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Meeting abroad.

If there is a recurring piece of advice about planning meetings, it is don't assume anything. That's especially true of preparing for international meetings. Not only must you become familiar with the customs, protocol, and way of doing business in the country in which you plan to meet, but you must also prepare your delegates.

The American Society of Travel Agents, Alexandria, Virginia-an international organization with 20,000 members from 124 countries-sponsors more than 200 meetings a year. Approximately eight of ASTA'S meetings are held outside of the United States.

ASTA has found the most effective means of preparing delegates for international meetings is its Delegate Business Planner, a booklet-mailed to delegates before meetings-that includes information about the weather, transportation, hotels, protocol, and so forth in the country they will visit. Briefly, ASTA addresses the following elements.

Checklist. There are many housekeeping items for delegates to remember before they board the plane for their destination. In its planner booklet, ASTA includes a one-page checklist reminding delegates to handle things like obtaining travel insurance, finalizing airline reservations, and making arrangements for the care of pets before leaving the country.

Climate. Since often people are unfamiliar with the climates of various regions around the world, you'll want to acquaint your delegates with the average temperatures of the international city they'll visit. Knowing the climate will help them pack appropriate clothing.

Attire. ASTA held its World Travel Congress-an international event that attracts more than 6,000 delegates from the travel and tourism industry-last September in Taipei, Taiwan. We listed all social and business functions of the meeting in our planner booklet, along with suggested attire for each event. ASTA also included its definitions of business attire (suit or sports jacket and slacks with tie for men; dress, suit, skirt and blouse, or pantsuit for women) and casual wear (shirt and slacks for men; sports outfit, lightweight dress, or informal skirt and blouse for women).

Travel documents. Do your delegates need passports? Where can they get the appropriate forms? These are some of the first questions your delegates will ask. ASTA'S booklet explains the difference between visas and passports and the procedures for obtaining them. We also remind'delegates that they'll need to carry passports or other identification when entering or leaving the destination or when traveling on domestic airlines.

History. Keep in mind that many of your delegates will be visiting a city they've never been to before. Therefore, it's important to give them a brief overview of the country-its history, location, topography, and economy.

Language. Many people in foreign countries speak English, but chances are most of your delegates will not speak their hosts' language. Inform your delegates of the official language and other languages spoken in the country.

For ASTA'S World Travel Congress in Taipei, our booklet contained common phrases, such as good morning and thank you, followed by the Chinese translation.

Airport. Make your delegates aware of the airport they will fly into and out of. For our World Congress in Taipei, for example, we let our delegates know there would be an ASTA welcome desk at the Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. In our booklet, we told delegates they would receive a colored sticker at the welcome desk that would help speed processing through special document check gates and customs inspection counters. The sticker also corresponded to the bus the delegates boarded to get to their hotels.

Transportation. Many cities have excellent public transportation systems that are easy, inexpensive, and fun for delegates if the right preplanning is done. Even if your organization provides a shuttle system between hotels and the convention center, delegates may still need to use taxis or public transportation for other reasons. ASTA has found that it is helpful to print a map of the hotels and convention facilities in English, with the local language next to it. Then delegates only need to point to where they want to go when trying to communicate with a taxi or bus driver.

Hotels. When our delegates are away from the office or home for an extended period of time, ASTA wants to make sure they are accessible to those who need them. Thus, we list any hotels-their addresses and telephone and fax numbers-in our booklet so that delegates can pass the information on to those who may need it.

Electricity. It's important to let your delegates know about the country's electrical current systems. Most countries operate on a different electrical current usually 220 volts-than the United States. Thus, your delegates will need to pack transformers for hair dryers, irons, curling irons, and so forth. In some cases, even transformers are not adequate, as one of my associates recently found out when an overheated curling iron burned some bed sheets and resulted in charges for the damage.

Water and food. Your delegates are used to eating and drinking whatever they want whenever they dine in restaurants. Following those same practices in some other countries could prove unsafe. To avoid an unpleasant situation, make sure your delegates are aware of the peculiarities of their particular destination.

