Even as some critics suggest that the United States isn’t as friendly as it might be toward international attendees, U.S.-based CVBs are aggressively courting their business- and planners are figuring out how to make their travel experience as painless as possible.
In October 2010, a delegation representing the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau (GHCVB), city officials, and leaders of Houston’s energy and economic development industries traveled to Beijing to make a final pitch to host the 2014World Petroleum Congress (WPC). It was the culmination of a six-month effort to nab the prestigious event, which brings together heads of state, global oil and gas executives, thousands of attendees, and hundreds of exhibitors. WPC would result in $12 million in local economic impact and about 41,000 room nights, according to Jorge Franz, GHCVB’s vice president of tourism and international group sales.
Houston edged out Bogota, Colombia, in the first round of voting. But in the end, the prize went to Moscow, which bested Houston by just four votes. The voting delegates were concerned, Franz was told, that international attendees - particularly the many who would be coming from the Middle East—might face difficulties in obtaining visas for travel to the United States, and that is why Moscow got the nod.
Coming to America
Houston’s failed bid is an example often cited by travel and tourism professionals who are frustrated with U.S. visa policies and the country’s climate for international meeting attendees - which, they say, represents a fraction of the lost economic opportunity that’s resulting from the perception of the United States as an unwelcoming destination for global business travelers. Specifically, critics point to long wait times for visas in countries like Brazil and China, two of the fastest-growing travel markets, and a laborious—some say degrading—application process that requires applicants to prove they have no emigration plans.
Indeed, capturing the travel dollars of the BRIC countries— Brazil, Russia, India, and China—is especially vital for international meetings and conventions, as the “big four” are near-bursting with advanced economic development. In the coming years, compound annual growth in business-travel spending in the BRIC countries is projected to be two to three times higher than in developed economies like the United States and Germany, according to a report from the Global Business Travel Association.
Precluding international attendees from traveling to the United States is akin to hanging a sign on the door that says, “Closed for business,” said Patricia Rojas, vice president of government relations for the U.S. Travel Association. She and other reform proponents argue that maintaining national security and easing entry policies are not mutually exclusive. Rather, by facilitating the process for people with legitimate business travel to the United States, consular staff can dedicate more time and attention to those who might pose credible security and immigration threats.
Some industry observers point to the United States’ recent lifting of its HIV-entry ban as a clear example of how entry policies affect a country’s ability to attract international meeting attendees. In 1987, the United States began barring HIV-positive travelers from entering the country; soon after, the International AIDS Conference adopted a policy that prohibited the meeting from being held in a country with such a policy, and for 21 years, the leading minds in AIDS research and science—and about 30,000 attendees— convened elsewhere. When the United States lifted the ban effective January 2010, the news was immediately greeted with the announcement that the 2012 International AIDS Conference would be held in Washington, D.C.
As for current entry policies, officials from the U.S. State and Commerce departments counter that recent changes have improved the situation - wait times for Chinese visa applicants, for example, are down significantly—and that the United States is well positioned to capture the global tourism market. What’s more, government representatives and some meeting professionals contend that the current climate is not as bad as perceived—and that ongoing education can dispel myths about travel hassles and boost international attendance.
So what’s a meeting professional who wants to attract an international audience to a U.S.-based event to do? Take the advice of those in the trenches who are successfully recruiting international attendees in the current environment: Do your homework, start early, and be proactive.
Visas and Visa Waivers
For entry into the United States, all citizens of foreign countries must have a nonimmigrant visa for temporary stay. The exception is nationals from the 36 countries that are part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), who can travel to the United States for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa. VWP countries include Western European nations, Japan, and South Korea.
All other foreign visitors, including those from the BRIC nations, must obtain a visa from the U.S. embassy or consulate office in their home country. Most international attendees require a Business Visitor Visa (B-1); all B-1 applicants must submit a visa application, present a valid passport, pay a processing fee, and have an in-person interview - a security measure implemented in 2003—at the embassy or consulate within their country. The interview requirement has led to increased processing time across the board, and especially long wait times in those countries with growing economies and increased outbound travel. Between 2000 and 2010, visa requests in India, Brazil, and China increased 110 percent. The current wait time for a visa interview in Sao Paolo is 99 days, plus another seven days for visa processing.
