Helping Overseas Attendees Come to the U.S.

How the U.S. is easing entry woes for international visitors

What Planners Can Do
While government agencies try to iron out the wrinkles in the entry experience, meeting planners themselves have been taking steps to help overseas participants cross the Rubicon in smoother fashion.

Lauren Deaton

Lauren Deaton, strategic accounts director of Washington, D.C.-based meetings and events firm Courtesy Associates, offers the following suggestions.

Share information (location, dates) about upcoming events as soon as possible, so participants can start the visa process right away. Some delegates, particularly those attending research meetings, might also need time to apply for approval and/or funding from their employers.

Include sample visa applications on the event website.

When necessary, provide attendees with paperwork, such as letters of invitation to attend the conference, in the requested format, whether written, e-mailed or as a downloadable file.

Encourage members of local professional or association networks to mentor first-time attendees and shepherd them through the daunting visa process.

When speakers are coming from nations with tricky visa policies, be sure to have a backup plan, such as another speaker or even a video link in case a key presenter is not approved in time.  

From 2001 through 2010, the United States' share of long-haul global travelers fell from 17 percent to 12 percent, according to the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Travel Association. The loss of 78 million potential visitors is not only shocking but far-reaching. "The failure of the United States to simply keep pace with the growth in international long-haul travel cost our economy an estimated $509 billion in total spending and 441,000 American jobs that could have been created or sustained during that time," says U.S. Travel president and CEO Roger Dow. In addition, he notes, the country forfeited about $32 billion in direct tax receipts.

Even more distressing: The downturn occurred at a time when there was a huge upswing in the number -- 46 million -- of worldwide travelers, and the relatively weak U.S. dollar made America a travel bargain.

Industry leaders have no difficulty pinpointing reasons for this "lost decade." They cite the stringent visa policies put into place after 9/11, which greatly increased applicant scrutiny and, ultimately, wait times to up to 150 days; curtailed the country's visa-waiver agreements with other nations; and fueled perceptions of nightmare lines at airports and gruff treatment by customs, TSA and airport workers.

The good news: Over the past two years, U.S. Travel and the federal government have focused on affecting a sea change in these agencies and crippling policies to recapture, and even surpass, America's traditional share of these lucrative international visitors, including business travelers and meeting attendees. "If we want to increase our international visitors by 5 percent a year through 2021, a goal laid out by President Obama, we have to continue to improve the experience," stresses Dow.

Following is an update on the key concerns for incoming travelers, and what is being done to ease their path.

Speeding Up the Visa Process Visa hassles are the most pressing problem planners and industry leaders cite for losses of international visitors. According to a study by the Dallas-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research, visa issues precluded 116,000 international participants (78,400 attendees and 37,900 exhibitors) from attending U.S. exhibitions in 2010 alone. According to Roger Dow, energy giant Shell stopped holding global senior management meetings in the U.S. altogether because the company's brief lead times often prevented executives from getting visas in a timely fashion.

The dollar loss is particularly significant, as participants from afar tend to spend liberally. Data from a 2011 Oxford Economics research study found that international buyers and attendees spend an average of $13,600 each in the U.S., and spending by international exhibitors averages $36,100.

"There must be more effective ways to ensure that global buyers and sellers have more convenient opportunities to participate in U.S.-based exhibitions," says David DuBois, CMP, who took the reins as president and CEO of the Dallas-based International Association of Exhibitions and Events last month.

In fact, progress is being made. While wait times for visas for citizens from some countries have been as high as six months, the time it takes to process the documents has been greatly reduced in the past two years, due to changes enacted by the U.S. State Department, which include, according to Dow, "an increase in embassy and consulate hours, more personnel to devote to applications and even more locations where people can apply for visas."

Per a progress report released by the White House this past September, 88 percent of applicants worldwide now are interviewed within three weeks of submitting their paperwork. And in key markets like China, interview wait times (which take place after initial applications are processed) are being kept down to an average of five days, even though visa demand in China has increased by 37 percent this year over 2011.

Meanwhile, a pilot program that allows consular officers to waive in-person interviews for certain nonimmigrant visa-renewal applicants is now in operation in 52 processing posts in 28 countries. As a result, interviews have been waived for more than 120,000 low-risk visa applicants, including meeting attendees and exhibitors.