At ASTA'S 1989 International Conference in New Delhi, India, the meeting hosts served food that was more mild than that typically found in that part of the world. But when the 1,200 conference delegates traveled to Agra the last day of the meeting to see the Taj Mahal, they ate a buffet lunch served in a deluxe city hotel, and many developed stomach problems.

Medical services. Your delegates will feel much more comfortable if they know where to go for treatment in case of a medical emergency. Many countries may not have ambulance service and medical facilities like we have in the United States.

ASTA always informs delegates in its booklet of the hours and location of the first-aid room in the convention center. We also let our delegates know that a nurse will offer advice and medical aid to delegates and families. We also list the hospital we'll use in case there are problems that require follow-up with a physician. We let delegates know the type of insurance the hospital takes and whether all other medical services require immediate payment in cash.

In addition, we suggest that before delegates leave for their trip, they call the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The CDC maintains a data base that lists precautions such as vaccinations that are required or recommended in certain countries.

Telephone. When I attended my first international ASTA convention in New Delhi, India, I called the office from my hotel room and spoke to various staff members for 30 minutes. The telephone call-which had been placed by the hotel operator-cost $300. Needless to say, I had a lot of explaining to do when I turned in my expense report. Thus, ASTA now provides instructions to delegates on how to make a direct-dial international telephone call.

Business hours. Business habits vary all over the world. In the Orient, many businesses are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and for a half day on Saturday. Many Southern European countries have business hours from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and again from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. In our booklet, we include business hours for civil and government offices, banks, and department stores.

Exchange rate. Although currency exchange rates change daily, ASTA'S booklet provides the country's rate of exchange (at the time of printing) and how to calculate it. We also let our delegates know if and how they can exchange unused foreign currency.

Credit cards. Inform your delegates of the credit cards accepted at most hotels, restaurants, and department stores. Restaurants and hotels in many countries do not readily accept credit cards as a form of payment.

Protocol. in many parts of the world and particularly in Europe, using Mr. or Mrs. instead of a person's first name is the norm. In Germany, for example, calling an unfamiliar person by his or her first name is considered disrespectful.

Your delegates will find their experience more enjoyable and productive if they have knowledge of their hosts' customs and business habits. In ASTA'S booklet, we refer our delegates to various guidebooks as well as publications produced by the U.S. State Department. These books educate delegates on the proper behavior in various regions of the world. Not knowing the protocol can prove embarrassing for your delegates and your organization. Here's a good example.

The Chinese exchange many toasts, especially at dinner parties. It is considered courteous to hold the wine cup or glass with one hand and twirl the base of the cup with the other hand. At a dinner wit ASTA'S board members and China's minister of tourism in Taipei, Taiwan, I forgot to inform my board of directors of the country's toasting custom. It proved particularly embarrassing because one of ASTA'S officials didn't drink.

Gifts. Since gift giving is very important in other countries, make sure your delegates know they are likely to receive gifts from their hosts. ASTA tells its delegates to feel free to reciprocate with small gifts like pens and letter openers.

Business cards. Have your delegates bring plenty of business cards. They may want to include a translation of their name and organization on the reverse side of their card. While it is not mandatory, it shows respect for the hosts of the event.

Toward the back of its booklet, ASTA includes the following information to help delegates once they reach a meeting.

Business appointments. ASTA also includes a section in the booklet that describes the association's vision, the convention center facilities, the times and events of functions each day, preconvention and postconvention tours, silent auction and donors, and so forth.

Exhibitors and trade show floor plan. ASTA lists each exhibitor (name, address, telephone and fax number, and booth number) and trade show information (hours and floor map) to help delegates understand where companies are located and how to reach them.

Doily appointment log. We have included a daily appointment calendar from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.-for delegates. ASTA finds it is a handy way to help delegates plan their daily activities.

Airlines. ASTA provides the names of airline carriers that fly in and out of the international destination in case delegates want to use a local airline to take tours before or after the event.

Festivals. ASTA lets delegates know of popular festivals or events that occur close to its meeting dates in case attendees want to tie in an extended trip before or after the meeting. It's but one more step we take to make sure our delegates feel prepared.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
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Author:Vranas, Chris
Publication:Association Management
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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