by Brendan M. Lynch | May 01, 2007

In the past five and a half years, it has become a cliche to point out that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “changed everything.” But in so many aspects, the events of that morning did forever alter the fabric and rhythms of American life. Also transformed was the process for entering the United States for foreign visitors, even for short business stays like attendance at a corporate meeting or an association convention.

While world travel in the past five years has jumped 20 percent, post-9/11 entry procedures have made visiting the United States more of a hassle, no doubt contributing to a 17 percent drop in international visitation to this country during that same time frame. In a survey conducted in fall 2006 by the Washington, D.C.-based Discover America Partnership, international travelers rated the United States’ entry process the worst in the world, by a 2-to-1 margin.

Today, the business travel community is looking for fixes -- and meeting and convention planners increasingly are concerned with making their international attendees feel more welcome, ready and able to attend U.S.-based events.

Speedier visas needed

“The majority of our difficulties are with visa applications,” says Sapna Budev, manager for international affairs and trade show operations with the Alexandria, Va.-based International Sign Association. “With visas, attendees either register too late and need their visa letters expedited -- which creates considerable administrative work for us -- or they get denied their visa applications based on insufficient proof of home-country ties.”

Such entry problems have a snowball effect, requiring higher levels of staffing, steeper printing costs and more work on the part of planners. “Many attendees cannot understand our online registration process and need phone support to finish their travel and registration plans,” notes Budev. “And we do not have enough multilingual staff or vendors to deal with all these issues.”

The key document for visitors and meeting attendees from many nations is the B-1 visa -- essentially, a six-month permit typically used by attendees. (This visa is not required of citizens of the 27 countries that are members of the Visa Waiver Program -- mostly close U.S. allies that agree to issue biometric-enabled passports.) But for millions of potential attendees from around the world, yet another document is vital.

“Foreign visitors almost always need to obtain a visa from their own country, and that can be problematic,” says Candace Murray, conference planner with the Orlando-based International Association for Identification. “We need to issue a letter of invitation that not infrequently gets lost in the mail, especially in third-world countries. There has, over the years, been some misinterpretation of those letters of invitation, where the registrant assumes the IAI will cover all costs of attendance.”

And then, attendees face the wait. The Washington, D.C.-based National Academies’ International Visitors Office tracks a large sample of visa applications, wait times and rates of visa denial. The delays for these applicants in 2003 help explain the drop in visitation to America: According to the NAIVO, the average wait that year for a B-1 visa following an interview or application was 149 days. Further, 30 percent of visa applicants were kept waiting more than six months.

“Attendees from Asia and the Middle East are having a harder time getting in,” says Michael Starkweather, CMM, an association planner with more than 25 years of experience bringing international attendees into the United States. “It’s not as true for Europe, but the visa process has tightened up in all directions.

“In the hospitality industry, you’re supposed to be greeting people as guests, not as a potential terrorists,” Starkweather adds. “But that attitude has crept into it.”