by Lisa Grimaldi | April 01, 2005

illustrationPlanning a flawless meeting in the United States is tough enough. But when the event is overseas, the potential for making a serious gaffe can multiply, given a litany of factors including different cultures, currencies, business mores and languages.
    How to avoid falling victim to missteps abroad? M&C asked some experienced pros for their best advice, and the result is the following roster of commandments for avoiding the mistakes planners are most likely to make on foreign soil.

1. Heed arrival times
This might seem like a no-brainer, but according to Marta Pons Bonet, market research analyst at the Hotel Barcelona Arts in Spain, planners often don’t consider the arrival times of their attendees when booking rooms. For example, flights to Europe from the United States typically arrive in the morning. And hotel check-in times typically are in the afternoon.
    To be sure attendees have a place to rest their weary heads, request that the hotel provide early check-in for all who might need it. If the property cannot guarantee rooms will be available, and if the budget will allow it, Pons Bonet suggests booking the rooms for the night before arrivals, thereby ensuring that delegates won’t have to sit in the lobby for hours on end.

2. Claim your VAT
Planners often miss the opportunity to recoup big bucks by forgetting about or failing to file the proper paperwork for value-added tax reclamation. “Once, I almost fell out with a client because I kept pestering them about applying for a refund after an event,” says Flemming Madsen, director of sales and operations, First United A/S, Copenhagen, Denmark. “They were completely stunned when I called them and told them it had gone through and they had $120,000 coming their way from Danish customs.”
    Approximately 120 countries offer VAT refunds. Check with the country’s national tourist office and local supplier partners to find out what the VAT is, what forms need to be filled out and filing deadlines. For further assistance, a number of companies, such as the Burlington, Canada-based International Sales Tax Refund Corp., will handle all the paperwork for you.

3. Use a PCO
Professional congress organizers were a hot topic at the International Ideas Exchange seminar held during the annual meeting of the Professional Convention Management Association in January. According to moderator Leigh Wintz, CAE, executive director of Soroptimist International of the Americas in Philadelphia, association executives and planners are hesitant to hire a professional congress organizer for their international meetings because they think the PCO runs the entire program, and the expense is prohibitive.
    “They can work on a piecemeal basis,” notes Wintz. PCOs can handle elements such as site inspections that would be costly and time-consuming for U.S.-based staff. She recommends obtaining PCO recommendations from a national tourist office or convention bureau; another resource is the London-based International Association of Professional Congress Organizers (

4. Delegate tasks
When associations meet outside the United States, they often work closely with the chapter based in the meeting destination. Problems can occur, however, when the host’s role is not clearly delineated, leading to squabbles over which office U.S. headquarters or the host city’s office is responsible for key elements of the event. Companies also might encounter this problem if they are meeting in a country that has a local office or branch.
    The solution is simple: Be sure to spell out what is expected of the host chapter at the outset, so there is no confusion at the later stages, recommends Leigh Wintz.

5. Respect local customs
Paying attention to local manners and mores is of particular importance when the meeting has multinational and/or local attendees. For example, dinners and evening events often start too early. “Nobody in Europe begins dinner at 6 p.m., and meetings seldom start before 9 a.m.,” says Reiner Burkle, regional vice president, Marriott Berlin and Ritz-Carlton Berlin. He adds that Europeans don’t like rushed dinners, so meals often last several hours. And Asians, he says, generally will not stay out past 10 p.m., even if the meal isn’t finished.
     Ask local contacts about typical meal times and etiquette to prevent timing faux pas.