This is the second part of a three-part series focusing on international meeting planning. Part one focused on planning events overseas. Part three will focus on resources available to meeting planners.
“If you’re not global; you’re not going to succeed” says Meeting Professionals International (MPI) President Bruce MacMillan. According to “FutureWatch 2007: A Comparative Outlook on the Global Business of Meetings” — a study conducted by MPI and American Express of client-side planners, meeting management and services professionals, and meeting suppliers — corporate planners are most likely to work for organizations with staff or offices in more than one country (71 percent); 27 percent of all respondents expect the number of countries in which they operate to increase in 2007.
“I think that even if they only plan meetings where they’re based, say in the Midwest … I think their clients or their employers are doing business with companies outside North America,” MacMillan says. “They may have to plan a meeting that’s in Chicago, but a lot of the attendees are from Korea, Japan, the Middle East, Europe … and there will be cultural elements that will impede the process.”
Andjela Kessler, president and chief executive officer of Atlanta-based Incentive Travel and Meeting Inc. has based her business on knowing those cultural elements. She says the biggest difference between Americans and attendees from other countries is that “[Americans] are an individualistic culture: ‘I am very important and what I do, I’m going to do to further myself and my company.’ Many other countries are a group culture, and it’s important that the harmony of the group is preserved: “I’m not going to make the decision; it’s not going to reflect by desires or opinion, it’s going to reflect what’s best for everybody.'”
Kessler’s experiences planning incentive trips, international meetings and group travel for global organizations such as the Coca-Cola Company, Mobil Oil, Seagram, Nestle and Bristol Myers Squibb have given her enough material about cultural differences to write a book, “International Friend,” which has tips on how to connect and do business with people of different cultures.
One of her main pieces of advice is to always conduct orientations overseas with clients prior to departure, especially since tightened security and U.S. Customs procedures may rub international travelers the wrong way. “We’ve had an increase in gripes about the long lines in customs and the rudeness of the agents,” she says. “We’ve had a number of clients decide not to come [to America] because of that… and these are people who have come before, but they had so many complaints from attendees, they decided not to come again.” If attendees are aware of what to expect, it can streamline the process and make it less stressful.
Orientations also should contain information about cultural differences, so they don’t become obstacles to doing business. “If you have a group coming from India into the United States, you may tell them that if an invitation says dinner starts at 8 p.m., then it will truly start at 8 p.m.,” Kessler says. “In their culture, you show up a little late, because if you show up on time they think it makes you look too eager. Japanese coming here are so much more formal, tell them … they will be called by their first name and not to be offended by that. If they give a business card to someone, they can expect that the person may just put it in their pocket, which to them is a great offense. They expect a person to read it and say a few things about it before they put it away.
“We don’t expect them to change their behavior, but I tell them what to expect,” she adds. “It’s up to them whether they want to change their ways.”
The same goes for American hosts, who should be made aware of what guests might expect in the way of greeting, communication, business etiquette and formalities. “Americans are very informal,” Kessler says. “At the same time, they are very politically correct, which irritates some nations. Seniority and rank are not as important here as in … China and Japan. [In America], personal questions are usually taboo, but in cultures like China [they’re] commonplace. Americans have a lot of eye contact. In some cultures, eye-to-eye contact is considered very impolite. Americans are very comfortable with promoting themselves. They talk and show how great and important they are; [in] Japan, humility is a virtue, so the boasting makes them very uncomfortable.” Again, she stresses, the important thing is not to expect hosts or attendees to change who they are, but provide them with information about how their verbal and nonverbal cues may be interpreted.
When planning stateside events, planners should highlight a destination’s unique attributes rather than try to recreate what international attendees can find at home. “The major mistake that domestic planners make is they want to showcase what we have from that country,” Kessler says. “For example, they have Brazilians coming in, and they take them to Fogo de Chao. No matter how good Fogo de Chao is — and I happen to think it is very good — it’s not going to be as good as what they have in Brazil. We must offer them what is indigenous for our region.” This is especially true when meeting in a second- or third-tier destination that has great meeting amenities and facilities, but doesn’t have an international reputation as strong as New York, Miami or San Francisco.
Planners also should pay attention to cultural fixations. Kessler points out that Europeans love “Gone With the Wind,” so that would be a good theme to play up in Southern towns, especially Atlanta. “Japanese love baseball; so you want to … tie an event to a baseball game,” she suggests. Knowing that French baby boomers love American jazz music and that Gen-Next French attendees prefer rap may be helpful when it comes to planning evening entertainment.
So, go the extra mile and bone up on your cross-cultural knowledge. Being globally aware is one planning skill that will be increasingly in demand.
Andjela Kessler also serves on the Plan Your Meetings advisory board. Stay tuned next month for information about the resources and tools available to international-minded meeting planners.