Meetings & Conventions: - May 2001
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
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.
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; www.iapco.org);
International Congress & Convention Association
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
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
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
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; www.adme.org) 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; www.site-intl.org).
Among the large, multinational DMC consortiums are Euromic
(312-845-9734; www.euromic.com), with members in 27 European and
Mediterranean countries; Global Events Partners (202-775-5800; www.globaleventspartners.com), with 28 international
members, and Travel Contacts (011-44-1252-681-093; www.travelcontacts.com), 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
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; www.pgi.com); Jack Morton Worldwide (212- 727-0400; www.jackmorton.com), and the London-based International
Visual Communication Association (011-207-512-0571; www.ivca.org). Production
firms and suppliers in the Asia/Pacific region can be found at
EventClicks (011-852-2-296-9728; www.eventclicks.com),
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.
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)
Contacts: CVBs and DMCs; among U.S.-based firms
offering a range of site-selection services internationally are
ConferenceDirect (877-262-2076; www.conferencedirect.com); Twinsburg, Ohio-based Conferon
(330-425-8333; www.conferon.com), and Scottsdale, Ariz.-based
HelmsBriscoe (480-718-1111; www.helmsbriscoe.com).
“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
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; www.ifcba.org); another source is www.freightworld.com, an online guide to global freight
shipping firms and customs brokers.
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; www.taxport-usa.com)
and Meridian Vat Reclaim Inc. (800-727-4VAT; www.meridianvat.com),
both in New York City, and Culver City, Calif.-based Euro Vat
Refund Inc. (800-828-0609; www.eurovat.com).
Contact: CVBs and the International Association
of Golf Tour Operators (011-44-208-906-3377; www.iagto.com)
CONTRACT MATTERSHow do you
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; www.iapco.org) 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; www.adr.org) or the Paris-based International
Chamber of Commerce (011-33-14-953-2828; www.iccwbo.org), 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.”
PREPPING THE PCOTo 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?
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