The world is a global marketplace, and even in a struggling world economy, meeting attendees from nations near and far will come to the United States. Clearly, catering to participants with varied languages, cultural traditions and ideas about conducting business can be a challenge. Following are some tips on how to make international delegates feel welcome.
Paving the way
Visas. "The biggest issue for international attendees is dealing with the visa process," says Tara Dunion, senior director of communications for the Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronics Association. Dunion plans her group's largest event in the United States, International CES, which this past January in Las Vegas drew 130,000 delegates, of which about 25,000 arrived from 140 countries, including Australia, Fiji and Monaco. "We try to provide as much assistance as we can on our website to promote the process," she notes. "Our message is to apply early."
Indeed, planners should see to it that international registrants have access to applicable visa regulations several months prior to the meeting dates to ensure adequate processing time.
Generally, international attendees fall under one of two categories: those who require a nonimmigrant visa for business travel, and those exempt from needing a visa, per the Department of Homeland Security's Visa Waiver Program, which grants citizens of 27 countries stays of up to 90 days. (Another seven countries were poised to join the program this month.) For applications, fee details and links to country-specific visa requirements, visit www.unitedstatesvisas.gov.
The interview. To obtain a visa, most countries require an in-person interview at the U.S. Embassy in their country of origin; typically, the U.S. Department of State recommends scheduling an appointment at least six to eight weeks prior to departure. During the interview, the purpose of the meeting is discussed and the attendee must present an invitation letter from the host organization.
Invitation letters. These serve as proof of the intended business trip. Required details include dates, location and purpose of the meeting; the attendee's name, date of birth and passport number; and the planner's contact information. The invitation also should spell out the financial responsibility of the attendee to prevent possible future claims against the host organization. For example, "We try to include some language clarifying that foreign attendees are on their own with their travel expenses," says planner Julie Ratzloff of Minneapolis-based L&L Management Services Inc. (Ratzloff plans the Organization for Human Brain Mapping's annual conference, which typically draws 1,800 to 2,200 international delegates.)
Travel details. Today, it's standard procedure to provide foreign attendees with preconference information via the company/meeting website or e-mail. Helpful details include suggested fly-in cities, airports, airline discounts, shuttles, typical weather conditions, housing block or hotel recommendations, restaurant suggestions and more.
It also helps to appoint a U.S.-based contact for the attendee, says Rebecca Aguilar, senior manager of customer and industry events for the Chicago-based Boeing Co. "For many cultures, conducting business is about relationship building," she asserts. "Our international customers should have contacts, which may include both the planner and a colleague at the company."
Nancy Mason, Pittsburgh-based corporate event planner for Lanxess Corp., a global chemical energy company, prepares booklets to give to foreign attendees. "These include photos, names and outside interests of participants," she says. "It helps those with limited language skills and allows them to connect and find commonalities."
Promoting cross-cultural knowledge is a must for Dallas-based Meeting Professionals International, which has more than 24,000 members in 84 countries. In this regard, the association offers the MPI CultureActive Tool, an online assessment and learning program, to help members better understand how to do business on a global basis across different cultures.
After answering a series of questions, members are shown where they fall on a triangle of cultural attributes. According to Didier Scaillet, left, MPI's Luxembourg-based vice president of global development, linear-active people, who tend to be hierarchical and rely on schedules (typically American, British, German and Swiss) fall on one point; another point comprises multiactive, often Latin, cultures (such as those of Argentina, Brazil and Spain) geared to relationships; the third point holds reactive cultures, which thrive on harmony and family (e.g., those of China and Japan). About 1,000 members have taken the assessment so far, reports Scaillet.
In addition, the tool offers profiles of 60 countries, featuring their histories, information on their economies and their core values.
MPI also has launched one-day workshops, called Meetings Without Borders, for planners who arrange international events. Seminars will be held in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 19; Chicago on Nov. 21, and San Francisco on Nov. 24. The cost is $49 for members, $99 for nonmembers. For details, visit mpiweb.org. -- SARAH J.F. BRALEY