Although travelers from VWP countries make up the majority of international visitors to the United States, recent statistics reflect the shifting global economy. In 2010, visitation from China increased 53 percent over 2009 (221 percent over 2000), according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, while visitation from Brazil increased 34 percent over 2009. In Washington, D.C., Brazilian visitors accounted for 5.5 percent of the city’s 1.74million international visitors—up nearly 40 percent over 2009. And although international travelers made up 10 percent of the city’s international visitors, they accounted for 25 percent of total spending.
“The way that we, as a country, look at the visa process and at the international visitor needs to be adjusted,” Rojas said. “We need to be thinking about this as a job-creation engine for the United States.” Increasing the number of overseas visitors to more than 40 million—up from 26.4 million in 2010—would create up to 500,000 new jobs, Rojas said, and generate up to $60 billion in additional exports annually.
Going After International Business
Recognizing the potential of these emerging markets, more convention and visitors bureaus are actively pursuing international meetings. GHCVB, Destination DC, LA INC., and the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau (CCTB) all have full-time staff devoted to international sales. “About three years ago we decided we wanted to break into the international meetings market,” Houston’s Franz said. “This is where the future is.”
CCTB recently hosted a mission trip to China to help key clients identify exhibitors and potential attendees, while NYC & Company met with the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou to stress its desire to attract Chinese attendees. For its part, Destination DC exhibits at international trade shows, organizes media and sales missions worldwide, and conducts research in the international association market, said Claire Etches, Destination DC’s international convention sales manager. Destination DC also works to identify local leaders who are influential in their own professional organizations and can work with the CVB to attract major international events.
With its Pacific Rim location, the largest Chinese community outside of China, and the added boost of two daily nonstop flights from Beijing to LAX, Los Angeles is especially committed to the international market. LAINC. has 10 people working in international locations and another 20 state side employees dedicated to international markets, according to Michael Krouse, CMP, CASE, CHME, senior vice president of sales and services. The CVB opened a Beijing office five years ago to serve the huge Chinese travel market, and staff there can offer meeting attendees help with the visa process. The efforts seem to be paying off. In the first half of 2011, Los Angeles saw its number of Chinese visitors increase 17 percent over 2010.
For planners interested in tapping into the Chinese market, LAINC. offers international marketing and public-relations assistance - and, Krouse said, can help boost international attendance by 10 to 15 percent. “We have an established presence in those markets,” he said, “and we know how the system works.”
Maintaining a global perspective with a local focus is the key, according to Franz, which is why GHCVB plays up its homegrown talent as a draw for international meetings. Franz recently returned from the 2011 ICCA Congress in Leipzig, Germany; traveling with him were several leaders from the Houston-based Texas Medical Center. “They spoke to what Houston has to offer in terms of being a leader in the medical world,” Franz said, “and in terms of potential for knowledge and information-sharing.” GHCVB is also developing an ambassador program, which would identify key individuals who live in the Houston area and are on the boards of major medical associations. Franz said: “We’re really starting to tap into our local thought-leadership.”
A Call for Change
But no matter how hard a city sells itself to the world at large, it’s all for naught if attendees can’t get into the country. According to a December 2010 report by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), visa issues prevented 2.5 percent of potential international attendees from participating in trade shows and exhibitions in the United States. The main complaints from foreign nationals trying to obtain a U.S. visa were long wait times and cursory interviews that didn’t consider the applicants’ proof of valid business travel. Without visa barriers, the report concludes, total business sales at exhibitions would increase by $2.6 billion, while business sales to U.S. companies would increase by $2.4 billion.
In a May 2011 report, U.S. Travel proposed a detailed plan to reform the visa-application process and grow the U.S. share of the global travel market. U.S. Travel’s recommendations include:
>Increase staffing in embassies and consulates.
