by William J. McGee | October 01, 2007

There was a time when most meeting planners were confined to organizing events primarily within the United States. But a shrinking planet has spurred more cross-border meetings and conventions, and consequently, the usual domestic airlines have found new competitors in this market segment, from Europe to Asia to Latin America. For many planners, it’s not just about preferred supplier agreements anymore.

Foreign airlines as diverse as Lufthansa and Copa, Virgin Atlantic and Emirates are using an extensive array of sales and marketing incentives to generate more bookings from U.S.-based meeting professionals. They’re offering not only guaranteed discounts but additional services as well, including dedicated check-in desks, pre-arranged boarding passes, group label baggage tags and even photographs with the flight crew.

Vicki Hawarden, vice president of knowledge management and member events for Dallas-based Meeting Professionals International, notes that MPI recently held its World Education Congress in Montreal and is planning upcoming events in London, Dubai and Singapore. “I’m hearing more about the value and quality of international carriers,” Hawarden says. “There are more and more flights to overseas hubs, and then [attendees] are continuing on regional carriers.”

Dana Marshall, director of sales and marketing for Sharp Events in San Francisco, believes most U.S. corporations would have no hesitation about using established European flag carriers such as Air France, British Airways or Lufthansa. She, too, finds that foreign airlines are seeking more meetings business: “They’ve become more aggressive. I’ve seen more requests for appointments from them.”

Indeed, even smaller foreign airlines are ramping up their efforts. “There have been increasing numbers of meetings,” notes Nigel Page, senior vice president of commercial operations for the Americas at Emirates Airline, which will be launching service from Houston to Dubai in December. “We’re looking to expand our links to this sector of the business.”

Expanding partnerships

Eli Gorin, founder of gMeetings in Aventura, Fla., and a specialist in Latin American events, says the logistics of foreign travel make choosing an airline a different proposition than for domestic trips. “I handle all the air travel for my clients, and first and foremost is price,” he says. “But I also look at flexibility with schedules. There might be more frequencies. Going with a local [foreign] carrier does have its benefits.”

In some cases, using a non-U.S. carrier requires skirting the company’s commitment to a preferred airline. But Marshall says airline alliances can be a helpful factor: “Certainly, airlines are a little more forgiving if you use their partners.” (See “Choosing Allies.”)

Not all foreign carriers are eager to work with groups, however. British Airways, for example, issued this statement: “Although we used to work directly with groups in the past, in September 2003, it was decided that [we] would work only with travel agents who could liaise with groups on our behalf and issue tickets for them on our behalf. This enables us to work more efficiently.”

A British Airways spokesperson explains, “Our groups department only works through travel agents. If planners don’t have one, we can set them up with one.”