows is an aluminum-or steel-walled booth system that is much more costly than pipe and drape. If unanticipated, use of the hard-walled system could throw your trade show budget off by more than $300 a booth.

It is also helpful to know that most major European conference centers have their own decorator. Staging guides for your general sessions must be extremely detailed and very precise. Drawings sent ahead of time are quite helpful. Here the adage "a picture is worth a thousand words" is apt; sending a picture can help ensure mutual understanding and a smooth-running program.

If you have a multilingual membership, make sure you can accommodate it. If simultaneous translation is a requirement, make sure the appropriate equipment and translators are prearranged. Most major hotels in Europe and other locations abroad are used to dealing with English-speaking groups and can provide translation services - either through their own staff or an independent service. Make arrangements in advance if you want to issue press releases and statements in several languages.

During site inspections, one of your meeting planners should make certain the hotel or conference center can accommodate the group's need for translation equipment. Then these requirements should be included in contract specifications with the facilities scheduled to provide them.

Community relations

Explore local customs, protocol, and safety considerations. Contact the U.S. embassy or consulate in the meeting city and notify them of the size and nature of your group. They will generally be happy to arrange a preconference seminar for your staff on local sensitivities and customs.

Also contact the host country's tourist board, a tremendous source of information about regional and local customs. The more you communicate in advance with your hosts and with your members about local culture, the better will be the relationships you build during the meeting.

Many are aware, for example, of the importance of gift-giving as a form of greeting, respect, and recognition of new friendships. However, the size, nature, and proper timing of the gift vary from one country to another. Contacting a tourist board can help you decide on appropriate gifts. A number of good books are also available on the subject.

In regard to conference relations, appointing a host committee is an essential part of your meeting-planning process. A host committee is a group of individuals from the meeting destination - usually tourism officials, leading representatives of your industry, members of the press, and chamber of commerce officials - who involve the entire local community in the successful production of your conference. They may also help to obtain sponsorship for a number of your events.

It is important to make sure the responsibilities each committee member holds are clearly defined and distributed, with a different individual providing input on each area: conference rooms, trade shows, food functions, press relations, and so forth.

When working in advance with your host committee, keep detailed minutes so you have a record of responsibilities.

Have you researched the local manner of doing business? You need to familiarize yourself with business procedures and customs. Is the host country very precise about charges for services, or will you need to negotiate? In countries where potable drinking water is at a premium, for example, don't forget when you are ordering water setups for your meetings to budget and negotiate for bottled water. When you are dealing with a large number of seminars and break-out sessions, this can represent a considerable sum.

What are the country's procedures for conducting a trade show? Remember that you are playing by different rules. You need to allow considerable extra time for differing business practices in order to establish the fact that you wish to work with your hosts, not against them.

You will have to bridge language and measurement differences. All of Europe is on the metric system. You should know the metric system in order to have an immediate grasp of the dimensions with which you will be working. It is also important that you have your calculator handy whenever figuring out floor space for your meetings, trade show, social functions, and so forth.

Remember also to request that any detailed blueprints or diagrams be written in English. If your stage specifications arrive in German but no one on your staff can read German, you're in trouble. Most convention centers are capable of producing specifications and diagrams in English, if you ask them.

Don't forget to look at currency exchange. ASTA's experience has been that in some cases you can lock in on an agreed exchange rate with various suppliers in the host country if you foresee this being advantageous to your budget. While it is difficult to lock in rates with every supplier and service you use, obtaining a rate lock-in with at least one major element of the convention - your hotel room rates, for example - can save your organization a great deal of money.

The last minute

Resourcefulness is a necessity. No matter how carefully you plan for the many facets of an international meeting, something unexpected will arise. At these times, your staff's basic resourcefulness makes every difference.

An example is an experience ASTA had in 1988 in Budapest. Trying our best to plan in advance for language and equipment differences, we placed in our specifications a request for American-style typewriters. In this case, we did ourselves in with our best intentions.

We received a set of typewriters with American keyboards that were manufactured in East Germany and were extremely complicated to operate. Ultimately, resourcefulness paid off. We called the American Embassy, which we had contacted early in our planning. The embassy came to our rescue: The next day we received on loan enough American electric typewriters to meet the needs of reporters homesick for familiar equipment.

With a carefully detailed checklist, a host committee, and a resourceful staff, tackling an international meeting can be challenging, exhilarating, and important for your association.

PHOTO : In Malaysia, dancers add a cultural element to an international meeting. The Sejong Cultural Center (right), is a meeting facility in Seoul, South Korea.

PHOTO : Budapest, Hungary, offered a nice backdrop for ASTA's successful 58th World Travel Congress meeting in 1988. The meeting attracted more than 7,000 delegates.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Powell, Anne Marie
Publication:Association Management
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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