Organising a conference is never easy. Those held on foreign soil are particularly challenging, given the added complication of different languages, cultures and laws.
Increasingly, companies planning overseas conferences are calling in experts to reduce the risks associated with meetings held in foreign climes. Many of them offer clients short cuts through the practicalities of producing conferences away from home.
Ron Alldridge, managing director of The Visual Communications Register (VCR), which specialises in sourcing production companies for corporations and organisations, says its primary tool is “a bespoke database” that holds in-depth information about more than 2,000 production companies.
In setting up the database, VCR consulted a group of clients about their requirements. “The clients said there were three things that were important to them: how does the company go about understanding our aims, what’s the creativity on board and what evidence can they give us that they will come in on time and on budget?”
On the production side, those companies that wish to be listed on the database have to answer a series of detailed questions. “We ask about their international experience. This involves work done abroad for UK or foreign companies, work done in the UK for foreign companies, and foreign versions of English work. Foreign language ability is also recorded,” says Alldridge. This type of pre-screening can eliminate costly and unnecessary footwork.
Excellent back-up systems are just as important to overseas work as they are for work done in the UK, says Miles Johnson, managing director of The Presentation Company. “We always take back-up for the key pieces of equipment, such as projectors and PCs,” he says. “If a piece of equipment works when you do the rehearsal, chances are it’s OK. But sometimes you arrive and it doesn’t. We always get hold of the best local hire company and fax them a complete specification of everything that we’re bringing over so they can have the equipment on standby should anything go wrong.”
Cost is an important factor when transporting goods. However, says Johnson, it is usually much more expensive to hire equipment overseas than to bring it from the UK. The same goes for personnel, although less skilled jobs can be done by local people. Legislation sometimes makes it difficult to bring an entire crew.
Says Johnson: “When you go to the US they don’t like you to bring people in because of the union rules. So that always involves a bit of negotiating.”
The Presentation Company recently staged a conference in Moscow for a consortium composed of Rolls Royce, Honeywell and the Russian company Tupolev. It aimed to sell a large number of aircraft to the Russian airlines. Johnson comments: “In a place like Moscow you cannot make any assumptions about anything. There are no local hire companies and we took everything over ourselves, plus back-up.”
In Johnson’s view, the expense is worth it if it ensures that things go smoothly. “A conference is usually only a small part of a bigger project and if the equipment doesn’t work and you have 300 potential clients sitting in front of you that really is expensive. Often the cost difference between doing it 60 or 70 per cent, with a big margin for getting it wrong, and doing it 110 per cent and therefore eliminating any real margin, is not a huge amount of money.”
The success of any overseas event is dependent on good teamwork, says Jerry Starling, managing director of Event Works, which has produced conferences in most parts of Europe. “In order to get total understanding of an event at the briefing and development stages, producers must work closely with the buying company. Unless this happens the interpretation of the brief will be skewed, as will the resulting conference,” he says.
While Starling advocates the use of British suppliers for production, he advises clients to use local destination management companies for handling things on the ground in foreign countries. “They know the airports, towns, coach companies, transfer times, hotels and all the other sundries for delegate processing and handling.”
Johnson points out that the logistical exercises that make up a conference are only part of the story: “You need to be very aware of some of the softer, more emotive issues that your client is trying to achieve. The client’s partner in making it happen must understand its broad strategic objectives, its employee climate and what its clients think of it. It’s not just about sending box loads of equipment overseas – that’s an absolute recipe for disaster.”
International conferences almost always involve a variety of lang uages and cultures. But how many companies can justify the added cost of using specialist translators and interpreters?
More than you would think, says Graham Hills, managing director of Eurosis, which was set up to meet the interpretation needs that arise out of this diversity. “It may be that potential delegates have said ‘we’ll only come if you provide the language service’.
“Then again, there are some institutions (especially trade associations) that have written into their constitutions that the proceedings at an international meeting have to be in a specified number of languages.”
In addition, says Hills, European legislation demands that multinational companies hold European work councils. “There are more and more of these councils being held and they tend to be in a large number of languages, even though the actual number of delegates might be only two or three from each country.”
Interpreters can be sourced locally or brought from the UK, depending on where the conference is situated. “In most countries, interpreters are concentrated in capital cities. Where an event is taking place outside the capital, the cost of flying someone from the UK is often not much greater than the cost of getting someone to travel from the capital,” explains Hills.
The co-ordination of such globe-trotting is second nature to companies in the travel sector. Galileo, the travel and leisure computerised booking company, called in the Page & Moy Marketing Group to organise a worldwide conference in Madrid last year. About 600 travel agency delegates attended the carefully choreographed event, which culminated in a sit-down meal for all delegates at the 18th-century Palacio del Negralejo. In extravagant style, the West End cast of Buddy was flown in for one night to entertain guests.
Going the extra mile to sell travel is easy when it is done by experts, but for companies new to the international conference business there are numerous pitfalls. According to Paul Easty, production director at Clearwater Communications, quality and service levels vary in different areas. “It is possible, and sometimes cost-effective, to approach the provision of delegate management services and production services separately,” he says. “In the area of delegate handling and event management, it is relatively easy to source good local ground-handling agents. In the area of production services, it is much more dangerous for clients to assess quality and service levels at a distance.”
Once again, as highlighted by Alldridge and Johnson, much depends on the relevant experience of the service providers concerned.
Easty emphasises: “Long-established event management companies will have the advantage of having built up a worldwide network of contacts and production service suppliers. Of course, this experience will only be the result of working in a multinational environment for some years.”