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Welcoming the world.

Convention and visitors bureaus can teach you a thing or two about developing overseas business.

If Americans love to travel overseas, our counterparts abroad love to come to the United States even more. In 1991, nearly 18 million overseas travelers visited the United States, spending an average of 17 nights apiece. While the government is worried about the trade deficit, tourism is one of this country's few "exports" that shows a healthy surplus.

Credit for much of this success goes to this country's convention and visitors bureaus, many of which put immense effort into attracting and catering to non-U.S. visitors. So what can U.S.-based associations learn from CVBs about mining the rich vein of international activity?

Plenty, it seems. For one thing, many can learn to look outside the United States in the first place. "Domestic markets have been going through a maturation process," says Marshall E. Murdaugh, president of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, Inc., New York City. "In the industry we are beginning to recognize that if we are going to expand the visitation to cities, we must look at new markets." For CVBs and associations alike, most of those new markets are overseas.

"Ten years ago, our markets only stretched from sea to shining sea," says Mike Rozow, president of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau, Covington. "Today, with international flights coming to second-tier cities, all of a sudden we all find ourselves in the global market." Rozow stresses that in the global community, size doesn't matter: "You can be a small company, and if you can find your niche, you can service the world now."

Find your market

Greg D. Ortale, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Association, urges: "First of all, identify your market. Don't just rush into it before you find out who the people are."

For associations, finding the right market means researching which countries and areas are most likely to be interested in the association's services. Talking to members, hiring consultants, and interacting with other international associations will provide some information.

Finding out specifics, however, requires on-site research. "If I were American and wanted some business from Europe, I would go directly to Europe and start my research there," says Karin Franz, director, U.S.A. & Canada, for the German Convention Bureau, East Meadow, New York. "There is so much information available in the United States [about non-U.S. destinations] that you don't know where to start--it confuses more than helps. [Whereas when you go to Europe], there are some established organizations and institutes, and that makes it easier."

Vince Lindstrom, executive director of the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau, Rock Island, Illinois, says it also helps to know your product. "You have to understand your community," he says. "You have to find contact people, and the best way to do it is understand that it happens at the local level."

Relatively trivial inconveniences, such as time zones and currency differences, can still form a major barrier to successful overseas marketing. The key, according to CVB heads, is to make visiting your venue as easy as possible. John A. Marks, president of the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, says, "We've done the kinds of things that make it easy for visitors to facilitate their stay while they're here." San Francisco's visitor materials include multilingual maps, guidebooks, and signage; in addition, Marks runs a multilingual hotline and staffs the visitors center with polyglot employees.

Los Angeles also has multilingual materials and signage, but found that service was a problem. "Immigration service was not adequately staffed," says George Kirkland, president of the CVB. "We had waits averaging two hours," he adds. Working with the mayor's office and a partnership of 18 other gateway cities, Kirkland's CVB was able to boost immigration officials' staffing levels. "There's a federal mandate that processing times be under 45 minutes," he says, "and we're now well under that."

Analyze your accessibility

Associations need to analyze how accessible they are to overseas members. For example, "Associations that are interested in trying to attract international accounts have to find easy ways for international participants to register for conventions," says Murdaugh. Every aspect of member contact, from dues payments to publications distribution and other member activities, needs to be tailored so that overseas members can get the most benefit with the least trouble.

Ortale, of the Greater Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Association, has been working on developing an overseas program for five years. "If you really want people to come to this side of the pond and to participate with the association, you have to make it convenient for them," he says. "It's a matter of signage, currency exchange, multilingual guides. If we think about how convenient it is for us to travel, particularly in Europe, that's the way we need to make our international guests feel when they travel to the United States."

Adds Lindstrom, "You've got to operate in the other person's comfort zone. Get out of your own comfort zone."

The old advice "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is still valid. Not everyone in the world shares American values or customs. Social scientists arrange cultures on a continuum from "low context" to "high context": In low-context cultures, messages are clear and don't require background to be understood, while high-context cultures use a body of common knowledge and custom to communicate. The United States is a relatively low-context culture, and American association executives can become confused when they are in a situation where background, nonverbal communication, and appearances become important.

"Too many American groups assume that the rules are the same, and they're not," Ortale says. "They're very different." Franz, coming from the European perspective, agrees. "I think it's totally different to work on the American market than on the European market. What you can expect from people and what they can expect from you is different."

