Planning a meeting on one’s home turf can be tricky enough, but when it comes to facilitating an event overseas, U.S.-based planners face a veritable minefield of pitfalls—whether they commit a minor faux pas or a disastrous violation of protocol. The very setup of the meeting is likely to be different, and even the simplest act, like shaking hands, sharing a smile or exchanging business cards, may very well be a whole new ball of wax in your host destination as compared to the experience on American soil.
“What is successful in Chicago in terms of meeting design might completely fail in Helsinki or Shanghai, and vice-versa,” says Didier Scaillet, chief development officer for MPI and the MPI Foundation. “Understanding cultural differences will be more and more essential for every meeting professional in the 21st century.”
One of the biggest mistakes American meeting planners who haven’t worked outside the U.S. make is assuming everything will be as it is at home, adds Carol Krugman, MEd, CMP, CMM, professor in the Dept. of Hospitality, Tourism and Events at Metropolitan State University of Denver and an experienced organizer of international events.
“Of course it’s different,” she says. “Even in the U.K. where they speak English, basic vocabulary is different and they use the metric system. If you don’t acknowledge differences, you’ll run into uncomfortable situations.”
Much like planning meetings held close to home, relationships are key to avoiding potentially embarrassing—and sometimes costly—mistakes the world over.
Krugman says it’s wise to contact NTOs (national tourism organizations)—which are similar to CVBs but represent an entire country—for advice and assistance.
According to Michelle Stoddard, manager of global development and programs for PCMA, partnerships with local DMCs and/or PCOs (professional congress organizers) overseas are critical for everything from negotiating the contract to reconciling the final billing.
“Having strong supplier relationships in a destination can make a world of difference for your event,” she says.
The International Association of PCOs (www.iapco.org) is a great jumping-off point to explore potential partners and advisers in different countries, Stoddard suggests.
The bottom line? Planners, you’re not in Kansas anymore. But the best way to head down the yellow brick road is to be armed with knowledge and trustworthy foreign pals.
Who Do We Think We Are?
American pride goes a long way when showcasing the assets of a particular U.S. meetings destination. The South is known for its hospitality, arts are the thing in the Northeast, the West is laid-back, and Midwesterners seem to have the lock on friendliness. But when planning overseas, that pride should take a backseat to curiosity and sensitivity.
“First, planners need to develop an understanding and respect for the culture of the host country, and then it’s their job to manage attendee expectations,” Krugman says. “You don’t want a group of North Americans who have certain ideas of an unfamiliar culture to end up surprised, unhappy or confused. All of us have preconceived notions about other cultures and we need to be aware of that.”
Cynthia W. Lett, CPP, CEP, director of The Lett Group and founder and executive director of the International Society of Protocol & Etiquette Professionals, agrees with Krugman that many mistakes are made because Americans often don’t do their homework before doing business overseas.
“They figure, ‘We’re Americans, they should be happy we’re here,’” she says. “We tend to plan the same way we plan in the states, with a new backdrop.”
One top consideration is the varying ways different cultures learn. For instance, Lett says, some cultures may prefer interactive role-playing to best understand concepts.
“Americans learn in school mostly by being lectured, so we plan meetings where we have a speaker who stands on stage and talks to the audience, provides handouts at the end and that’s that,” she explains. “The Chinese are more interested in having a complete word-for-word script of what the speaker says; they have great respect for every word, while the Germans want backup materials given out as the audience arrives.”
Reading Between the Lines
Sealing the deal with a foolproof contract is another critical step to successfully planning overseas.
For Leslie Zeck, CMP, CMM, director of meetings for the International & American Associations for Dental Research, a recent contract in a South American country was canceled seven months out by the government to make way for a larger, government-hosted conference.
“Contract language is so different and U.S. laws and legal language do not apply in countries outside of the U.S.,” she says. “We had no choice to but to scramble to find a new location for nearly 5,000 delegates.”
This cautionary tale comes with some sound advice for other planners. Ensure that English translations are made accurately and include financial protections in the event your contract is canceled for any reason, Zeck says.
“Request that 100 percent of all deposits be returned in full, plus the equivalent amount,” she advises. “Require in the contract that the destination/venue also help reimburse other expenses incurred by your organization due to a change or cancellation, such as printing and marketing costs, travel reimbursement for site visits and legal fees.”
Susan M. Fox, CMP, CMM, senior strategy management coordinator with Frito-Lay Research and Development, learned a costly lesson following a meeting in Barcelona and warns planners to pay particular attention to attrition when overseas.
“As you know, in the U.S. we calculate attrition per night,” she says. “Internationally, all bets are off. In my experience overseas, attrition is calculated cumulatively. Therefore, regardless if I made my total room nights, if I didn’t make them per night, they charged me for all ‘unsold’ rooms per night.”
Fox adds this wasn’t communicated in the contract and now she makes a concerted effort to ensure her international contract attrition clauses read something like the following: “All attrition will be calculated cumulatively based on meeting an ALL room night total for the length of the meeting.”
Another mistake Americans make is the way we talk and otherwise communicate with people overseas. Planners in the know suggest, for starters, slowing speech and learning some basic foreign greetings.
Phelps R. Hope, CMP, vice president, meetings and expositions for Kellen Meetings, learned that in Chennai, India, “yes” is a popular word.
“They say ‘yes’ to just about every question you ask,” he says. “What I didn’t know is that I was being told ‘yes’ as confirmation that they had heard me speak, not that they were granting me what I was asking for.”
For example, he says, “I wanted to get one of my VIPs upgraded to a suite. When I asked the front desk manager if I could get the upgrade, he said yes but when my dignitary checked in, the suite was not assigned.”
The problem was eventually resolved but Hope recommends planners tune into such nuances as much as possible while communicating within other cultures.
Those who learned English as a second language often don’t understand our colloquialisms and references, such as using American sports as a business metaphor, adds protocol expert Lett.
“It makes it difficult for others to understand what we are trying to say to them,” she says.
Communication styles vary incredibly from one culture to the next, including the whole concept of personal space and body language, which is generally quite different than what’s comfortable in the U.S., Krugman adds.
“In Latin America, people hug each other and will stand much closer to you in conversation than Americans or Northern Europeans, and in Asia they’ll stand farther apart and slightly bow,” she says. “It’s almost stereotypical that in Latin America and Southern Europe they use hand gestures and are touchy-feely while in Asia broad smiles, hand waving and loud talking are considered quite rude.”
In some Asian cultures, Krugman adds, it’s also rude to look another businessperson in the eye.
“Once during an entire talk with a president of a medical society from Thailand, he would not look at me,” she says. “I later learned that—in accordance with his culture—he was being polite.”
Navigating Uncharted Territory
From dining and religious differences to gift giving and the meanings of certain colors, the list of potential faux pas in other countries is seemingly endless.
A good rule of thumb for planners is to take the same concerns into consideration overseas as they would if planning a meeting in the U.S., including current events.
“For example, know if there are chances of a general strike that can shut down a city; if air traffic controllers could go on strike or transportation could shut down,” Krugman says. “Be aware of the political climate overseas; to be a good international planner you have to be up on international news.”
Freelance writer and editor Carolyn Blackburn thinks people in Latin America—where hugs trump handshakes—have the right idea.