May 01, 2001
Meetings & Conventions: - May 2001 Current Issue
May 2001 Toby June

Foreign Legions

Outsourcing is the next best thing to being there&
Here’s how to find reliable partners overseas

By Lisa Grimaldi

“All the world’s a stage,” wrote William Shakespeare about 400 years ago, and the line bears special resonance for meetings professionals today. An estimated half of America’s corporate planners and a fifth of association planners were involved in organizing an offshore or foreign event last year, according to projections made in M&C’s 2000 Meetings Market Report. As many of these planners likely found, it’s not easy negotiating the potential minefield of cultural, political, language and business styles that are unique to a foreign destination.

Increasingly, the solution is to outsource part or parcel of the event to a partner overseas.

“Here at home, we have established direct relationships; when your meeting is in a country you don’t know, you really rely on your overseas partners,” says Ellen Michaels, president of Ellen Michaels Presents, a San Jose, Calif.-based planning firm specializing in international conferences and events. Following is a description of the types of partners meeting planners can work with when they need assistance in foreign territory.

Meeting management
While the term professional congress organizer (PCO) is not widely known in the United States, it is used often in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Essentially, PCOs function the way independent meeting planners do stateside.

These pros can take on all or part of a convention, event or meeting for a U.S.-based organization. Among the tasks they handle are financial management, promotion and marketing, site selection, sponsorship, housing, exhibition sales and management, registration, venue management, social events, tours, staffing, speaker support services, spouse programs and clerical support. They work with both corporate and association groups, large or small. For planners who can’t be there in person for pre- and post-meetings, or those who need help in hiring and contracting local suppliers, PCOs can fill the bill.

For the launch of a new conference or convention, PCOs can serve as strategic consultants and conduct market research. This is critical, says Sarah Storie-Pugh, a London-based PCO and managing director of Concorde Services Ltd., even if the planner has created similar events for the U.S. market.

“There is often an assumption by American planners that an event that has worked well in the United States will work in different countries, and they end up falling flat on their faces,” says Storie-Pugh. “It is important when discussing a meeting in the preliminary stages to ascertain its viability in new markets.”

To locate a PCO in the country where the event will be held, contact one of two associations. The Brussels-based International Association of Professional Congress Organizers has 53 members scattered throughout the globe. According to Garjja Ryynanen, IAPCO’s executive secretary, membership criteria is strict: Before they can join, PCOs must have planned 10 international conferences that lasted at least three days, with a minimum 40 percent of attendees coming from abroad; half of the events had to have more than 400 attendees. Applicants also need to provide IAPCO with a client list. Those who do become members must requalify annually. IAPCO has a code of ethics and member guidelines (available on its Web site) for sponsorship and international contracts. The organization is working on housing guidelines, which will be posted on the Web site later this year.

PCOs also belong to the Amsterdam-based International Congress & Convention Association, which includes conference and convention facilities, national tourist organizations, travel agencies, airlines, production and entertainment companies and other industry suppliers in its ranks. To join, PCOs must be recommended by three members from within the association and provide proof that their business is financially sound. Currently, ICCA has 102 PCO members based in 36 countries.

How they charge: While PCO fees vary depending on the location or tasks performed, they typically charge a management fee or commission on top of costs for the meeting. In some circumstances, says IAPCO’s Ryynanen, the PCO pays all of the meetings’ costs and shares the profits with the client.

Contacts: International Association of Professional Congress Organizers (011-32-2-640-7105;; International Congress & Convention Association (011-31-20-699-1211;

Destination management
For local expertise in an unfamiliar land, many planners turn to destination management companies. Like their domestic counterparts, overseas DMCs can provide a wide range of services, including transportation, guest tours, special events, VIP amenities, on-site staffing, team building, entertainment, sound and lighting, decor and theme development, and off-site events such as dine-arounds. They know who the hot local entertainers are, which restaurants are “in” and which ones accommodate groups; they also have the connections to get groups into private venues. But DMCs are beginning to edge into other areas of meeting support: Some will arrange housing, registration, budgeting and site selection. And, like PCOs, they work with both corporate and association groups.

