Computer programmer and engineer Vanessa Whitehead wasn’t looking for a career change. It found her.
Traveling extensively with her job, she discovered she had a talent for establishing long-term relationships with people in other countries. She began planning meetings domestically for small social gatherings, then her family officially put her in charge of organizing its overseas trips and travel agendas. As her skills became more in demand outside her circle of friends and family, her network of contacts overseas made it easy for her to transition into planning international business functions. In 2002, she founded Global Organization and Planning Services, a professional full-scale, event-planning company creating events, tours and programs in 12 countries including Brazil, England, South Africa, Australia, Thailand, Spain and the United States.
“It works to my advantage to be very detailed,” Whitehead says. “When you’re doing programming, you are told what you need to program, and what the end-user needs and requirements are; you use those requirements to make your program as robust as possible and to limit the number of bugs. Once you say ‘yes, it can be done,’ there’s no such thing as: ‘I can’t do it.’ We take that attitude with event planning.”
Whitehead says the main challenges are knowing the culture, the correct legal procedures and the political situation of the country in which the meeting or event will take place. “You have to know the people participating and how to deal with vendors and other people … how to do things effectively without offending people. Things work differently. You have to take advantage of U.S. government agencies. There are a lot overseas and they foster Americans doing business in other countries; they have company information on vendors and other resources. You have to make sure they have good references.”
Whitehead is fluent in Spanish, and can greet people in French, Mandarin Chinese and some African dialects, but she mostly does business with people who can speak English. “That’s one of the benefits of the 12 countries we work with,” she says. “We have business and social contacts there, and they give us real-time information about what’s going on, things we need to know, and where we should avoid.”
Before sending clients overseas, Global Organization and Planning Services holds orientations so that clients can understand cultural differences and avoid potential pitfalls, thereby increasing their chances for success. “The biggest thing is misinterpreting how they respond to things,” Whitehead says. “[Overseas] they may use certain verbal gestures [Americans understand], but they mean a completely different thing. People tend to avoid confrontation in third-world countries … they’re not as direct as Americans can be, especially when it’s something negative.”
Security always is a consideration, Whitehead says. They do not do business in countries at war or divided by civil strife. With conferences, private security is hired, especially when there are dignitaries involved. “One thing that makes it easier is having private drivers, so they don’t have to rely on public transportation,” Whitehead says. Part of every client orientation involves a lesson on the target destination’s climate of crime: what neighborhoods are best avoided, things that can be done to protect personal items, and smart procedures for conducting oneself in public.
Whitehead says even domestic-only planners need to broaden their horizons. “Not only are events being planned overseas more, but we have more of an influx of foreigners. People are coming here and establishing business relationships. They are looking for people who understand global culture and who are in a better position to be up on doing business for them here as well as overseas. Understanding culture and the different ways of doing business makes you more [versatile], more flexible, puts you more in a position to be open to everyone and not confined to one way of doing things.” She says doing so will make it more likely that international business people will choose to work with you, and that means more dollars.
This is the first part of a three-part series focusing on planning international meetings. Part two will focus on accommodating international attendees at stateside events.
Case Study: Global Organization and Planning Services
Assignment: Global Organization and Planning Services wanted to organize a group tour of South Africa and The Kingdom of Swaziland, incorporating elements you’d never find on a tourist agenda.
Challenge: “We tried to get the group to meet with Nelson Mandela, but that was the year he stopped meeting with tourist groups and was working on his autobiography or something,” says Vanessa Whitehead, founder and managing director of Global Organization and Planning Services.
Solution: Whitehead decided to arrange a meeting between members of Swaziland’s monarchy and the group. “We did that through workers in the tourism industry,” Whitehead says. “We didn’t met with King Mswati III, but we did get to meet with eight of his wives (it’s polygamy there). We had a secluded dinner with them at a very nice restaurant; they closed it down for our group, and they served us great organic food and wine. And they talked with us about their experience as wives.”
Results: “It was exciting to get that close to royalty,” Whitehead says. “You can’t just come up to them on the street. And they had never done anything like that before; they enjoyed it as much as we did.”