Attracting International Attendees to the West

By: Linda C. Chandler

Proximity to the Pacific Rim has made Western U.S. cities attractive for international events. But CVBs and association meeting planners know that a positive experience involves more than a shorter flight.

According to the Department of Commerce, 2010 was a good year for global travel. International visits to the United States were up 11 percent in the first 10 months of the year and spending was up as well. That growth is slated to continue through the next five years with the largest increases in visitor volume expected to come from China, Brazil, Korea, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Australia. Where are all those travelers headed? Largely West: Los Angeles, Honolulu, and San Francisco are among the top ports of entry in the United States, and Vancouver, British Columbia, is becoming a favorite destination as well thanks in part to its experience hosting the Winter Olympics. Considering that the U.S. Travel Association estimates international travelers spend, on average, five times more than domestic travelers, things are looking up for cities in the West that can draw international visitors, whether for business or leisure.

So, What Brings You Here?

Meeting planners and destination marketers agree that the appeal of the host city itself is a key factor if an association wants to draw international attendees. Of course, the West is full of big cities with plenty of name recognition, but relatively smaller destinations such as San Diego, Seattle, and Portland are also growing in popularity for conventions.

"The decision to attend a conference falls into two areas—content of the program and appeal of the destination," says Tom Anderson, CMP, manager of conferences and events for the Technology Services Industry Association, based in San Diego. Anderson says TSIA's Technology Services World conference is "strictly business and program content with no entertainment" and meets at the Mirage because it's one of the few places in Las Vegas where attendees do not have to pass through the casino on the way to the conference. But he acknowledges that attendees return to Vegas year after year because the experience is different each time, with a variety of food and entertainment options during off hours. International participants from 22 countries account for 15 percent of his trade association's conference attendance.

Ease of getting to a destination also plays a role in international attendance: If flights are limited and scheduling becomes a problem, you can expect fewer international attendees. Airports must also have a user-friendly port of entry, with well-run customs checks and personnel who know how to handle international travelers, including group tours. Top airports in the West have proven they are up it. "Many Asian participants travel through group-tour operators for conventions," says Janet Skorepa, associate executive director, education and scientific meetings, for the American Urological Association (AUA). "We work closely with them to ensure they are booked into the association's room block," she says. "We have a separate group registration area onsite where groups can pick up their badges and registration materials as well as get assistance with changes or special requests. We also meet with travel planners during the meeting to ensure they have what they need and to discover what we can do better next time. It's all about customer service."

When AUA met in San Francisco last June, about 58 percent of professional attendees were international visitors primarily from Japan, China, and Korea. "Our Asian attendance usually increases when we meet in San Francisco," Skorepa says.

Content is critical for international attendees too. The American College of Chest Physicians held its annual conference last year in Vancouver, and international attendance was between 30 and 38 percent. Paul A. Markowski, CAE, executive vice president and CEO, says, "CVBs in San Diego, Hawaii, and Vancouver, for instance, do a better job marketing to the Pacific Rim and have helped drive turnout for ACCP. However, our value for international participants is the opportunity to learn from their colleagues, to present as expert faculty, and to share successes and best practices with other professionals. We try to combine top-notch education with top-notch locales, good airlift, and reasonable costs."

"Risk management is a global profession. Our delegates are savvy travelers," says Salvatore J. Chiarelli, director of meetings and events for RIMS–The Risk Management Society. He agrees that a focus on strong content in educational sessions and good networking opportunities help attract international attendees. RIMS will meet in Vancouver for the first time this year and will be in Los Angeles in two years. Chiarelli says San Francisco and San Diego are also strong draws on the West Coast.

International attendees also see the value of a weaker dollar. "With a weak U.S. dollar," says Chiarelli, "this is a great time for reaching out to international markets because traveling is more cost effective for them." That was the case for the American Academy of Periodontology (AAP), which met in Honolulu last year. "The yen-to-dollar value made attending such a good deal that we might not be able to duplicate that kind of success in the future," says Alice DeForest, executive director.

International Marketing

Meeting planners use their association's convention website not only to engage and encourage international participation but also to help participants with the logistics of getting to the United States. Skorepa says AUA provides an online guide for international travelers, including links to visa information and a letter of invitation attendees can fill out to submit with the application. RIMS has an extensive targeted email-marketing campaign. "Most important for international participants is having information to them early so they can plan ahead," says Chiarelli.

TSIA is especially tech savvy, sending emails and biweekly newsletters, using Google Analytics to learn who visits its websites, and cleaning its database regularly to ensure communications reach the best prospects. Anderson says, "Our portfolio of member benefits includes a number of conference passes that can be used at any of our events during the year, but they expire annually. Goods and services providers also advertise their presence at upcoming exhibitions. We promote our European event at the U.S. event and vice versa, and our leaders play a role in promoting it at corporate events."

AAP's DeForest found Honolulu's CVB especially helpful for its meeting there last year. In addition to manning a large preview exhibit at the previous year's event, the Hawaii Convention Center created microsites for the conference in several Pacific Rim languages and developed an iPhone application with conference information and links to exhibitors and programs. DeForest says that helped bring 835 attendees from Japan and almost 100 from Taiwan and other Asian countries to the island.

For AAP and others, international outreach isn't limited to pitches to attend conferences. "The AUA's outreach doesn't occur only during annual meetings; it is year round," says Skorepa. "Subspecialty societies and other international societies—Japan, France, India—meet in conjunction with our conference. We have exchange programs, and key U.S. members attend the meetings of parallel societies and subspecialty groups in Japan, Europe, Brazil, and elsewhere. We trade links on websites and exhibit at one another's shows."

Similarly, for its meeting in Vancouver last year, ACCP partnered with the Canadian Thoracic Society, says Markowski, and used a mix of marketing approaches for other international attendees.

A Warm Welcome

AAP's marketing success for its Honolulu conference resulted in a pleasant surprise: Around 250 registrants showed up without preregistration. With the presence of so many international attendees, AAP changed its usual exhibition policy and allowed buyers to purchase on the floor. "The Japanese took advantage of it and 'swamped' the booths, helping to bring more ROI for our exhibitors," DeForest says.

TSIA hosts a networking reception for international attendees, and a VIP dinner includes "everyone with a title of vice president or above, regardless of where they're from," says Anderson. TSIA already hosts a separate European conference and anticipates it may eventually hold an Asian event. "But for now, they want to come here to hear what U.S. companies are doing. We work closely with the Las Vegas CVA to ensure all our international attendees' needs are met—group dining venues, post tours and such," Anderson says. RIMS has responded to special requests of international groups, assisting with appointments at area businesses so they could get firsthand knowledge of how U.S. companies handle risk management, crowd management, and other issues.

Regardless of how international visitors participate, says AUA's Skorepa, paying close attention to cultural norms is important. "Recognizing more formal business practices exist in Asian countries, the AUA sends formal invitation letters from U.S. leaders to leaders of international societies and delegations. Key leaders also formally welcome the delegations onsite and tell them how we value their contributions to our program. As an inclusive organization, we extend a spirit of appreciation to all our participating groups."

Linda C. Chandler is a freelance writer and editor based in Tyler, Texas. Email: [email protected]

Linda C. Chandler