In a global economy, international meetings are critical. But they can be rife with cultural landmines. From registration materials and food-and-beverage to name badges and content, the chances to slip up (at best) and offend (at worst) are many. Here's how to avoid the most common errors.
Here’s what to keep in mind when you invite the world to your meetings:
1. How to make contact
Organizers should start thinking cross-culturally long before attendees arrive at a meeting, said Terri Morrison, an intercultural communications consultant and author of Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, a bestselling business-etiquette guide. All marketing and registration materials should be viewed through a multicultural lens, and organizers should be mindful of even the most innocuous-seeming details, such as colors and graphics, Morrison cautioned. “You need to be looking at all your images and colors to ensure you’re not unintentionally insulting anyone,” she said. “Even the most boring-seeming symbols in your marketing materials can generate the wrong message. You could use a plant or animal — like an owl, that means wisdom to you, but might signify stupidity in some Asian countries.”
If a meeting expects a large number of attendees from a particular country, it may be worth translating registration and marketing materials into those attendees’ language, said Carol Lazier, vice president of membership and international relations at ASPS. About 15 percent of attendees at the ASPS annual meeting are international, with large contingencies from Brazil, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. In years past, ASPS even created country-specific marketing materials with unique content targeted to attendees from South Korea.
If a U.S.-based meeting is expecting attendees from countries that require an entry visa, the conference website is a good place to provide information and support, said Stephen Graham, managing director at the Society for Petroleum Engineers (SPE), which annually co-hosts the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC), one of the largest meetings in the United States in terms of attendance. Of the 105,000 attendees, about 22,000 are international, and many come from the Middle East, according to Graham.
On the OTC 2013 website, there were separate tabs for international attendees and visa information. SPE also worked with in-country consulate offices, as well as the Houston airport authority, to ease the entry process. “Anything you can do to make their application process easier and get them to the conference,” Graham said, “the more willing they will be to accommodate the little slip-ups you might make along the way.”
2. Build a relationship
For many cultures, a mass email declaring, “Registration now open!,” will not suffice, and organizers should plan on a more lengthy and personalized registration process, said Cynthia Nerangis, president of LemonLime Consulting, a global cultural consulting firm. “For relationship-based cultures, such as India, Brazil, and Italy,” she said, “a follow-up phone call after the initial email invitation would be welcome and appreciated.”
Morrison agrees. “A relationship is what you need to get people there,” she said. “We’re very short-term orientation, while most of the world is long-term orientation. You need to demonstrate you’re committed to building a relationship. If you have in-country people you work with, that’s who you use to facilitate the process.”
For some cultures, the invitation and outreach needs to be both personal and appropriately hierarchical. If an association is trying to attract senior-level attendees from China, for example, the outreach needs to come from a high-level member of the host organization, said Pamela Eyring, president of The Protocol School of Washington, which provides protocol and etiquette training to expatriates and diplomats. “Status matters to them. If you’re going to communicate via email, you want to communicate by level,” Eyring said.
“Even if a staffer is authorized to communicate with attendees, you might need to pull in her boss or her boss’ boss as a show of respect.”
The extra outreach may seem burdensome to attract a relatively small number of people, but if growth of an international attendance base is the goal, you have to make an effort to provide these extra touches, said Phelps Hope, CMP, vice president of meetings and exhibitions for the Kellen Company “Most planners these days are focused on the masses and processes, not subsections,” he said. “They’ve got the basics down, but it’s generic. You have to look at what’s appropriate for specific subgroups.”
3. Roll out the red carpet
Getting international attendees in the door is not the same as welcoming them; and for visitors from many cultures, the more formal and official the welcome, the better, said David Adler, CEO and founder of BizBash.com and a protocol and events adviser to the U.S. Department of State. “Have a special banquet for them,” Adler suggested. “You greet them and you take their photographs and add a bit more formality and elevate the welcome.”
Lazier organizes just such an international reception at ASPS’s annual meeting. “We host an international reception for all of our international attendees and include all of our leadership. That provides a very prestigious welcome,” she said. Additional recognition in program materials and opening remarks can go far, Lazier added. “In our opening session,” she said, “we make mention of the fact that we have people from certain countries, and we may ask them to please stand.”
Also, recruit your domestic attendees to be part of the welcome wagon, Hope said. “Utilize your membership base to help attendees feel comfortable,” he said. “Maybe you attach international visitors to a mentor from your membership. If you make a big deal about it and say, ‘We have 47 countries represented, our industry is really growing’ — people get excited and they want to be a part of that.”
4. Customize their experience
When it comes to programming, organizers must walk a fine line between creating customized content and isolating international attendees. “The mistake that I often see is that the international visitors are not exactly ghettoized, but they might be separated in their own track,” said Martin Sirk, CEO of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA). “The international issues should be integrated into the overall program.”
That said, you can’t create meaningful programming if you don’t understand why attendees are there. “The best way to integrate international visitors is to get a more sophisticated understanding of what their motivations are,” Sirk said, “and then try to incorporate some solutions into the congress program.
“It’s interrogating the rationale for why they’re there. Once you know that, you can integrate elements into the program or create small sessions,” he said. “Most organizations don’t ask those questions; they assume people have come for a certain reason, but they haven’t interrogated it. By understanding those elements in detail, a smart organizer can redesign certain aspects of the congress to facilitate that.”
5. Pay attention to pacing
The pace at which organizers present that content should also be considered, said Gary Weaver, executive director of the Intercultural Management Institute at American University. “You have to anticipate that people in some cultures tend to not be as time-conscious as we Americans, so leave a little leeway,” he said. “If it’s