A World of Difference in International Meetings

By Hayley Panagakis, April 6, 2015

Ignorance definitely is not bliss for planners expecting international guests at a future meeting. Without prior knowledge of guests’ customs, planners can miss opportunities to make attendees feel welcomed—or worse, accidentally offend someone on the basis of tradition, heritage or religion. This was one concern Dr. Lemuel Berry, executive director of National Association of Hispanic and Latino Studies & Affiliates, kept in mind as he was planning the group’s 2015 national conference, which gathered more than 1,100 scholars from around the world to Crowne Plaza Executive Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in February. Connect’s Hayley Jones spoke with Berry about his past experiences, cross-cultural anxieties and advice for planners anticipating global attendance.

How do you welcome international guests on-site?

We tend to line the entrance leading from the hotel lobby to registration with flags. It looks really cool, but there’s a downside: When international guests come through and the see the flags, they look for their country’s flag. If it’s not there, you might as well have gotten a gun and shot yourself in the foot. But when they see their flag, their reaction is overjoyed. They don’t expect it—even the Americans don’t expect it.

What’s a major challenge you face in trying to accommodate so many different cultures at your conference?

We’re very concerned when an event is held during a special time of year—for instance, over Ramadan. One year, we contracted Muslim chefs from a different facility to prepare and deliver the food for Ramadan observers. Those who are of Muslim belief cannot eat certain foods during Ramadan, and the food has to be prepared by a Muslim. We ask [the hotel] about the diversity of its staff and chefs. We assume they can all cook, but when you’re dealing with different religious groups, it’s important to understand what’s expected within that culture.

Have cultural differences ever caused an issue during one of your events?

We had a Chinese man who won a door prize that was wrapped in red paper. He kept saying, “Oh, no. Keep it. No problem. Keep it,” during a big reception, and everyone was telling him, “Take the door prize!” The reason he didn’t want it was because it was wrapped in red paper, and that’s a sign of bad luck in his culture. He’s was thinking, “Keep it. Unless there’s a million dollars in that box, I don’t want it.” You can call it superstitious, but you don’t want to give Chinese attendees gifts that are wrapped in red paper. Now, we don’t wrap door prizes at all, and it saves us a lot of time. Instead, we make little baskets and we don’t have to worry about the cultural differences.

What concerns do you think international guests have about coming to the U.S. for a meeting?

If you travel to a foreign country, you hear more negative things about the United States and its level of violence. For example, I went to Tibet and Thailand, and the locals began asking me, “Why does the U.S. let children have guns? Why don’t the parents say, ‘The bedroom is our room and you never go in our room?’”

How do you ensure international attendees they’ll be safe on-site?

Someone is going to ask if this a secure environment. As a planner, you have to be prepared to share that upfront with your group. For example, I have a group that’s coming in from China, and they’ve already had conversations with me about security. I’ve said, “You’re going to love the place. It’s a very clean environment. The people are friendly and you can walk the streets at night.” I told them that because I know they’re going to say, “Oh, it’s safe.” You find ways of letting them know that it’s going to be secure.

What advice would you give to planners expecting international guests at their meetings?

Planners should get their staff together and make sure everyone is aware of the do’s and don’ts. They should also meet with anyone who’s going to play a major role. For instance, to prepare for the folks who coming from China, I’ve already met with our food service, Sodexo, and they already know we cannot have red napkins on the table. Try to know the group’s culture and make sure that your infrastructure—your board members, planning committee and hotel staff—know the expectations.

What tips would you give to a coordinator planning an event in a different country?

First, make sure you have the right partner. If someone says they want to help and they have contacts, it might seem nice on the surface, but you need to research the person who’s volunteering to find out if they really have the skills and infrastructure to give assistance. You can lose a lot of money working with someone who means well but doesn’t have the resources.

Second, I recommend the person do his or her homework in the U.S. Find out about the hotel and the convention and visitor’s bureau, and get some feedback from other groups who may have traveled to that country or held an event there before.

Third, travel to the country. It’s a must that you see the facilities in person. I was in India five months ago and the airport was great, but 20 yards from town—as you’re exiting the airport—there was massive poverty. I’ve never seen poverty so close to any major facility. When we got to the hotel, it was gorgeous, but if you stood outside at the main entrance, 100 yards away, you’d see poverty. I think it’s very important planners travel to a country and evaluate, asking themselves, “Is this going to be a good site, and how will my clientele feel about it?”

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