by Brendan M. Lynch | September 01, 2005

Pamela Ballinger, CMP

“The visa issue is very restricting,”
says association planner
Pamela Ballinger, CMP. “Whole portions
of the world are not attending meetings.”

Change has come fast along the U.S. border since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A cornucopia of high-tech gadgetry is revolutionizing the nature of personal identification, while new policies are making over the process of entering and exiting this country for foreign nationals and Americans alike.
    Some of the modifications, like providing self-serve kiosks to speed the ID process for visitors to the United States, are universally embraced as sensible measures. Other changes, like issuing passports souped-up with radio-frequency identification microchips or digitally fingerprinting all visitors, are jarring to many travelers, privacy experts, business travel advocates and meeting planners.
    Will international attendees increasingly shun U.S. events because of the high hassle factor of new border and visa policies? During a time of war, could American attendees be endangered abroad by passports that broadcast their nationality? How much safer are we with the new border policies and procedures? M&C spoke to planners, government sources, privacy watchdogs, association executives, business travel experts and international travelers to find out.

The Visa Hurdle
The process of applying for a B-1 visa (a six-month visa for foreign nationals entering the United States to attend seminars, conferences, meetings, trade shows and conventions) has grown longer and more involved since 9/11.
    Now, stricter attention to security can mean discouraging delays for would-be foreign attendees, who must make an interview appointment with the nearest U.S. consulate in their home country. The in-person visa interview sometimes necessitates traveling to another city, and it always means paying fees and undergoing the scrutiny of a background check. For some foreign nationals, the trouble is not worth it.
    “The visa issue is very restricting,” says Pamela Ballinger, CMP, vice president of meetings and exhibits for Association Headquarters, an association management firm in Mount Laurel, N.J. “Even though international attendance is still growing at most of our meetings, it’s primarily from certain parts of the world. The visa issue doesn’t really affect attendance from Europe. But whole portions of the world are not attending meetings. It’s Third World countries and the Middle East that are really being affected. It can take six to eight months to get a visa there.”  
    On the bright side, there is some evidence the visa application process may be getting faster. The Washington, D.C.-based National Academies keep statistics on how long it takes to get visas for hundreds of international attendees to U.S. scientific and academic events. In 2003, the average delay for a visa applicant was 147 days, but that wait time decreased by more than half in 2004, to just 70 days.
    But not everyone gets in. Of 2,173 U.S. visa applications monitored by the National Academies, 91 percent were granted, while 4 percent were delayed or canceled and 2 percent denied outright.