Successfully Plan and Hold a Meeting Abroad

By: Compiled by Samantha Whitehorne

Planning an overseas meeting presents the same challenges as planning a domestic one—and a whole lot more. Get an inside look at three recent global meetings held by U.S.-based associations to learn how they did it.

Putting together a meeting in your association's home country can be stressful enough. But what happens when you take your event abroad to a country that has a different culture, language, and cuisine and requires attendees, exhibitors, and staff to have passports or even visas? It's a reality more associations face as they expand their reach and strive to make their meetings accessible to people around the globe.

Associations Now spoke to executives at three U.S.-based associations that recently held events on three different continents. Here, they spill the beans on what went into putting together a successful global meeting and offer insights about dealing with challenges that come up along the way.

1. Vienna, Austria: It's All Science

In August 2013, close to 400 attendees gathered in Vienna for the International Society for Experimental Hematology's 42nd Annual Scientific Meeting. There—almost 5,000 miles from ISEH's Chicago headquarters—they learned about the latest research advances in the fields of hematology and stem cell biology.

The Rundown

Association: International Society for Experimental Hematology
Headquarters: Chicago
Meeting name: 42nd Annual Scientific Meeting venue: The Imperial Riding School Renaissance Hotel
Attendees: 382
Countries represented: 31
Speakers: 33

ISEH Executive Director Kimberly Eskew talks about the logistics of planning the four-day European conference.

Associations Now: How was planning this meeting different from how you'd plan one taking place in the United States?

Eskew: Working in Europe is much easier than other countries and continents, but I've learned to keep two things in mind: One is to start planning earlier than you would for a meeting in the United States—probably about six months sooner. The other is to realize that Europe has a lot of holidays, and people will be gone a lot. They work very well with you, but communication can be sparse at times.

They also do their meeting packaging differently than we do here, so you have to budget slightly different. For example, you have to pay room rental fees, and they have delegate packages where food is included. You often supply more food there than you would for a U.S.-based meeting.

What were the biggest challenges and hurdles you had to overcome?

When we change locations it means that we have different sponsors and exhibitors. Since we're smaller, it means that we have a company's local representatives attend and exhibit. Finding and locating those local reps can be a little challenging. We usually rely on the members who are part of our local organizing committee to make sure we are reaching out to the right people.

What would you consider the meeting's biggest successes?

It was a great forum for international discussion. We had over 30 countries represented within our 380 attendees, so the world was truly represented here and allowed attendees to share their scientific research and knowledge. It gave them a platform that would be harder to replicate at our North America or Pacific Rim meetings, which tend to be smaller and not attended by researchers from so many different countries since they're not as easy to get to. Our attendees do see Europe as a "middle ground."

What advice would you give to other associations planning international meetings?

If it's your first time planning an international meeting, my advice would be to try to go somewhere in Europe. These countries most closely align to how meetings in the United States are typically planned and executed. A lot of the bigger hotels in Europe are U.S.-based, so you often have contacts you can reach out to back at home if needed.

Did you know?

44 percent of ISEH conference attendees were post-doc and Ph.D. students, also known as "junior investigators."

How did you prepare staff and attendees for this meeting in terms of travel and other logistics?

There's always select countries that will need special letters in order to get visas, so we have a template for that [and we] link to the country's consulate on our website. For staff and U.S.-based attendees, we make sure to remind them to book travel early and ensure that their passports are valid and ready to go six months ahead of time.

In terms of communication with members, the conference's official language was English, but we do everything in European time and date—so military time and day comes before month. We also eliminate all slang from our conference materials.

2. Panama City, Panama: Take Flight

The International Aviation Womens Association celebrated its 25th anniversary last year 4,250 miles away from its Bel Air, Maryland, headquarters. It convened in Panama, home to the Panama Canal, which also happened to be celebrating a milestone: its 100th birthday. While IAWA has held previous meetings in other international destinations, this was its first in Central America.

The Rundown

Association: International Aviation Womens Association
Headquarters: Bel Air, Maryland
Meeting name: 25th Annual Conference
Venue: Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower
Attendees: 183
Countries represented: 19
Speakers: 30

Jennifer Miller, IAWA executive director and an executive at Stringfellow Management Group, reveals how the organization made the conference one of its most successful yet.

Associations Now: How was planning this meeting different from how you'd plan one taking place in the United States?

Miller: You really have to take into account the local customs and regulations. A lot of times when you're planning a U.S.-based event, you really take that for granted. We wanted to ensure that our attendees had a really positive experience in Panama with the local culture, so there was just a lot more detailed planning that went into it during our site visit. And then we also did another visit after that to go through details like how local traffic patterns were, so we could decide when to take attendees on the offsite visit to the Panama Canal.