What is the difference between a PCO and a DMC? “The line is beginning to blur,” says Sylvia Rottman, executive director of the Denver-based Association of Destination Management Executives “But I’d say the main difference is that a PCO also serves as an overseas headquarters staff prior to the event.”

How to find a reputable operation? ADME recently unveiled a certification program for destination management professionals; the association already has an ethics code for members, as does the New York City-based Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, whose membership is almost 25 percent DMCs. A number of firms belong to marketing groups and consortiums that have stringent requirements for members.

How they charge: DMCs typically price their services in two ways: a per-person fee or in a cost-plus manner (charging a fee on top of the line-item costs for individual program elements). Fees can range anywhere from 10 to 50 percent above cost.

Contacts: In addition to local convention and visitor bureaus or the convention division of national tourist organizations, the Association of Destination Management Executives (303-394-3905; has members in 10 countries outside North America. More than 600 DMCs, many of them based overseas, belong to the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives (212-575-0910;

Among the large, multinational DMC consortiums are Euromic (312-845-9734;, with members in 27 European and Mediterranean countries; Global Events Partners (202-775-5800;, with 28 international members, and Travel Contacts (011-44-1252-681-093;, with 110 global members.

A/V and production
Ellen Michaels, whose clients include Silicon Valley high-tech firms, says she always uses local A/V and production services for international conferences and meetings. “It costs a fortune to send the equipment out from the States,” she says, “and once you’re there, you want to work with partners who know wiring, cables, etc.” Often, she uses a facility’s in-house staff; other times, she’ll work with an outside vendor. In countries where she doesn’t have established relationships, she’ll send her in-house technical director to interview suppliers and check out their equipment prior to making her selection.

Production firms can serve as coordinators for the different suppliers needed for events, including hiring the carpenters, truck drivers, script writers and lighting professionals. Many also can provide A/V equipment and services.

CVBs and national tourist organizations can provide referrals to local A/V and production firms. Liz Firestone-DiMaulo, vice president of operations for Roslyn Heights, N.Y.-based European Connections, likes to get referrals from the hotels she works with. “Even if I’m not using their in-house vendor, they don’t want to steer me wrong,” she says. “They know who the reputable firms are in town.”

Among the U.S.-based international firms that provide production and A/V services are Arlington, Va.-based PGI (which has European offices in Great Britain, Greece and Germany) and New York City-based Jack Morton Worldwide (with offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands and Great Britain). Some firms also belong to industry associations, including ICCA and SITE.

How they charge: Most firms charge a flat fee often negotiable that includes equipment, technicians, set-up and strike-down, stage management and team communications. Scripts and video production are typically extras.

Contacts: Local CVBs and chambers of commerce; PGI (703-528-8484;; Jack Morton Worldwide (212- 727-0400;, and the London-based International Visual Communication Association (011-207-512-0571; Production firms and suppliers in the Asia/Pacific region can be found at EventClicks (011-852-2-296-9728;, a Web portal for the meetings industry.

Golf tournaments are difficult enough to produce stateside; imagine organizing one overseas. To find local professionals to arrange a tournament or a golf outing abroad, Dove Jones, a Mt. Pleasant, S.C.-based golf meeting and incentive consultant, recommends contacting the London-headquartered International Association of Golf Tour Operators.

How they charge: Like their U.S. counterparts, international tournament pros typically charge a per-person fee for a tournament, according to Mike Magher, owner of the American Golf School in Biarritz, France.

Site selection
Can’t justify the time and expense of personally checking out sites around the globe? Farm the project out. Most DMCs and PCOs offer site-selection services. Also, several large U.S.-based independent planning firms handle international site selection for clients.

How they charge: According to Brian Stevens, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based ConferenceDirect, 10 percent of room nights booked is the standard site-selection fee both domestically and internationally; the fee is typically paid as a commission by the property to the site-selection firm. In cases where companies don’t allow third-party suppliers to keep commissions, Stevens says, a management fee (generally 10 percent) is charged.

