How to master meetings

Guest column: 
10 Tips for Better International Meetings
Global Trade Magazine

   Visiting Argentina with a business partner last year, we met up with an old friend of hers, a gentleman active in the leadership of the association whose upcoming conference we were in town to discuss. The friend kissed my partner on her cheek. Then he leaned over and kissed me as well.
   My new acquaintance was saying, in effect, I trust her – so you’re okay too. His little smooch took us from meet-you directly into trust-you.  This would probably not happen in my Austrian home town of Salzburg. But this was not Salzburg, this was Buenos Aires. Having known and worked closely with many South Americans over the years, I saw nothing either sexual or insulting in his gesture.  P.S. : We got the business.
     As an event organizer with an international client base, I’ve seen first-hand how extraordinarily varied human behavior can be.  Such commonplaces as embracing a friend, greeting a potential business partner and welcoming a stranger are processes that differ enormously from place to place, situation to situation. The opportunities to give unintentional offense are enormous, the penalties for doing so crushing.  It’s so easy to offend without realizing it.
    On the other hand, handling the greeting part properly sets the tone for an event at which everyone is welcome and from which great outcomes are expected.
    Cultural awareness is a key attribute of international meeting planning. Other skills matter too, among them transportation planning, service procurement and logistics management.  A good event organizer combines the mindset of the party planner, the spreadsheet focus of the accountant and the dashboard concentration of the airport flight controller.
     Whether you’re handling your first international program or your hundredth, here are some tips I hope help make your future events successful.
     Destinations.  Chose locations served by multiple transportation routes: international flights, railroad connections, reliable roads and (if relevant) good maritime options. Check schedules; is service frequent and convenient from the areas where your attendees will depart? And be returning? Be sure to avoid overly tight scheduling, as slight delays produce missed connections.  I make it a practice to review airline schedules feeding the international airport near my events both when the meeting is first planned, then months later in case any change of schedule occurs. I try to anticipate delayed departures, late arrivals and rush hour congestion. If my main event takes place somewhere other than the hotel where the sleeping rooms are booked, and guests are arriving from all over, I’ll consider holding the welcome reception in the hotel itself.  Consider holding an airport reception to accommodate middle-of-the-night international arrivals.
    Hotels.  Determine event needs and attendee preferences first, then chose the hotel.  Visit the facility yourself. If audio-visual capabilities are important to your program, then verify the facility has the specific technology infrastructure and personnel to accommodate you.  Learn its track record by asking for references from people who’ve managed similar events.  Check to ensure your contract allows you to hire outside staff.
    Staffing.  Expect stellar hotel service.  At one program I did last year, at the end of the farewell gala one attendee stood up holding an empty espresso cup. This man clearly needed a refill. The coffee service had “officially” closed, but the Food & Beverage manager reopened just for him. No additional charge. I’ll book there again.
    Site Selection. Think outside the box, literally. Lively, exciting and unusual evening programs and offsite events delight attendees and add up to memorable experiences.  I’ve scheduled distributor meetings inside ancient Roman Empire baths,  organized banquets within the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, and planned middle-management training sessions in rented castles.  And, don’t overlook the evening and recreational parts of the program when scouting.
Program Planning
    I like to incorporate local and national cultural references wherever possible.  I book regional musicians to perform folk music, local pop tunes or chamber music from national composers; hire chefs to prepare regional culinary specialties; program dancers and exhibit artists at our functions. Encounters with local business leaders, artists and musicians provide a personal window into community life and make the experience memorable, something they would not have experienced traveling on their own. If attendees can bring spouses and family members, involve them as much as possible, and plan a variety of separate activities for them as well. Attendees whose spouses are in I’m-loving-this-vacation mode are more involved and pro-active meeting participants. Trust me on this.

