While organizing a conference close to home can be challenging enough, the task of planning one thousands of miles away in a foreign-speaking destination with very different customs and cuisine can really put skills to the test.
With the increasingly global nature of business international meetings are on the rise—and so is the likelihood that planners will need to know how to facilitate them. To get some perspective on trends, as well as planning tips, Meetings Focus West spoke to some key players in the international meetings arena.
Among those noting a growing trend toward international meetings is Simon Gidman, head of business visits and events for VisitEngland.
“We are pleased to say that we have seen a much-welcomed increase in the number of North Americans visiting England for meetings and events as well as visitors from Europe and certain countries in Asia and South America, particularly India and Brazil,” he says. “We are seeing a continuing trend toward smaller and shorter events, with a focus on more-specific, tailored content of a high quality.”
Gidman credits a few factors for the rise in global business, including England’s relative affordability compared to some other European nations and his nation’s worldwide profile now at a peak with the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympics and the recent royal wedding seen by billions across the globe.
Tim Chudley, managing director of Sundial Group, which specializes in event management and operates historic estates in Great Britain, also notes a trend toward smaller, specialized events as well as a growing influx of international groups, particularly from India.
“There is [also] a trend towards more unusual venues with special features, such as historic, low carbon or social impact,” he says, adding that successful venues “need, more than ever, a good understanding of the event and its attendees.”
Both Gidman and Chudley have tips for planners new to the international arena.
“Take advantage of local knowledge,” Chudley advises. “In Europe, the market has moved on from traditional DMCs to full-service planning agencies. They should be able to support all aspects of a meeting and negotiate great local rates.”
Gidman adds that whether turning to a DMC or a PCO (Professional Conference Organizer), doing one’s homework is essential.
“I would also recommend that planners research PCOs and DMCs to ensure that they have the right agency for their specific objectives,” he emphasizes. “In England, we have a tremendous choice of some of the most creative agencies in the world; however, some are more specialized in certain geographical markets or industry sectors, so it pays to do some research before contracting their services.”
Changes and Challenges
Charles Chan Massey, CEO and founder of SYNAXIS Meetings and Events, who has considerable experience with planning global events, notes that, due to “the world getting smaller,” international and domestic meetings are more similar than they used to be.
“The major differences are that currently international meetings in Europe, Australia and even Canada—which planners in the U.S. normally look at as domestic—can be more expensive than holding a meeting in the lower 48 due to the U.S. dollar being lower,” he says.
As for key challenges, Massey cites the differences in language, currency and even contractual policies, not to mention cultural differences.
“As North Americans, we look at [other cultural traditions] often as being ‘weird’ or ‘wrong’, but in actuality, it’s just different—the ‘Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore’ syndrome, I call it,” he explains. “Oftentimes our clients ask us to ‘North Americanize’ their international meeting, which in some countries can be about as hard as trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”
Despite the challenges, Massey believes international events can be rewarding.
“If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere, in the words of Frank Sinatra,” he says. “To have the CEO come up to you after a [global] meeting, put their hand on your shoulder and congratulate you on a job well done—priceless.”
When it comes to overseas events, specific industries have their own set of challenges, trends and issues. According to Devin M. O’Donnell, program manager for Meetings Logistics, pharmaceutical meetings, which are often subject to compliance issues that vary by country, are especially complex.
“I find that the compliance aspect of a meeting that is attended by health care professionals (HCPs) the most challenging,” O’Donnell says. “Each country has its own rules pertaining to its HCPs and the procedures and guidelines must be followed in order to be approved to attend a meeting. It is imperative that the meeting planner is aware of and understands the rules of each country in order to be proactive in work that needs to be done and to advise their client and, in some cases, the attendees.”
O’Donnel, who over the past year has planned pharmaceutical meetings in Bulgaria, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Argentina, says that in the proper context, a well-run international event can save money, not waste it.
“Within our business, we are seeing that our U.S.-based clients are more willing to travel overseas to host their meeting internationally and they take advantage of this opportunity by inviting all of their international clients and customers,” he explains. “By increasing their attendance and covering as much information as possible, it allows the host company to hold only one meeting as opposed to multiple.
“Therefore, we are seeing the size of these meetings increase with the frequency decreasing,” he continues. “With the ever-increasing price of airfare, this maximizes their ability to decrease total costs but increase the value of the program.”