Contacts: CVBs and DMCs; among U.S.-based firms offering a range of site-selection services internationally are ConferenceDirect (877-262-2076;; Twinsburg, Ohio-based Conferon (330-425-8333;, and Scottsdale, Ariz.-based HelmsBriscoe (480-718-1111;

“The biggest mistake a planner can make is to use a traditional shipping company, such as Federal Express or DHL, instead of a shipping broker,” according to Ellen Michaels. The reason: Brokers can get your materials through customs, which is no easy feat when dealing with officials in many countries.

Without a broker to smooth the way or fill out forms just so, equipment, gifts and documents can be tied up for days, and hefty duty charges can needlessly be assessed. For example, Michaels had to spend $20,000 just to get some crucial papers to Rome for a meeting.

How they charge: Typically, shipping brokers charge by weight, but a spokesperson for the International Federation of Customs Brokers Associations, an Ottawa, Ontario-based umbrella trade group, says there is no standard formula for customs brokers’ fees. Since charges can vary greatly from broker to broker, she advises planners to comparison shop before settling on a vendor.

Contacts: International Federation of Customs Brokers Associations (613-562-3543;; another source is, an online guide to global freight shipping firms and customs brokers.

VAT reclaim
Does the country where the meeting will be held charge Value Added Tax, a transaction tax levied on many goods and services? In many cases, sponsoring U.S. firms and associations are entitled to a VAT refund. Because VAT and the many rules pertaining to refunds vary from country to country, planners might want to hire a pro who knows the rules and regulations.

How they charge: Typically, VAT reclamation firms charge 20 percent of the VAT they recoup. If refunds aren’t issued, no fees are charged.

Contacts: The Brussels-based International VAT Association (011-32-2-647-4263) is the largest organization of professional VAT reclamation companies. Among the U.S. firms are Taxport USA Corp. (888-298-8296; and Meridian Vat Reclaim Inc. (800-727-4VAT;, both in New York City, and Culver City, Calif.-based Euro Vat Refund Inc. (800-828-0609;

Contact: CVBs and the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (011-44-208-906-3377;

How do you ensure that a contract with an international service provider holds up in Paris as well as Peoria? Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., offers the following advice.


  • Have contracts written in English or in both languages.
  • Don’t use standard contracts overseas. “The main reason is the terminology,” says Howe. “For instance, what we call a first-class room is usually called a deluxe room outside North America.” Howe recommends contacting the Brussels-based International Association of Professional Congress Organizers (011-32-2-640-7105; for its excellent prototype of an international contract.
  • Stipulate which nation’s laws should govern. If a very large sum of money is involved, Howe recommends designating an arbitration body, such as the Chicago-based American Arbitration Association (800-778-7879; or the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce (011-33-14-953-2828;, as the legal authority.
  • List the times amenities and services are expected. “The U.S. mentality is time-specific,” says Howe. “Other countries might not have the same attitude. Always get specific times for services, delivery, etc., in writing.”
  • L.G.

    To get the most out of your relationships with overseas planning partners, it is essential to know the answers to the following questions, says Sarah Storie-Pugh, president of the International Association of Professional Congress Organizers, based in Brussels.
  • What is the primary purpose of the event?
  • Do attendees pay to attend? How many paying attendees has the event attracted in the past? How many are expected this time?
  • How much space is required for meetings, exhibits and special events?
  • What is the program’s format?
  • What is the ideal event date? Does it clash with that of similar events?
  • Has the venue been selected? If not, what location and type of venue (hotel vs. convention center) is preferred?
  • How is the event to be funded? Is sponsorship required?
  • Are social events planned? Will spouses/guests be included?
  • Is English the primary language of attendees? If not, what language translations are required for printed materials and presentations?
  • Will the event be set up through an organization in the United States or an overseas subsidiary or association? Is there a local contact, or will all arrangements be made through planners in the States?
  • Will pre- and post-event excursions be offered? If so, where? How many participants are expected?
  • If this is a new event or a spin-off of a domestic event, has market research been conducted to determine its feasibility in the host country?
  • L.G.

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