As a result, once the association identifies a market, it should take time to understand the culture and develop a marketing strategy that is tailored to it. For example, Europeans are more formal and less rushed than Americans, Franz says. They respond better to letters than telephone calls, and they can be put off by the American business style. In Europe, says Franz, "if you meet somebody for the first time, you don't talk about business. Here you meet somebody and he doesn't even say 'Have a nice day,' but comes down to business immediately. It's not rude, it's just the way they are, but it would seem rude in Europe."

Debra Ann Ruzbasan, conventions and incentives manager for the Japan National Tourist Organization, Chicago, agrees. Of the Japanese, she says, "It's a very formal culture. They do not tend to call people by their first name." Asians, in general, require more "personal space" than Americans and do not respond well to anything warmer than a handshake; among each other, they tend to bow without touching. Perhaps most importantly, they respond strongly to nonverbal cues: "Your posture, your materials, what colors you use, pronunciation, grammar, all of that is important in any of your presentations," Ruzbasan says.

Some Americans think of Asia as a monolithic culture, but nothing could be further from the truth, she adds. "Just because people look Asian doesn't mean they're all the same. You can't use one Asian campaign and have it appeal to everybody."

The Japanese tendency to function in groups can work to an American association's advantage, however. "If you have some Japanese members in your association it helps you sell it to other Japanese members and get their affiliation," Ruzbasan says.

Learn the language

CVBs with active international programs have moved into the translation business in a big way. "We have a ready resource of international language translators in our visitors center alone," Murdaugh, of New York, says. "They speak eight languages."

Although most associations may not be able to afford a full-time interpreter or translator on staff, being able to work in a language other than English--and a currency other than dollars--is critical to serving non-U.S. members.

The Los Angeles and San Francisco bureaus both offer foreign-language visitor maps and brochures. Los Angeles has seven different foreign-language brochures and a five-language visitor hotline. San Francisco also offers updated information on a hotline in Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Chinese, and has arranged for publication of a city guidebook in Korean. The visitors center at the cable-car turnaround serves more than 700,000 people a year, half of whom are from outside the United States. "We have language capabilities in just about any language you could pick," San Francisco CVB head Marks says.

Ortale has two fluent Japanese speakers on the staff and recently printed the Twin Cities' first guidebook in Japanese. His bureau also sponsors Japanese language classes on the premises, which attract 5-10 students per semester. "It's a daunting language to learn," he says.

The community is also responding, Ortale says. "We've already seen a couple of Japanese menus. When we start seeing more of those, more currency exchanges, some international signage, we'll know we're getting our product ready."

Lindstrom's bureau prepared a five-minute video on the Quad Cities in Swedish, German, Japanese, and Spanish. "We were very, very, very careful that our translations were accurate and that they were in the dialect and phraseology of the country we were going to," he says. He also made sure that the video was produced in the European PAL format, rather than the VHS format that is standard in the United States. "The key to sales is to help the promoter over there, to give them the tools," he says.

Stress your value

"I think Europeans would be very interested in joining an American association or institute, but they have to see the value in it," says Franz. That means that overseas members need to be shown clearly what the benefits and advantages of joining are, just like American members. "Just to become a member of an American association or society is not enough for them, because they do it for the same reasons Americans do--they want to improve their business relationship or platform by joining an overseas institution."

Associations overseas don't always play the same role as in the United States. "Associations work differently in Europe," she adds. "They're far smaller, but more international, and in the whole society associations are not as important as they are here in the United States."

Associations may need to tailor their precise benefits to a specific overseas market, because the entire legal and political structure that supports associations in many countries is different from that in the United States, In Japan, for example, "Many associations are tied into the government," Ruzbasan says. They may be run directly by the government or affiliated with a government-sponsored institute such as the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. As a result, the number and variety of associations is nowhere near as broad as in the United States. "You have the official organization and not a lot of splinter organizations that would deal with the same topic," Ruzbasan adds.


Some CVBs find strength by joining together to form a marketing cooperative. Northern Kentucky CVB's Michael Rozow says, "We formed a cooperative marketing partnership with Lexington, Louisville, Northern Kentucky, and the Cincinnati visitors bureau. We put a consortium together called 'Visit Kentucky, USA.'"

Since Cincinnati now sees 1,500 airline seats a day coming in from overseas, Rozow says the time seemed opportune for marketing farther abroad. "None of the CVBs could justify making an enormous investment in the international market," Rozow says. "Obviously our prime customers are the domestic market and the midwest. We said, gee, if I put $25,000 in a pot, and you put $25,000 in, and so on, we've got $100,000 and we can make a difference."