What were the biggest challenges and hurdles you had to overcome?

The biggest was the language difference and then the cultural differences. What I've learned from planning this meeting is that in Panama it's really important to have that in-person relationship and interaction in a business setting. We couldn't have that since we are based in Maryland and aren't fluent Spanish speakers. To overcome that hurdle, we hired a local meeting planner. She met with the vendors we were hiring and was able to build that in-person relationship and speak on our behalf.

What would you consider the meeting's biggest successes?

Since it was our 25th anniversary, we did make sure to celebrate our accomplishments, which included a large airplane cake baked by the hotel staff and a new association logo. The other thing I think we did a great job of is allowing our attendees to experience the local culture, both on the property and offsite. Offsite events included our trip to the Panama Canal and a dinner at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building in the historic district, which featured local cuisine and music. Onsite we had different government officials speak as well as a representative from the Panama Canal who's in charge of its expansion.

What advice would you give to other associations planning international meetings?

Use local resources, whether a destination management company or a local meeting planner. It's really helpful. In addition, reach out to other associations that have planned meetings in that location to get some advice. I also found it very helpful to have not only the site visit but also another pre-planning trip to iron out some more details—like the traffic situation—that you can't anticipate until you experience them.

Did you know?

Panama grants 30 days of free health and accident insurance to all visitors.

How did you prepare staff and attendees for this meeting in terms of travel and other logistics?

Our goal is always to provide as much information in advance as we can, whether to staff or attendees. We had information on our website and sent out multiple e-blasts and last-minute "know before you go" tips. We used social media as well. Not only did we provide practical information—travel requirements and links to the government's site—but also tourist information since many attendees extend their trips. We also had that latter information available onsite.

3. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Half a World Away

Imagine trying to plan a three-day, 5,000-attendee meeting in a place that's 9,200 miles away and 13 hours ahead of your home base. Sounds difficult, doesn't it? But that's what Jeanne Malone, CMP, director of meeting services for Million Dollar Round Table, did for the 2014 MDRT Experience, held last February in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The Rundown

Association: Million Dollar Round Table
Headquarters: Park Ridge, Illinois
Meeting name: 2014 MDRT Experience
Venue: Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre
Attendees: 4,971
Countries represented: 32
Speakers: 34

Here, Malone shares how she kept her cool during the planning process.

Associations Now: How was planning this meeting different from how you'd plan one taking place in the United States?

Malone: The one major difference is that we used MCI Asia—an event management company. MCI provided us with not only its meeting expertise, but also its knowledge of the culture, which is invaluable. This helped save some stress on our end and helped to streamline the planning and communications process among all parties.

What were the biggest challenges and hurdles you had to overcome?

The time difference—13 hours—was a huge challenge for us. It just meant that turnaround time was much longer for everyone involved. We had to build in some padding when it came to deadlines and other due dates.

What would you consider the meeting's biggest successes?

We tried a few new things this year. Our general session room was long and narrow, so our staging was similar to a theater-in-the-round setup, which attendees and speakers loved. And then we replaced the traditional exhibit hall with our ConneXion Zone, where we held short presentations and cultural activities concurrently. To keep these activities from interrupting one another, each speaker pod was equipped with headsets for attendees to wear. The cultural activities offered included henna tattoos and fabric painting. We thought this was a good way to help attendees get more acquainted with the Malaysian culture.

What advice would you give to other associations planning international meetings?

It is very important to understand the culture and financial elements of the country where your meeting will take place. We do research to understand the culture in order to work more effectively with the vendors. With the exchange rates ever-changing, it's important to monitor your budget closely.

I'd also suggest working closely with your meeting's hotel as well as the city's convention center and CVB. Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, Malaysia Convention and Exhibit Bureau, and the Grand Hyatt KL all provided exceptional service and knowledge.

Did you know?

Although Malay is Malaysia's official language, English is widely spoken. The influence of the two languages on one another has created a unique creole language, "Manglish" or Malaysian English.

How did you prepare staff and attendees for this meeting in terms of travel and other logistics?

Since the majority of our attendees register in groups from various companies, MDRT's marketing department prepares collateral for our Global Markets Team to take with them … when they meet with these companies. We also provide a cultural overview to all staff traveling to the meeting.

Since our members are quite familiar with the rules and regulations involved with international travel, we are not that concerned with having to ensure that they have the right documentation—passports, etc. But, of course, we do have the information on our website and in our promotional emails.

Samantha Whitehorne is deputy editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Compiled by Samantha Whitehorne