>Make it more efficient for travelers to renew visas by developing fast-track or easy-renewal processes wherever possible.
>Offer Saturday and extended interview windows to reduce wait times to 10 days.
>Expand the VWP program.
“We’re not asking for security to be lowered or changed,” Rojas said. “What we’re saying is, ‘Vet this individual, but we don’t think making someone wait 100 days is going to make your vetting any more accurate.’”
In September 2011, the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board—a group of travel and tourism industry leaders assembled by the Secretary of Commerce - presented its own set of recommendations, which included establishing a maximum wait time of five days for visa-processing and adding a few hundred visa-processing officers in key emerging countries.
Together, the two proposals capture the current mood of many meeting and travel professionals. “This is a key issue in terms of the United States’ ability to stay competitive—nothing short of that,” Franz said. “We’ve always touted the fact that we have the best research, the best minds, and there’s no question that people want to come here and experience that. But if we continue down the path [of] making it difficult get into the United States, we’re simply going to lose this business.”
The Official Response
While industry advocates push for reform, government officials say they’re already addressing most of their concerns. “We understand the key role travel and tourism play in the national export initiative,” said Helen Marano, director of the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, “and I think we’re in the best position ever to take advantage of the explosive growth.” Likewise, David Donahue, deputy assistant secretary for visa services at the State Department, said that U.S. embassies and consulates in high-volume countries have extended hours in order to conduct more interviews. And in Brazil and China, a non-career foreign-service hiring program is being piloted to bring in more visa processors.
It’s important to note, said Thomas Ramsey, non-immigrant visa chief at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, that plenty of visas are being processed. Between October 2010 and September 2011, U.S. consular officers adjudicated a record-breaking one million visas in China - an increase of more than 34 percent over the last year, and double the number of visas adjudicated five years ago. “Nearly 90 percent of all Chinese nationals who apply for a visa,” Ramsey said, “are issued [one] upon application.”
Donahue and Marano also point to the State Department’s Business Visa Center (BVC) as an example of how the government is helping minimize visa issues for international attendees. The BVC provides information to U.S. companies about the visa application process and can work with both the companies and the consular offices, when needed, to communicate information between U.S. businesses and the embassies and consulates world-wide. Last year, the BVC handled 3,500 requests. Meeting professionals can also register upcoming international conferences on a BVC list that is accessible by U.S. consular offices around the world, which can help verify if applicants have legitimate reasons for travel.
In addition, Donahue said, the State Department is currently in negotiations to extend Chinese visitors’ visas to multiyear visas. (Current policy precludes the United States from granting Chinese visitors a multiyear visa unless China provides the same to U.S. visitors.) “Even if we extended it to a two-year visa, that’s 200,000 applications we wouldn’t need to process,” Donahue said. “Those are 200,000 slots that could be freed up to help us process the first-time travelers.”
These efforts are helping create amore visitor-friendly climate, and shouldn’t go unrecognized, said Joel Secundy, vice president of strategic outreach for Brand USA (formerly the Corporation for Travel Promotion). “There’s been a lot of criticism of the visa program, but we haven’t done a fair job of recognizing all the work that has happened and that is already having an impact on our outlook,” Secundy said. “The market is very positive right now and people want to come here. We just need to make sure we continue doing everything we can to educate them and raise awareness about how they can enter the country properly.”
What Can You Do?
Amid all this debate, experienced international meeting organizers say there are steps you can take today - or better, yesterday - to help international attendees. “While there are issues that need to be looked at, there is a lot of ground work that we, as show organizers, can do to make it easier for our customers to get visas and gain entry,” said Karen Chupka, senior vice president of events and conferences for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA),which organizes the gargantuan International Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
The first step is to recognize the importance of the global market and commit to spending time helping international attendees with visa issues. “It’s just the cost of doing business right now,” said Steven Graham, associate executive director of the Houston- based Offshore Technology Conference, which attracts more than 78,000 attendees annually, including 20 percent from outside the United States - many of them from non-VWP countries. “We’d like to see things open up a bit to make it easier for people to participate, but we can’t just wait for that to happen.”