So far the consortium has funded an appearance at the World Travel Market in London and overseas representation. Rozow is enthusiastic about the potential for this approach: "The lesson learned is that there are things we can do together, and if we put away our own self-interest, together we can start to make things happen."

According to Marks, San Francisco, too, has formed a cooperative with Los Angeles, San Diego, Anaheim, and the California state department of tourism to promote California. "We have five entities that share in the funding of our representation in Europe."

Although it's unlikely that associations will start teaming up with their direct competitors, it makes good sense to find other associations in the same general field who might want to share the expenses--and reap the rewards. One option is to join an organization that will help with contacts and marketing. "The Council of Urban Tourism Administrations works with the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration to ensure that timely information is transmitted to foreign markets and made available to wholesalers," says Kirkland, of Los Angeles. "The USTTA is an excellent resource. Associations should not be at all reticent about asking such offices for assistance."

Murdaugh and Ortale both have worked closely with the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Murdaugh comments, "We attended the annual meeting for our own educational purposes and for relationship-building purposes."

If one thing is critical to success in the overseas market, it's establishing and maintaining good relationships. That includes relationships with members, suppliers, and organizations that share your goals.

"We're over there a lot in Japan and in Europe," says Ortale, of Minneapolis. "That's really the bottom line. The convention business is a business of relationships, but it's even more so internationally, because the distance is greater and the trust is almost directly proportional to the distance. You have to have more trust to deal with someone who is half a world away."

Marks works to build his relationships with international wholesale travel buyers. "Relationships with people who really influence travel are essential. And you can't disappoint them. You must absolutely deliver what you promised to deliver. That goes for hotels, sight-seeing, attractions, and airlines."

A sister cities program helps Marks, Ortale, and Lindstrom promote their cities. "Seoul is a sister city of San Francisco," Marks says. As a result, his CVB has just signed a joint memorandum of understanding with the Korean National Tourist Organization to promote tourism to and from both countries. Each of Lindstrom's quad cities has two sister cities, and he's working on more relationships with South America.

Although relationship building usually means going overseas, Chicago builds relationships by bringing tour wholesalers to the city for International Week to show them what Chicago has to offer. "Chicago for many years was unknown in the European market. They think of Chicago as the 'rat-tat-tat city,' and that's a quote from one of our visitors," says Mel Patla, sales and marketing vice president for the Chicago Convention & Visitors Bureau, Inc. But after experiencing the city's hospitality, participants leave with an entirely different view, he contends.

Says Kirkland, "We have an aggressive outreach with respect to travel writers outside the country. We work with airlines in each market to bring them to Los Angeles."

Associations have the advantage of finding counterparts overseas and being able to build institutional relationships as well as individual friendships. But fundamentally, all relationships happen among people, so personal contact is vital to developing a non-U. S. market.

Lindstrom uses existing relationships to boost his cities. "Local business leaders can lead you to the key players on the other side of the water," he says. Family connections are also useful, although Lindstrom warns, "If you don't have any Czechoslovakians, then maybe Czechoslovakia isn't where you should be concentrating."

Be patient

Perhaps more than anything else, building an overseas presence takes time--lots of it. In fact, it's best to think in years, maybe even decades.

"You need to send people who are there for the long term," says Lindstrom. "One of the things that scares most 'international' people [about Americans] is that we have a lot of turnover in our sales departments. You need to get your long-term senior executives involved. Probably our impatience is our greatest handicap, because long-range planning for us is 4 this afternoon, while the Asian mind is thinking the next generation."

One reason for patience is the time it takes to build effective relationships. "Your name, reputation, and 'face' in dealing with the Asian and European buyer are important," says Marks. "The basic principle is what we all do every day of the week: dealing with complete honesty and clarity. Surprises don't work well anywhere, but they particularly don't work in the international community."

Results for even trivial tasks can take a long time, says Ortale. "We're just starting to see the kind of results that are going to pay off. It took four or five years to get our destination in some of the tour operator catalogs in Japan," he says. "If you're going to make a commitment to internationalize, it should be a permanent strategic decision, and it's going to take years to develop. You have to avoid the natural American tendency to cut and run after a year if you don't see results."


* IDENTIFY THE RIGHT MARKET--that is, the one that will be interested in your association's services.

* TAILOR YOUR MARKETING STRATEGY to the culture of the country you target.


