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Getting Through the Red Tape – Planning events on foreign soil: the good, the bad and the government

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Getting Through the Red Tape – Planning events on foreign soil: the good, the bad and the governmentOn Jan. 12, Kaj Arnö received an unexpected lesson in international relations and the power of blogging.

It was the eve of the 10th annual Linux.conf.au, a weeklong technical conference among the largest of its kind in the world – this year scheduled to take place in Hobart, the capital city of Australia’s island state of Tasmania – and Arnö and his Sun Microsystems colleagues looked forward to the gathering. That is, until one of them was denied an entry visa.

This had never been a problem before, and Arnö – vice president of database community for Sun Microsystems based in Munich, Germany – speculated that the reason his colleague had been refused entry to Australia was because they were seen by the Australian government to be competing unfairly with local businesses.

Frustrated, Arnö posted a blog titled "On Open Source and Open Competition in a not-so-Open World," voicing his belief that unfair competition was behind the visa refusal, and lamented that this work was frequently hampered by international legislation.

The blog inspired a barrage of protests – more than 50 comments on his blog, including one direct from Australian immigration authorities (explaining the rejected applicant’s options). The incident caught the attention of media worldwide and culminated in Arnö posting something of a retraction.

But for the planners and would-be delegates of Linux.conf.au, the damage was already done. Before the conference had even started, negative stories were streaming across the world about border control, business competition laws and international access to the Linux.conf.au conference. At least one delegate, according to Arnö, was issued a visa in August but feared it would be revoked so "did not dare go try his luck."

"By now," Arnö said a few days after his initial post, "Linux.conf.au is so close that we can’t appeal this. Flights have had to be cancelled, and are now either full or horrendously expensive. So the harm has been done (for whatever the reason may be) and Sun...won’t be represented at Linux.conf.au at the level originally intended. Some of us will still come, though."

Barriers and Border Control
Planning an international event is fraught with complications. It is not always easy to navigate complex bureaucratic mazes, and these challenges heighten if you are planning the event in a foreign country.

Visa applications, for example, are frequently tricky. According to a 2007 report by Linda Costelloe Baker, U.K. Independent Monitor for Entry Clearance, many people wishing to enter the United Kingdom on tourist visas are being refused for "ridiculous" reasons, such as they have never undertaken foreign travel in the past or do not speak English.

Then there are the local customs to decipher on behalf of delegates. Souvenir shopping has its limits in Myanmar; exports of antiques are prohibited. In the United Arab Emirates, visitors should be especially careful if traveling with their partners, as there have been recent arrests for kissing and other public displays of affection. Hotels can help in this regard – late last year the popular Madinat Jumeirah hotel began offering etiquette guides to guests.

Often, the legislative obstacles to meeting planning are unintentional by-products of other important issues. The current tight visa conditions for entry into the U.S., for example, were implemented for important national security reasons. But International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) CEO Martin Sirk says they are causing problems for international meeting planners and attendees.

"Associations and planners cannot be certain that all their legitimate delegates will be able to obtain visas in time to attend a congress if it is held in the U.S.," Sirk said.

Ignorance, Not Obstruction
In our increasingly open-source world, growing numbers of association congresses and exhibitions attract international delegates and seek global destinations. So it is important that we learn from these experiences and work with destination governments to plan any overseas events.

Which begs the question, how do professional meeting planners work with overseas governments to avoid the bureaucratic pitfalls and plan successful international events?

According to Sirk, they don’t, and that goes a long way toward explaining the root of the problem. While governments’ entry, customs and taxation policies have far-reaching implications on the success of events, Sirk says they rarely involve themselves in the logistics of hosting international conferences on their soil.

"It is rare for governments to be ’hands-on’ or for their policies to be directed specifically at the needs of the meeting industry," he said. "Visa and customs-related policies will affect the meeting industry, but they are not designed for our industry’s needs."

Sirk believes this stems more from many governments’ ignorance of the value of the global meeting and event industry to their countries – and of the problems their policies are causing –than deliberate obstruction.

"Our industry can be extremely valuable to governments in terms of direct expenditure and the impact on areas like education, trade development, medical research and scientific advancement," he said. "But we still have a long way to go before we appear on the political radars of many countries.

"Visa costs and hassles, airport taxes and security delays have increased in quite a few countries around the world. It is a worrying issue, but it is our responsibility as meeting professionals to constantly remind legislators of the unintended impact of their policies on our business."

No Special Treatment
The top city in the world for international meetings, according to the latest available ICCA rankings, is Vienna, Austria. Vienna has topped the ICCA list for playing host to the greatest number of international meetings for the past three years. But the local government gives its business events industry no special treatment.

"There is nothing like tax breaks, help at customs or visa assistance," said Christian Mutschlechner, a spokesperson for the Vienna Convention Bureau. "There is the general view that meetings are businesses like many others."

That’s not to say the federal government in Austria doesn’t support the meeting industry. Mutschlechner says the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Austrian embassies worldwide work closely with the Vienna Convention Bureau to provide logistical support for meeting planners, particularly to ease the visa application process.

They pass information about important meetings from the bureau to relevant embassies throughout the year. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains a Web site for meeting planners, providing direct links to the embassies and explaining the visa application procedures. And if a visa application is not absolutely clear, the Austrian government asks the relevant embassies to contact either the bureau or the meeting planner directly, to help with the process.