Meeting Theme. Creative meeting themes raise advance interest, build attendance, and support strategic outcomes. Have some fun with them. Here’s an example. Working with a Dutch multinational electronics company, we developed a theme based on King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. What, you ask, does medieval chivalry have to do with contemporary marketing and sales?  Plenty! Siting the meeting in the Irish castle I mentioned before, our team animated the knightly virtues of bravery, trust, reliability, respect and strength. These traits formed the basis of the training offered during the program.  We ended with a full costumed reenactment on an adjoining “battlefield.” Participants returned home energized, motivated and prepared to joust their competitors in the global markets.
Meeting Interaction.  What’s duller than a meeting where everyone hangs around old friends? Mix things up a little. Draw names out of a fishbowl and seat people that way. Draw straws. Play musical-chairs. Stir things up.
 Culture.  Know your attendees and their cultures in advance of your events.  Cultural, national, regional, tribal/clan affinities and other factors shape social behaviors and vary enormously.  I mentioned greeting diversity before. Another concept that varies enormously across cultural lines is time.  I might say, “This program starts at 8 AM.” What does this mean, really, to someone from France… from Thailand… from Nigeria? In some countries, punctuality is greatly valued; showing up late is a grave insult. In others, starting time is a general suggestion absolutely no one takes literally. I’ve learned to specify precise start times.  And consider that cultural practices and restrictions also effect diet, alcohol consumption/avoidance, touch/non-touch and gender-role issues.
Religion. Practice awareness of all religious beliefs and behaviors. Be aware of phrases that seem innocuous in one community but which produce massive offense in others.  Check meeting days and scheduled times to avoid conflict with religious celebrations and holidays.
Languages.  Over 6,500 languages are spoken around the world; the European Community accommodates 23 officially. Clearly, at most international meetings not everyone speaks English. Imagine for a moment you are a non-native English speaker where every sentence represents a struggle to communicate. English is my second language, Spanish my third, so I’m speaking from experience!
   Fortunately for English-speakers, in business and scientific and academic cross-border events English is the official language. Now, communicating “officially” and communicating effectively are two different things.  An Eastern Europe concierge might apologize that a non-functioning hotel elevator has made you and your fellow guests “unbearable.”  A sign posted at another hotel warns not to entertain members of the opposite sex in bedrooms, suggesting you use the lobby instead. Linguistic gaffes are so easy to make, people often keep silent rather than risk embarrassment.
      You can help non-native speakers in several ways. One is by collecting and distributing printed materials in advance. This includes PowerPoint presentations, collaterals and speaker bios.  I announce an early deadline on materials I need to receive, and move things along quicker. The advance time to review materials can help attendees prepare.  And when speaking to a multi-lingual audience, avoid using slang, trendy language or buzzwords.
    I also like to allow extra time for multi-lingual participants to speak up.  Often at an international event, a speaker concludes his or her remarks, offers to take questions and encounters - silence.  No questions! Hold on a moment. It’s my experience that people are busy formulating the question or statement they want to ask. Allow a few moments and the conversation will usually continue.
   Even when countries share a common tongue, as is the case with the U.S. and the United Kingdom, or Germany and my own native country, Austria, cultural miscommunications often still abound. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wittily described America and England as two nations divided by a common language.  More recently Christopher Waltz, the academy-award winning movie star who holds both German and Austrian citizenship, compared the difference between the two countries with that between a battleship and a (pun-intended) waltz.    
     I’ll like to leave you with ten tips to improve your international meetings. Try them out, and let me know your experiences.
1 Schedule with foresight. Check international arrivals early in planning process, then again closer to meeting date.
2. Opening Receptions: book where most convenient to travelers; in the hotel itself, even in the airport.
3. Practice cultural sensitivity – don’t assume everyone else is like you.
4. Mix things up, and be sure people are seated with people they should meet
5. Use imagination in booking off-site activities and evening programs
6. Use standard (correct) English rather than slang or trendy expressions
7. Use visual cues to help communicate
8. Recognize that greeting gestures like shaking hands are culturally sensitive; respond to cues.
9. Punctuality differs from place to place; know your attendees’ style, and specify starting times.
10. Find inspiration among local artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs.

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