Previously appearing in the December 2008 issue of Association Meetings magazine. Co-written by Michael Payne, Smith Bucklin and Peter Turner, MCI.
Financial planners will tell you that trying to “time the market” to buy or sell stock is a recipe for failure. You need to follow a plan according to your personal needs, coupled with long-term horizons.
This approach is also appropriate today as we look at whether, and how, to run international meetings. Although today’s economic climate has created some major challenges, many organizations are still implementing and/or planning international events – both in the United States and around the world.Associations and companies often seek to expand their international footprints to benefit from the ever-growing global marketplace of products and services. They know that, while the market may be flat in the United States, opportunity may be quite good in Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia or even Latin America. For example:
- The World Bank’s 2008 “Doing Business Index” of leading indicators ranks Central and Eastern Europe as the best places for business growth – especially new business.
- The World Economic Forum’s 2008 “Global Competitiveness Index” provides high marks to several moderate Arab countries that represent excellent emerging market private sectors, free market principles and more relaxed local regulations.
- The World Economic Forum’s 2008 “Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index” rates destinations like Hong Kong and Singapore higher than Holland, Belgium, China or India.
To increase chances for success with international expansion, local issues need to be addressed. They range from choosing the right local market to enter and the right local service providers to knowing which obstacles can be avoided. International events can provide important returns but they require more effort and flexibility than domestic meetings.
Following are some key guidelines for helping to conduct a successful international event in today’s economy:
Sell them what they need, not just what you have to sell
Whether your organization has a history of activity in a given region of the world or is looking for ways to enter a market, you need an event strategy based on serving local customer, partner or member needs, expectations and outcomes. This may require adapting your content, promotions and event schedules in ways that may be new to you. Include local stakeholders in the development of your event’s strategy to help “market test” your design.
Understand and navigate local market opportunities and barriers
Government policies that hinder the free flow of travel will create problems if you don’t know how to work around them. Look for more open, accessible and business-travel-supportive destinations. Also, make sure your destination decision is based less on glossy, alluring brochure photos and more on logistics considerations such as visa and import restrictions; the likely delays/costs on products arriving for trade shows and other events; customs controls; and waiting times at airports.
Excessive restrictions and controls create disincentives for travelers and discourage international participation at events. Of course, the irony is that these policies end up costing the same governmental entities substantial dollars in lost business opportunities and tax revenue.
Also, rely upon appropriate and objective third-party information sources to gauge a country’s support of regulations and ethical and pro-business practices (specific to your industry and travel and business tourism in that location), as well as the prevalence of good infrastructure and a large quantity of quality local service providers. We recommend using the World Bank, World Economic Forum and Transparency International.
Find ways to mitigate your risk
There are many risks involved in planning international events. Following are some common risk factors, as well as some ways to mitigate them:
- Currency fluctuations – Meeting revenues should be collected in the currency of the event country since you will pay expenses in the same currency. If you have offices in that region, you should use profits to support local efforts. Otherwise, keep proceeds in a foreign bank account to help with future events. If repatriating funds is desired, it is good to buy a currency hedge to lower exposure.
- Travel costs – Airline capacity reductions and rising ticket costs are continuing to impact the industry worldwide. Ensure that a location has the necessary air travel infrastructure and a reasonable schedule and pricing.
- Registration offerings – The depressed economic climate will likely require even more proactive programs and incentives in order to encourage registration and attendance. Attendees, exhibitors and/or sponsors must anticipate a return on their investments of time and money to commit to an international experience – even more so than a domestic event. The tighter the economy, the more questions they will ask: Should I attend? Can I afford to exhibit? Can I send fewer people from my company? Should I stay as long? Organizers have to be able to address those concerns in a proactive and measurable fashion to ensure participation.
- Cultural differences – Develop a plan based on expected audience delegation size and needs and have interpreters and/or select translations of content available. Get advice from volunteer leaders or local partners.
- Contract negotiations – Secure good local partners who know the market and who may offer influence as a volume purchaser to help you before, during and after contract negotiations.
- Co-locate or partner – Share costs to help lower risk.
- Resell opportunity – Repackage the most popular content from an event as a residual sales product available via the Internet to generate more revenue for little extra cost.
Hire local experts with the right experience
Finding the right local talent with expertise and experience in key value-added areas can mean the difference between profit and loss while also reducing your time spent managing challenges that you may not anticipate on your own. For example, through the SmithBucklin + MCI Global Partnership, SmithBucklin client organizations are able to tap into the regional marketing and meetings/events expertise of MCI’s 31 offices in 20 countries around the world. This gives clients instant access to locally relevant marketing and promotion, event planning, PCO (Professional Congress Organizer) and Ovation Global DMC (Destination Management Company) services.
Areas in which partners with good local knowledge and expertise can have a major positive impact include market research, sponsorship development, destination management, housing, currency risk, registration and meeting logistics. Involving a partner with experience marketing to a certain region is particularly important since ineffective marketing and promotion is often the greatest barrier to achieving event goals.
Be present in the region everyday
Would you want to buy a product or service from a foreign company or a membership from a foreign association that did not have a presence in your region? What if that company or association tried to conduct business in another currency other than your own? Likewise, how would you feel if that company or association never tried to work with you locally to adapt products or services to your needs, or bombarded you with promotions that didn’t accommodate cultural differences? You would be less likely to buy their products or services or join their association.
If you are serious about growing globally, you need to have a solid understanding of the region you are targeting. You need local experts with the right functional expertise, whether that involves adapting strategy for membership and products to the region, creating locally relevant products or membership benefits, or managing revenues and expenses in local currency. In short, it is all about building relationships. You cannot do that by just holding periodic meetings in the region to placate the locals.
As you consider the opportunities your organization may have around the world, make sure you are not making decisions on impulse but rather based on sound management practices that reduce your risks while increasing the likelihood for a successful meeting. Ask yourself what business goals you want this meeting to achieve for the region after the event concludes. Have a plan. Focus on the long term. And remember, position your organization for the opportunities that are available and be the first to benefit when a local regional market rebounds.