Unless you work for a small local business, chances are that at some point you will have to plan an event overseas. When you do, there are a few things you should bear in mind.
1. Educate yourself about cultural sensitivities
“The best way to prepare yourself for the cultural expectations of a destination is to talk to people who have been [or live] there,” says Amanda T. Brooks, who has planned large association events in China, India, Singapore, Japan, Australia, Spain, Portugal and Germany. “Also, there is a series of books called ‘Culture Smart!’ that address this very issue for places where being ignorant or insensitive about the local culture is an extremely bad idea, like India or predominantly Muslim countries.”
Other educational resources include U.S.-based foreign embassies, local cultural organizations and universities with international studies programs, suggests Bridget B. Sullivan, who has produced events in Brazil, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Australia, Canada and Germany.
“Do the homework before you start planning the event,” Sullivan says. “Read what is appropriate when doing business in that country.” For example, are there certain gestures Americans use in the U.S. that are considered rude overseas? Will people in the host destination appreciate gifts? Is there a certain way the gift needs to be wrapped or presented? What are accepted male/female business dynamics? When and how should you bow? Is there a certain way to present business cards? Are there particular behaviors associated with mealtimes or contract negotiations that differ from what we’re used to in the United States?
Be on your best behavior at all times, Brooks counsels. “Unfortunately, Americans have a reputation for expecting the world to bend around them, so if your behavior contradicts this assumption, you will make friends.”
Listen more than you talk and dress appropriately. “Learn to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the local language — it gives evidence of your sincere interest in your host country,” she adds. “I always approach everyone, from the hotel desk clerk to the director of sales, with humility and respect. If you do that, they will usually bend over backwards for you because they are so relieved you aren’t acting like they expect an American to act!”
2. Learn about the destination
Brooks recommends reading city guidebooks by Lonely Planet or Rick Steves. “They usually have maps, important phrases to know in the local language and a short history of the country or city where you’re going.”
Don’t forget about Web-based resources. “Check out the city’s tourism organization,” Brooks says. “Airport websites can also be a great source of information about transportation options in the city.”
Sullivan recommends planners research currency exchange rates, local holidays, useful phrases, time zone differences, power conversions, on-site staffing requirements and production equipment differences. “Get an A/V equipment list from your production vendor/supplier. Keyboards, volume settings and other equipment operating instructions are different.”
Any American equipment (like a mobile device, hairdryer or laptop) will need a voltage converter; multinational converters can be purchased stateside from stores such as Radio Shack and Sharper Image as well as airport travel shops.
Online resources, like currency and measurement converters, are readily available. Sullivan suggests planners use a world time clock to help schedule conference calls with international contacts. Bear in mind that you may have to alter your sleeping patterns, she says, to make yourself available to work during their business hours.
When downloading floor plans from potential venues, be aware that measurements will often be in meters rather than feet. Also, some contracting terms may vary. For example, “pax” is often used to refer to passengers or people, and “en suite” means a guest room with an attached bathroom — something American hotels are rarely without.
“One thing to be careful about in Asia, in particular, is that if you book an off-site event, [ensure] the attendees have access to ‘Western’ toilets,” Brooks advises. “They can still be hard to find sometimes, and you really don’t want to know what happens if a bunch of American women in high heels and pantyhose find out the hard way that they have to squat to pee.” A fashionable Italian discotheque or charming French café may not have Western toilets either, so do your homework and don’t be afraid to ask what seem like obvious questions.
3. Enlist the aid of local advocates and people who speak the language
Ideally, event organizers should make multiple site visits, Sullivan says. But if you are forced to plan the event “blind,” Brooks recommends finding a local partner to help with the details and handle the inevitable issues that arise due to language barriers.
“Sometimes you really need to be able to yell at someone in their own language!” Brooks says. “In some cultures, that’s the only way to really convince the other party that you’re serious. There are event management companies with a global footprint, and if you find a good one, it will be entirely worth it in terms of getting things done in the most efficient way possible. It also will help you not get taken to the cleaners by unscrupulous sales people.”
If English is your host’s second language, it’s also important to hire a translator to participate on conference calls, Sullivan says. “Get a translator and legal assistance to review the contract [as well]. This is extremely important [because] event space usage, hotel attrition rules, security requirements, F&B commitments, etc. can be different from country to country, venue to venue.”
And remember that you are not in the U.S. “This might sound obvious,” Brooks says, “[but] the people you are interacting with will not automatically have the same frame of reference for anything that you do. Never assume that you understand something. The language barrier is a reality, even for someone who speaks very good English. Keep asking questions, respectfully, until you are satisfied there is understanding on both sides.”
Don’t forget to look after your non-English speaking attendees. “Remember to use both languages (multiple if necessary) in some of your marketing/website content and even when communicating face-to-face, if possible,” Sullivan advises.
4. Keep it simple
“Over-complication gives rise to more opportunities for things to go wrong,” Brooks says. And cutting corners to save time can end up making things more difficult.
She learned this the hard way during an event she planned for 400 U.S. and Chinese attendees that was taking place in Mumbai.
“The Asia operations manager (based in China) had a choice: have the programs shipped directly to the hotel in Mumbai from the printer in Hong Kong, or have the programs shipped directly to staff in the U.S. and China and have us carry them in our luggage,” Brooks remembers. “The luggage option was obviously more work, so the manager chose to have them shipped directly to Mumbai.”
As luck would have it, the day the event programs arrived in Mumbai, the local customs office was closed for training.
“It stayed closed for the duration of our meeting,” Brooks says. “We never got them. We had to print and hand out photocopies of the print proof to our attendees. Lesson learned: Sometimes, doing it the hard way is the best way.”
A meeting in another country can – and should – be a rewarding experience for attendees and planners alike. And, with the proper preparation, planning partners and research, planners can pull off a productive and flawless meeting successfully.