Going global successfully is part art, part science — and a lot of hard work. In a world without boundaries, companies with international meetings and events must contend with a complex set of requirements. As a result, globalization of meetings has created an enormous need for contacts, knowledge and guidance in the international arena.
Of course, businesses that choose to ‘go global’ with their meetings face myriad strategic decisions as they contemplate their multinational meeting and event experiences. Meeting experts agree that there is no one right way to go global. Strategies will vary with the unique opportunities and environment surrounding each company, meeting or event being organized.
According to Jennifer Nelson, director of Business Development and Global Event Services at American Express Global Business Travel – Meetings & Events in Jersey City, New Jersey, global meetings involve higher levels of logistical coordination — visas, local regulations and police, etc. That can potentially take away time and attention from the attendee experience aspect of the event, which remains on top of the list for event planners.
“An unfamiliar foreign location with little or no existing local network can be a major roadblock in ensuring a high-quality event, the importance of which cannot be understated to engage attendees,” Nelson says. “However, when possible, meeting professionals should rely on their local network of supplier partners in these destinations to help navigate potential issues.”
As Nelson explains, what can make the process more challenging is planning in the midst of economic and political uncertainty, and in an environment where foreign relations can change so quickly.
“Although we can’t predict the future, planners should try to avoid planning meetings in countries or regions that are more vulnerable, or are experiencing tensions with their own base country, to mitigate risk,” Nelson says.
In some cases, accessibility of a global destination can also be a challenge if it relies heavily on airlift into the prospective host city. Seasonal schedules need to be accounted for as well, as this does impact budget. Additionally, as Nelson explains, when reviewing destinations, depending on the size of the event, venue sizes and hotel capacities can be challenging in some destinations. A larger group may be limited to first-tier cities based on the established infrastructure.
“Providing a more valuable experience for attendees remains a struggle across the globe,” Nelson says. “Meetings spend is expected to rise this year, according to the American Express Meetings & Events 2020 Global Meetings & Events Forecast, but we’re still not clear if it will keep pace with demand or rising costs — which means meeting planners will continue to be required to do more with less.”
Aside from air and venue challenges, planners must consider transportation issues, as the movement of a large number of attendees between hotels, venues and convention centers is always a challenge. “Planners must consider the best way to move large groups by understanding a destination’s traffic flow and if there are restrictions on vehicle size in certain international cities,” Nelson says. “Depending on the size of the group and the number of vehicles required, a city may require police escorts to help with transit.”
Jo Kelly, events operations director at CR Worldwide, says one of the main factors to consider is logistics. Getting people and equipment from one place to another has its challenges. “For example, if you have to ship equipment across countries or continents it can get ‘stuck’ in customs and add to time and cost. For people logistics, there are visa considerations for delegates and attendees, which includes allowing plenty of time to get visa applications approved ahead of time,” Kelly says.
In addition, working with different currencies offers challenges aplenty. If you have a global budget in one currency with meetings or events taking place in different countries with different currencies, then budgeting, forecasting and reconciliations can be a bit of a challenge, and there should be a plan to organize this system.
CR Worldwide recently held one of Europe, the Middle East and Africa’s (EMEA) largest data-storage conferences for a client that delivers software, systems and services to manage and store data. Their annual conference aims to engage customers, partners and tech teams as a single community to fuel business growth.
“As Germany was the brand’s biggest market in EMEA, it was a desirable destination to hold the annual four-day conference,” Kelly says. “Berlin was the ideal location as it was easily accessible for delegates from across the EMEA region.” There were 3,600 attendees from 62 different countries, and 92% of attendees downloaded the event app, in a move toward digitalization.
The four main components implemented within the conference were general sessions featuring keynote presentations from executives and external speakers; large scale, live instructor, presenter-led training on technical and solution developments; exhibitions with more than 100 key partners alongside the client’s own field experts; and networking opportunities with peers, partners and leadership.
“Expectation versus reality in certain areas of the world can be difficult, mainly in terms of the quality of products and services, especially with the pressure of maintaining consistency of quality and events across geographical regions,” Kelly says. “Additionally, there are areas that are not as equipped to handle conferences or events as others.”
Sam Marks, CEO of Coworker.com, a platform for finding, booking and reviewing coworking spaces in 171 countries worldwide, says two of the biggest challenges with international meetings are time zone changes and cultural differences. As Marks explains, in a world where we are beginning to expect instant services, such as same-day shipping, it is growing increasingly difficult to wait patiently for responses when you are working in different time zones. Coworker.com has partnered with TEDx, offering TEDx event planners the option to partner with coworking spaces in the worldwide network to not only host their events, but also to help with planning and promotion.
“Even with the best planning, organizing global events can come down to last-minute execution because of the various time zone differences of the participating parties,” Marks says. Additionally, getting used to different cultural intricacies can prove to be quite challenging. Everything from dietary preferences to business etiquette is important to keep in mind as you navigate foreign cultures.”
Every culture and place has its own unique traits. Depending on where you come from, a lot of things add complexities, including language, politics, religion, geography, food and drink or in some cultures, no drinks.
This is why Marks says it is so important to hire local help, or you may not think twice about hosting a wine tasting event in a Muslim country or serving beef to Hindus.
