By Molly Brennan, Contributing Editor | Sep 13, 2013
Many North American-based organizations are putting their meetings on the global stage — either holding them abroad or actively recruiting attendees from other countries to come to a meeting on U.S. soil. In this global economy sharing the knowledge of professionals within specific fields or enterprises from around the world is necessary to stay relevant.
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 an international meeting, you’ve got to leave a little slack between events or the seats are going to be empty.”
Morrison agrees that attendees need some downtime between sessions so they can catch their breath and mingle with other attendees. “Yes, they’re here to build their network and do business and learn, but not everyone is going to love this very edgy, high-tech frantic [vibe] we have in the U.S.,” she said. “They’re weary and they need their cup of coffee and a civilized moment and to check with their family. They might want to talk to the presenter or the people they just met. They’re not running straight to the next session.”
6. Consider making space
International attendees’ needs and customs should also be considered when organizing event space. This is particularly true if there will be a large percentage of Muslim visitors, Graham said. “We have prayer rooms at most of our large events, and we’ll put that in our program guide,” he said.
“You need to schedule breaks around prayer times and put a sign on the wall so they know where east is,” Hope agreed. “It’s not a must-do, but it’ s a courtesy. If you don’t do it, they’ll find their own place; but by making it more convenient for them, it shows you’re paying attention to their needs.”
A designated hospitality suite for international attendees is also appreciated. “It’ s a safe zone. They can go in and feel relaxed,” Hope said. “If they’re relaxed, they become flexible and forgiving of any other mistakes.”
Finally, don’t forget that much of the world still smokes — and a frustrated, nicotine-craving attendee is not a happy attendee. “Europeans and Asians smoke. But you come to a U.S. venue and there’s no smoking anywhere,” Hope said. “You have to communicate where the designated smoking area is and make sure they know where it is. Then make sure they’re not just shoved out on the back dock. Make sure it’s an accommodating area.”
7. Research dietary needs
Some of the most common cultural slips are those involving food-and-beverage. Many organizers are sensitive to religious dietary restrictions and know they must have vegetarian options, avoid serving pork to Muslim attendees, and make sure there are nonalcoholic beverages. However, there can still be gaffes. Eyring notes that many sauces contain alcohol, and those can derail the most carefully selected and culturally conscious menus.
It's important to consult with the chef or caterer to make sure everyone understands which ingredients and food items are taboo.
Beyond the food and drink, the organization and pacing of social events are important to consider, Morrison said. “When you’re in a convention, you often have these very large tables that make it hard to talk with anyone besides who’s right next to you. I would make the tables smaller and give them more time for the meal,” she said. “Forget that it’s harder to serve small tables; the attendees will get more out of it.”
Also, think hard about opening and closing parties. “Often, we create these events with a band that we think is going to be very fun and relaxed. Because we’re loud, we think that’s great, but the noise levels can be abominable for people from other cultures,” Morrison said. “Maybe put the sound as a backdrop, but not as the function of the evening.”
8. Formality Matters
Finally, when in doubt about how to communicate with your international attendees, err on the side of formality, experts agree. “It drives people from countries that put a great emphasis on hierarchical order crazy when a name badge has only the person’s first name,” Weaver said. “At the least, make sure you include both first and last name. Making it too casual is not a good idea.”
Be especially mindful of this when introducing speakers, he added. “I’ve had people say This is Gary,’ and be very casual with the introduction. I have no problems with that, but if people in the audience are from non-Western cultures, they see a person with a beard and gray hair and to them that introduction is an insult,” Weaver said. “We think we’re making them feel comfortable by being very casual, but we’re actually making people from other cultures very uncomfortable. They’re far from home, they don’t know the rules, and then the formalities that they’re used to have been pulled away. That doesn’t make them relaxed.”
At its root, that’s what protocol is all about — making people comfortable, Weaver said. And that’s why protocol is relevant to all international meetings, even those that have no dignitaries or official delegations in attendance. If people know who will speak first (the most senior person) and how they will be greeted (formally and with deference), it puts them at ease. “Protocol is very important, because what protocol does is eliminate surprises,” he said. “At a meeting or conference, it’s to make things move along smoothly. If it’s done well, you don’t even notice; everything just seems to move smoothly.”
9. Find common ground
For some very global organizations, such as ICCA, which attracts 70 nationalities to its annual congress, asking people to leave at least some of their own customs at the door might be the best route to cross-cultural understanding, Sirk said. “We have to create our own cultural environment,” he said, “so that the ICCA culture is not viewed as European or American or Dutch.
“We work very hard and quite consciously at defining and creating a style that exemplifies our organization. We then use that as a bridge between nationalities so nobody has to go so far from their own business culture into someone else’s business culture. Instead, everyone is invited to join our business culture,” Sirk said. “It requires an organization to think about what is special about that organization, then highlight those elements and turn those elements into the association’s own protocol.”
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