Another priority for the White House, the State Department and the travel industry is expanding the official Visa Waiver Program, which now enables nationals of 37 participating countries (Click below to see full chart) to travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of up to 90 days without obtaining a visa.

No Visa Required chart 

The most recent country admitted to the program is Taiwan, effective this month. According to projections by U.S. Travel, the waived visa requirements will result in an estimated 346,000 Taiwanese travelers to the U.S. in 2013, up by 55,500 over 2011 figures, and they will spend some $1.3 billion while here, an increase of $213 million over 2011.

Brazil is next up to be considered for the loosened requirements. Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronic Association, which owns and produces the Consumer Electronics Show, is among those who have lobbied the Obama administration on the benefits of adding the South American nation to the visa-free ranks. CES, the largest annual international technology show, typically attracts 150,000 participants from 150 countries.

"At the 2012 International CES, exhibitors benefitted from business discussions with more than 800 Brazilian executives who traveled to Las Vegas, despite having to wait an average 100 days to schedule an interview and obtain a U.S. travel visa," notes Shapiro. "Imagine how many more Brazilian business leaders would come to trade events in America if these restrictions were removed."

Online Extra
 For video interviews with Roger Dow and Michael Murray, go to

Improving the Entry Experience Too often, foreign visitors to the U.S. complain about the less-than-friendly welcome they experience at their point of entry.

Following 9/11, U.S. Customs officers "found themselves exercising what I'd call protectionism and saw international visitors only as a potential threat to the country, as opposed to visitors who decide to spend their good money in the States," says Mathias Posch, president of Vancouver, British Columbia-based International Conference Services, a professional congress organizer. "Horror stories of people being turned away and sent back home, or being subject to hours of interrogation, made the rounds and did a huge disservice to the U.S. meetings industry," he adds.

To reverse the crippling effects of long waits and inconsistent and often overreaching security policies that characterize the post-9/11 era, U.S. Travel organized a "blue ribbon" aviation security panel, which released its recommendations to Congress in March 2011. Among them:

Give the TSA authority over an entire checkpoint area, from the beginning of the security lines to after a traveler exits the screening area, to avoid confusion between the airport's and TSA's realms of authority within the facility.

Encourage fewer carry-on bags to shorten checkpoint wait times by requiring airlines to allow passengers one checked bag as part of their base airfare and standardize existing rules covering the quantity and size of items that can be carried onto an airplane.

Reduce duplicate TSA screenings for international arrivals connecting to another U.S. airport.

Expand trusted traveler programs, such as the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol's Global Entry program, to qualified international passengers (for more about such programs, see "Today's Trusted Travelers").

As of press time, action had been taken on several of these recommendations. Pilot Global Entry programs have been launched in Germany and the United Kingdom, and a bill was introduced last year by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) calling for airlines to allow passengers one checked bag at no additional cost.

Extending a Local Welcome Mat Some state and city travel organizations have taken matters to a local grassroots level. Among them is the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau. In order to boost visitors from China, who spend more money than any other long-haul visitors to the state, the HVCB works with private local travel firms to expedite the complicated visa process.

"We have lost incentive business to Australia in the past because they have a visa waiver program with China," notes Michael Murray, the bureau's vice president of sales and marketing. "When our visa waiver with South Korea went through in 2010, there was an increase in meetings and incentives; now that market is doing great."

A similar effort has boosted Houston's attractiveness to international conferences, says Jorge Franz, vice president of international group sales and tourism for the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. The city is the only U.S. member of the Best Cities Global Alliance, sharing leads with eight other municipalities around the world that satisfy specific criteria as ideal host destinations for major international conferences.

As part of the effort to join that elite group, Houston focused on improving the level of service incoming travelers receive at customs and immigration, whose agents "are the first faces a foreigner sees when they enter the country," notes Franz. In 2004 and 2005, the CVB worked closely with airport officials to arrange for hospitality and customer service training for customs and immigration personnel.

"Airport officials have come to understand and appreciate what we do for each other," says Franz. "Today they have a better appreciation for the importance of being hospitable."