“As an example, our friends at Kilowatt Events have a story about working with a scaffolding company in Abu Dhabi, and the workers would only wear sandals,” Marks says. “In the U.S., OSHA requires steel-toed boots and harnesses in this type of setting. Without proper planning, these rule sets can lead to big trouble for global event planners.”
In addition, there are certain global locales that are far more challenging than others to host a meeting. For example, for people coming from the U.S., organizing an event in the MENA region — the Middle East and North Africa — can be more difficult because many of the countries require obtaining a visa before arriving. Make sure to know the local policies about permissions before organizing an event. Also, be ready to compromise. Make a list of what’s really important to provide to the meeting participants, and what’s desirable but not crucial. Be flexible with the terms that are not crucial for the success of the meeting.
Making Events Memorable
A truly memorable global event is made when all the elements that make a meeting fall into place with balance. The complete experience starts with boarding the plane and ends with the hotel checkout. That’s why it’s also important to offer cultural activities for attendees to experience.
Considering the logistics involved for both meeting planners and attendees who need to travel to international events, it is imperative the meeting or event itself is as memorable as possible. That said, the key to making global events more memorable is to create a unique or personalized experience that deeply resonates with attendees.
“When it comes to international meetings where attendees are likely experiencing a new destination, pulling in local customs and traditions can spark a connection and offer a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Nelson says. “Creating highly personalized experiences with the help of evolving technology and hotel and airline suppliers can also make events truly memorable.” For example, small things, such as using first names for app notifications, to hotel rooms offering preferred amenities or a favorite snack, can make attendees feel more valued. Effective post-event engagement can also be accomplished using a mobile app that allows attendees to give feedback through polling.
Another strategy Nelson suggests event managers adopt is to plan smaller meetings to both meet their budgets and engage more deeply with customers. Smaller events allow for more flexibility in destination, venue, experience design and attendee engagement — offering new opportunities to connect in real and personal ways with their target audience.
Kelly suggests that personalization and multisensory experiences are key to engage and excite attendees. Unique activities, once-in-a-lifetime events and embracing new technology will help take attendee experiences to the next level.
“Start by creating content that tells a story and can relate to the attendees,” Kelly says. “Provide plenty of networking opportunities with speakers, peers and, more importantly, executives/VIPs. Getting valuable face-to-face time with influential people is key to memorable experiences. You can also incorporate ‘surprise’ elements along the way by giving them something they don’t expect at the event to create that element of surprise and an ‘I-wasn’t-expecting-that!’ factor.”
A few common mistakes Nelson says meeting planners make when it comes to orchestrating international events include the following:
• Overspending. This could be due to not proactively managing the event budget and keeping track of expenses or even last-minute production changes, such as additional hours for A/V crew, added equipment like lighting and cameras, etc.
• Failure to determine when traditional holidays/PTO may be occurring in a destination, as this would impact service levels leading up to and during the event, as well as attendee participation.
• Failure to check the availability of common resources in the destinations. For example, the destination city may not have an office supply store that you can access easily.
• Not working with local networks to understand cultural nuances and to provide local language support
Jamie Gelbtuch, founder of Cultural Mixology, says it is important for meeting planners to keep up with current events. For example, a cosmopolitan location such as Hong Kong would not typically present issues; however, the protests there have been going on for six months.
“It’s only been about six weeks, but Santiago, Chile finds itself in the same situation,” Gelbtuch says. “And France is notorious for strikes that shut down transportation systems, museums, etc. It’s impossible to foresee events such as these, but it’s important to keep your finger on the pulse of local situations so that you can adapt event plans as necessary.”
In addition, planners need to pay attention to any communication restrictions in the meeting location. For example, VoIP services such as Skype and WhatsApp are not permitted in the UAE for voice calls. Common social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and sites such as Netflix and Google, is blocked in China. “Sometimes, a VPN network can get around these restrictions, so be aware of each country’s laws,” Gelbtuch says. “VPNs are legal in the UAE, but not in China, where you will incur a fine.”
Looking at the Future
The future of global meetings and events depends largely on the future of global business. Meeting professionals, when surveyed in American Express’ 2020 Global Meetings and Events Forecast, are very optimistic about the meetings and events industry when looking to 2020.
As Nelson explains, while economic and political uncertainty is surging, making the global business environment more tense, meeting professionals are predicting the industry will remain steady into 2020. Time will tell how these factors will impact the volume and scale of global events.
For the meetings and events industry globally, like many other industries, sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) will be growing priorities. “Our 2020 Global Meetings and Events Forecast reveals that increased awareness of climate change is influencing destination selection for global meetings,” Nelson says. “Meeting professionals in several regions, particularly in Europe, are choosing to hold events in local destinations that attendees can get to by train rather than air.”
From a meeting planner’s standpoint, a continued focus for international meetings will be improving on-site experience and providing more value with restricted resources.
And technology is obviously making it possible for people to connect in unique and remote ways, but this has also made real, human, face-to-face engagement even more valuable in this digital era. Of course, with the rise of the remote workforce, many companies realize that, even though they can get business done remotely, it’s essential to have face-to-face meetings once or twice a year.
“I think there will always be a need to get people together to build relationships and connect face-to-face. However, with budgets being cut, pollution and sustainability issues, and the speed at which technology is able to advance, more and more meetings will happen digitally via ‘online-based’ content/live links,” Kelly says. “In the very least, there will be an increasing mixture of live and digital touch points. Technology advances continue at such a fast pace year-after-year, and we see this continuing in the future.”