Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

June 16 2016

Preparing for Departure: How Three Global Organizations Approach Cultural Training for Outbound Staff and Volunteers

Alyssa Forsyth, Global Insights & Project Management Coordinator, PCMA


When preparing for a meeting, cultural training may not be prioritized in the same way as selecting a plenary session speaker or promoting attendance. Yet, in an increasingly global industry, cultural training is making inroads. Meetings professionals from three highly internationalized organizations, Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT), Lion’s Club International (LCI), and Rotary International shared important elements of cultural training offered for their staff before arriving on-site at their annual meetings. These three organizations have been offering and evolving their own cultural training program over the past ten years. Here are their approaches, topics discussed, and motivations for offering cultural training for staff.

Training Approaches

MDRT, LCI, and Rotary have each been delivering up-to-date cultural resources and short-term training for staff and attendees before their events. For instance, Rotary offers language classes to staff pre-departure. The classes last 50 minutes during the lunch period and are available in levels 1-3. Korean language courses were most recently made available in the lead up to their 2016 International Convention in Kintex, Korea this past May. Similarly, in 2008, MDRT offered a Japanese language-learning program for staff planning to travel on-site in Chiba, Japan. These lessons were offered once a week, during the lunch hour, over the course of six or seven months.

Presently, MDRT offers more general cultural trainings which are very well attended by staff. This is significant because the trainings, when offered to MDRT, LCI, and Rotary members/volunteers, are completely voluntary. What happens if someone cannot attend a training? In the case of all three organizations, cultural information – pulled from diverse, web sources including the CIA World Factbook, Trip Advisor and in Rotary’s case subject experts – are made available online or shared through internal channels. This way, all of their staff/volunteers have the ability to strengthen their own cultural awareness and competency. Thus, cultural training may be a way to provide staff with an opportunity to stretch themselves and feel empowered on the job.

Topics Worthy of Discussion

A common topic addressed by all three organizations includes “Do’s and Don’ts”. This broad catch-all includes what to wear, recommended immunizations, gesture/behavioral insights, and basic phrases in the non-source language. In short, there is an emphasis on practical knowledge about the host country. Additionally, MDRT shared that they work hard to provide outbound executive committee members with detailed information on membership, the market, and the industry. This information is provided as an e-travel book. Essentially, the objective is to overwhelm the reader with information - what the executives decide to use or apply is up to them. With respect to LCI, the organization’s commitment to due diligence is noteworthy. LCI prepares their staff by providing onsite disaster and emergency response information and pre-loads staff rental phones with telephone numbers for interpreting services.

The importance of disaster related information cannot be stressed enough; LCI’s plan was tested when upon arrival in Japan for a final site visit their team found themselves encountering an earthquake earlier this year. In the case of Rotary, the cultural training is holistic and shaped directly by subject matter experts with firsthand, on-the ground experiences in the host country. These same subject experts help develop content shared with non-North American attendees. For example, Rotary’s most recent meeting was held in Korea. To prepare, staff prepared and presented a 60-minute webinar in Korean for the Korean registrants, and another in Japanese to prepare attendees from these countries for the meeting. The webinar was largely event-focused and designed to help attendees make the most of their time at the convention. Some cultural information was also woven throughout. A distinguishing feature of this webinar, which was made available to attendees and staff via web link, was the use of simultaneous interpretation during the Q&A portion. Communicating with attendees in their source language, really reflected Rotary’s ongoing commitment to making sure information shared is understood by all.

The Driving Force

How does an organization decide to implement cultural training prior to a global meeting or event? One motivation driving the demand for cultural training relates to staff needs and feelings of apprehension. Both MDRT and LCI mentioned holding training to help boost staff confidence – especially among staff whom may be traveling abroad for the first time. Cultural trainings are also offered to help staff dispel cultural misconceptions and avoid awkward or potentially offensive situations. In the case of Rotary, curiosity and a sense of adventure among volunteers truly drove participation in hosted cultural training. Thus, the driving force truly depends on the type of organization and their staff.

A final reason for offering cultural training relates to their organizations’ mission statements. Simply put, for many international organizations – like MDRT, LCI and Rotary – cultural training directly supports their overall big picture, missions and offering such training makes good business sense.  MDRT and Rotary also underscored the role cultural training plays in creating intrinsic value for their members. From an attendee perspective, this added value ensures more meaningful, impactful, and repeat experiences. 

What About Your Organization?

Does your organization offer virtual cultural training opportunities or are you looking to start a cultural training program in the future? Have you participated in a cultural training program that was excellent or one that wasn’t particularly helpful? We would love to hear how your organization approaches cultural training for staff and volunteers. Visit PCMA’s Catalyst community today and share your cultural training best practices by clicking here.

PCMA is always looking for suggestions on newsletter articles, cultural documents, and educational resources our readers would like to see. Contact us at global@pcma.org with your ideas!

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