But the point Mutschlechner is making is that while some bureaucratic support is available, the meeting industry in Vienna has to take its chances with the legislation that exists alongside all the other industries in the city. Business events in Vienna can expect no special treatment.

If your city is among the most popular business event destinations in the world, there is probably little need for you to provide additional incentives to attract international meetings.

On the other hand, this gives governments in less-accessible or less-popular meeting destinations all the more reason to build innovative and powerful incentives to entice major international congresses to their shores. And that’s great news for meeting planners.

Government on Board
Take Mexico, for example. In 2003, the country ranked 27th on the ICCA’s international conventions list. Just three years later in 2006 it had catapulted nine places to 18, making it into the coveted Top 20 and more than tripling the number of convention visitors to the country that year.

It is surely no coincidence that in 2004, the Mexico Congress authorized radical changes to its taxation laws that made it possible for business meeting delegates in Mexico to access significant savings.

The Mexican government abolished value-added tax on international meetings-related business, a strategic move specifically designed to boost international congress business in Mexico. Not long after that, the same government introduced tax-free shopping for attendees and their spouses, bringing Mexico into line with other forward-thinking destinations, such as the European Union.

The Mexico Tourism Board used this new legislation at the forefront of its promotional efforts, and if ICCA rankings are anything to go by (and the vast majority in our industry treat this list as the crème de la crème of destination success indicators), it worked.

Meeting planners quickly picked up on the value of these initiatives and publicized them in event advertising and press releases as well as in their direct contacts with associations and delegates.

In Singapore, the meeting and event industry enjoys a much closer relationship and alignment with the nation’s overall business and economic agenda.

"One of the advantages of Singapore being a small city-state is that the economic development priorities of the government are reflected in the structure and priorities of the Singapore Exhibition and Convention Bureau (SECB)," Sirk said. "Singapore is therefore able to pull in government support when it is bidding for international conventions that are high on the strategic hit-list for inward investment and trade development."

The SECB is Singapore’s lead government agency for the business events industry. It assists meeting planners with comprehensive and, it insists, impartial information on Singapore’s meeting and exhibition facilities, incentive venues and industry partners.

This is invaluable to professional conference organizers (PCOs). Australia-based PCO Tour Hosts, for example, handles high-profile business events all over the world but singles out the Singapore government as one of the most helpful destinations for planning events.

"The Singapore Tourism Board is very helpful in terms of sending out letters of invitation to delegates so that they can apply for their visas," said Rachel Walker, Tour Hosts’ business development and marketing manager. "As an Australian-based company planning an event in Singapore we are not able to do that. This is one of the restrictions or laws you face when you plan an event overseas."

But well beyond visa assistance, the Singapore government gets involved in the physical running of business events on its shores in a much more innovative – and hands-on – way. The SECB, for example, offers business event coordinators, corporations and associations customized financial support.

"In one of our events, they offered monetary value-per-delegate to raise the quality level of the social functions," Walker said. "[They] also provided volunteers to help on site at the meeting. With the monetary incentive program, the entire congress program was enhanced, and this helped enormously. In return, we put together a cultural dinner for delegates which helped Singapore Tourism."

In addition, the government also provided more traditional assistance, helping Tour Hosts with marketing, tourism information and access to local venues and attractions.

Not as Bad as it Appeared?
Even in Australia, target of the blog debacle, meeting planners now have access to a heavy toolbox of support, if only they know where to look.

Joyce DiMascio, head of the business arm of Tourism Australia and the statutory authority of the Australian government, Business Events Australia, says a range of Australian government agencies get involved in supporting business events.

This involvement can range from organizing group visa applications to working with international media to promote the event worldwide.

The Australian government’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship maintains an organization specifically designed to support business events. Called the International Event Coordinator Network (IECN), the service provides free advice and guidance on visa requirements and actually facilitates the visa application processing for international travelers who are invited or registered to speak at, perform in, compete in or attend an event in Australia.

Meeting planners use the IECN service for help identifying the most appropriate visa for delegates, understanding requirements and time frames, notifying overseas offices of event details, resolving visa application problems and providing bid support letters.

In addition, planners use Business Events Australia for more traditional government assistance, such as accessing appropriate attractions and facilities.

The bottom line is that when an international meeting comes to town, the local government pockets a tidy profit. The global meeting and event industry is worth more than US$122 billion annually, and host cities can generate millions of dollars from a conference.

So it stands to reason that it is in a country’s best interests for its government to smooth the path for meeting planners. And while some governments may be a little slow on the uptake, it’s likely that we can expect more innovations to come.

"Most governments now recognize the value of attracting international business events to their countries and are increasingly offering some very good packages as incentives," Walker said.

Meanwhile, Ben Powell, one of the co-organizers of the now infamous Linux.conf.au, says government policy in Australia helped more than it hindered the conference.

"The IECN was quite helpful in providing letters of introduction for us and other documentation, although the Department of Immigration could have made its procedures a little clearer," he conceded. "And the Tasmanian government was exceptionally helpful."

And even Kaj Arnö, post-Linux.conf.au, agrees.

"Australians are friendly," he blogged at the end of January. "I knew that already, but getting a comment from the immigration authorities on my blog ... was a lot more than I had expected."

NAOMI HULBERT is a freelance journalist and radio broadcaster from Australia.
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