by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | June 01, 2010

When it comes to planning global meetings, few professionals have the savvy of Rotary International's powerhouse team of four. Together, they represent more than 50 years of experience and are aligned with a company known for its commitment to good causes around the world. As a reflection of that, 40 of the Evanston, Ill.-based association's past 100 annual conventions have been held outside the United States, and over the next four years, the planning team will organize mega-conventions in Montréal; Bangkok, Thailand; Lisbon, Portugal; and Sydney, Australia, each of which is expected to draw between 15,000 and 45,000 attendees.

While a certain level of global expertise is fundamental to pulling off a successful event, the team members agree, executing one with finesse and grace takes patience, flexibility and a lot of cultural homework.

"I am sure I have offended many people throughout the world, but never intentionally," says L.J. Williams, RI's manager of international meetings. "A smile, a thank you and a willingness to say a few words in their language go a long way toward building trust and letting people know you are sincere about working with them."

With business beginning to rebound after a severe global recession, now is an ideal time to revisit and hone the craft of planning meetings around the world.

Going global Thirty-three years ago and fresh out of college, Steve Sulkin formed Chicago-Based MBM Productions International, the acronym standing for Meetings for Business and Medicine. On a whim, he had added International to the company name after his lawyer advised there was an MBM Productions already in business. Three days after hanging out his shingle, Sulkin got his first piece of business. "They said they called me because I was the only company listed with international in the name," he recalls. "And off I went to run my first European meeting."  

Prophetic? Perhaps, because in 2009, 80 percent of MBMPI's business was in overseas markets, up from 50 percent two years ago, with a fair share of that going to China, India, Peru and Russia. "Pharmaceutical meetings are shifting overseas in dramatic numbers," notes Sulkin, "and local versions of each country's regulations and cultural differences makes producing meetings an endeavor that should be undertaken only after careful research and consideration."

Sulkin and other meeting professionals offer the following advice for effective global gatherings.