February 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio February 1999 Current Issue
February 1999 Back to BasicsPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

Back to Basics


Using a Customs Broker

Rely on pros to get your goods past other countries’ gatekeepers

What do the United States and every other country in the world have in common? They all have laws governing the import and export of goods, generally known as customs laws. The problem is, no two countries have the same rules. For meeting planners, this can be a prescription for confusion, delays and even confiscation. In fact, when it comes to customs, the only common threads are lots of bureaucracy and red tape.

Let’s say you’re planning an international meeting and your client or company wants to present nice gifts to each attendee. The gifts may be electronics, jewelry, food or cosmetics. They may contain alcohol or just look generally “expensive.” The quantity may be large enough to appear like a wholesale or commercial shipment. The required paperwork may not be completed correctly. If any of these is the case, there is a good chance your shipment will be delayed at the border, charged an excessive duty tax or confiscated upon arrival. This, of course, assumes that U.S. Customs has allowed the items out of its hands to begin with; like many countries, the United States also has a large and confusing list of export regulations. Meanwhile, you’re at the hotel wondering what’s happened to all of the boxes of delegate gifts.

As meeting planners, the shipment of goods between countries is not necessarily one of our core competencies. But since so many meetings take place outside of the United States, and many of those are combined with trade shows, it is important to have some basic familiarity with the use of customs brokers.

Customs brokers are experts in the nuances of customs rules who act as your agents to ensure that everything goes smoothly at the border. They also know how to clear up misunderstandings, can pay any required fees or taxes on your behalf and will guarantee your shipments enter the country legally with minimal delay.

UPS, Federal Express and DHL are masters at moving paper and collateral materials easily between countries, but conference gifts and exhibit paraphernalia present special challenges. So even these couriers have their own third-party brokers in each country. If you’re not an expert on this yourself, ensure that your extras arrive safely and on time by bringing in a pro.

These tips will help you find a reputable broker.

  • Check with your organization’s or your clients’ shipping, mail, logistics or transportation department. You may find that several customs brokers are already under contract.
  • Ask the local destination management company, professional conference organizer, exhibition hall and hotel staff for recommendations.
  • Use the Internet. Two sites to try are Freightworld (, which lists brokers with Web sites, and the International Federation of Customs Brokers Associations (, an umbrella trade group.
  • Select a broker with offices in the United States who specializes in the country where you’re going. Remember, no two countries are alike. An expert on Canada may be of little help in China.
  • Once you narrow your selection down, ask about their experience in clearing through customs the particular items you are shipping.
  • Compare costs and services and check out other services they can provide, such as packing, freight forwarding and delivery.
  • Check on their insurance. The broker should assume liability and offer reimbursement at fair market value should something go wrong and the goods are confiscated or extremely delayed due to the broker’s negligence. This is an item that can be negotiated.
  • Request and check references thoroughly.
    Be sure the shipping company and customs broker you select communicate with each other regarding arrival and forwarding instructions. Your broker should secure all required forms, assist in determining the declared value of the items and complete the required documentation accurately.

    With a little planning, everything should go smoothly at the border. (Also see M&C’s January 1999 Checklist, “Shipping Overseas,” for information about selecting freight forwarders and correctly packing and labeling goods.)

    If this seems like more work than it’s worth, you can avoid a customs broker altogether by purchasing all giveaway items in the destination country. Your DMC and hotel can help you arrange this

    Mike Kabo is president of Solutions Inc., a consulting firm specializing in travel and meeting management, based in New York City and San Francisco.

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