* BUILD BOTH INSTITUTIONAL and individual relationships abroad.

* POOL RESOURCES in a marketing cooperative of similar organizations.

Attracting Americans

Americans don't' think of themselves as "foreigners," but to CVBs for overseas destinations, they are. Once an association has booked a convention or meeting in Adelaide or Amsterdam, how can it work with the destination to help boost American attendance?

First, Americans must be informed about the attractions of the country hosting the meeting. Americans need longer-range planning to go overseas, so promotion starts years in advance.

Show and tell

"Let's say an association has booked a convention for Amsterdam in 1996," says Dorrit Gruijters, meetings and conventions manager for the Netherlands Convention Bureau. "In 1994 and 1995, we help them with a booth at their annual meeting, where people can stop by and ask questions about Holland. We have a lot of give-away products to use to promote the country--little wooden shoes, little tulips, pens."

Karin Franz, of the German Convention Bureau in the United States, says that in Germany, the destination cities take over most of the marketing. "Hamburg sends people from the city, the convention center, and the hotels, and they usually come in uniforms to stress the city's Hanseatic history. They try to look different and to make an impression with their costumes; for example, people from Munich would wear dirndls. The most important thing is to establish the contact and give the people a feeling of what it will be like to come to Hamburg."

If the preceding meetings don't have exposition space or aren't large enough to warrant a full-scale presentation, the overseas convention bureau provides other support. "We support them in the form of resources, promotional resources, and display materials," says Nigel Bramich, marketing manager of meetings, conventions, and incentives for the Australian Tourist Commission in New York City. "The purpose is to increase the number of American and Canadian delegates going down to Australia and to lengthen the amount of time they stay. We're very lucky, because Australia ranks very high on the places Americans want to visit."

To help promote the destination, the overseas bureau offers inexpensive "shells"--flyers and leaflets with photographs or logos of the destination and blank spaces where the association can add its own overprinted tex. Other promotional materials include color posters, brochures, T-shirts, and videos, Bramich's office provides dictionaries of Australian slang and clip-on koala bears.

Bramich's office also sets up tours attendees can take while in Australia. "We work closely with the individual city CVBs in Australia and the state travel organizations," says Bramich. "Australia has seven states, which each have their own offices. We offer ideas and suggestions for preimposed conference tours."

Another effective way to reach association members is through the regular publications. "Whenever we're alerted that an association has a convention slated for Finland, we find a way if we can advertise or promote the congress in their newsletter or bulletin," says Nino de Prado, deputy director of the Finnish Tourist Board. "We also try to participate in any event that takes place before the actual congress in Finland. We usually try to do that in partnership with Finnish associations or with associations in the United States." Working with counterpart organizations is an effective way to promote meetings, de Prado says. "We identify the associations in Finland who have counterparts in the United States and with whom they share members."

De Prado faces the additional challenge that Finland isn't exactly a household name for many Americans, and he has to inform potential attendees of more about the country than its attractions. "The fact that Finland is relatively unknown for many makes it important that we get our message out--who we are, what we are," he says. "There are misconceptions that Finland and Scandinavia are expensive, but that's not true at all any more. The dollar buys about 50 percent more now than it did in 1992, and we now have one of the least expensive hotel rates anywhere in Europe." Safety is also important for Americans, de Prado says, and "Finland has one of the best records."

Money matters

Since it costs so much for Americans to travel overseas, Gruijters and others will work with the association and with airlines that serve the destination to get the best possible fares for delegates. "When people travel to an overseas destination, they want to get there as cheaply as possible and with as affordable a stay as possible," Gruijters says. "So of course we try to help them to choose an official carrier and get the best rate possible." Her office also offers a prefinancing option that helps associations pay the advance charges and an attendance insurance that minimizes the association's risk.

Most important, says de Prado, is for American associations to recognize that the help is there for them if they want it. "Unfortunately many associations and corporations do not realize that the tourist boards in general are here to assist them with anything that pertains to the success of their meeting," he says. "Sometimes I think we are underutilized in that respect. It's in our interest that as many of the U.S. delegates take part as possible, and we do anything we can to get that excitement to them."

Stephanie Faul is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 1994 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; US associations can learn more about foreign trade promotion from convention and visitors bureaus
Author:Faul, Stephanie
Publication:Association Management
Date:Aug 1, 1994
Previous Article:Designing board governance.
Next Article:In position for the techno-transition.

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