Brad Mandell, executive director of FIME, an international medical products show, agrees. “If it’s important to have international attendees,” he said, “you have to dedicate the time.” About half of FIME’s 13,500 attendees come from outside the United States, including more than 600 from China and more than 500 from Brazil. Mandell has a staff person whose sole responsibility in the months prior to the show is helping inter national attendees with visa questions.
In 2011, the 150,000-attendee International CES drew31,000 international participants—more than 1,300 of them from China. Because the Chinese market is so important, CEA maintains a Beijing office and also brings on temporary staff in the months leading up to the show to help local Chinese prepare for their visa interviews.
The Radiological Society of North America (RSNA),meanwhile, draws nearly 10,000 international attendees to its Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting in Chicago. In 2010, there were 633 Chinese attendees and 455 Brazilian attendees, according to Robert Hope, RSNA’s director of housing, registration, and travel services. Starting about six months before the show, an RSNA staffer begins fielding visa questions and sending official invitation letters to international attendees, which can help applicants show they have a legitimate reason for a visa request. (See “International Relations,” at bottom of page.) RSNA sends about 2,000 such invitations every year, each with the signature of the association’s executive director.
The Beijing embassy’s Ramsey as well as meeting professionals agree that the single-most important advice planners can pass on to attendees is to begin the visa process early. “Encourage your attendees to book interview appointments just as soon as they know they might need to travel,” Ramsey said. To that end, CES’s website states: “Wait times for a visa interview can be several weeks or more in many countries, especially during peak travel periods. With this in mind, we strongly urge you to place your request for a letter of invitation to attend the 2012 International CES as soon as possible.” Reaching out directly to international registrants and potential attendees can also negate concerns and encourage attendance. “Often,” said Destination DC’s Etches, “their perception is worse than reality.”
In truth, said Philippe Fournier, president of the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO),what attendees face in the United States is not much different from what they face anywhere else. “We do have this constraint in many countries, this is not specific to the United States,” Fournier said. “There was a time where lots of people thought, ‘Oh God, going to the States, what a pain.’ This has changed now, because it is the same everywhere.”
Etches points to Washington, D.C.’s successful bid to host the 2018WorldGas Conference, a major international event, as an example of progress. She worked on the year-long campaign to get the meeting, and said an important aspect of Destination DC’s pitch was addressing the visa issue. “I went out of my way to explain the process and answer concerns people had,” Etches said. “I emphasized over and over that we are, in fact, open for business, and it’s not as difficult as you might think.”
The Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), the International Consumer Electronics Show, and FIME all include invitation request forms as well as general information for international attendees on their websites. RSNA’s website includes these tips for successful visa applications: Include a letter of invitation from the meeting organizer.
>When possible, provide proof of professional scientific and/or educational status, society membership, and/or meeting registration.
> Visa applicants are expected to provide evidence that they intend to return to their country of residence. Therefore, applicants should provide proof of binding or sufficient ties to their home country or permanent residence abroad. Visa applications are more likely to be successful if done in the visitor’s home country.
>Applicants should present their entire trip itinerary, including travel to any countries other than the United States, at the time of their visa application.
But simply having a letter of invitation in hand isn’t enough. “The U.S. consular officers evaluate the qualifications of applicants themselves and cannot issue visas based solely on their registration for an event - even a well-known event,” said Thomas Ramsey, nonimmigrant visa chief at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. “One tip for applicants is that they should be able to explain to the interviewing officer, clearly and in their own words, how attending a certain trade show will benefit their company or their professional development. There’s no right answer, but it helps when an officer can see that an applicant has thought through such issues.”
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> CEIR’s report “The Economic Impact of International Non-Participation in the Exhibition Industry Due to US Visa Issues”: http://bit.ly/CEIR-visa-report
> U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Travel and Tourism Industries: http://tinet.ita.doc.gov
>U.S. Department of State Business Visa Center: http://1.usa.gov/business-visa-center