There is constant debate in the conference industry about whether, when organising an overseas event, it is better to incur the costs of taking expertise and equipment that you know and trust from the UK, or to walk through customs with little more than hand luggage and attempt to source everything you need at the destination.
On the one hand, there is the risk of having your equipment impounded at the airport or held up because the customs officers have gone on strike or stolen when a vehicle is carjacked. On the other, there is the danger of getting to the site and finding that the services and equipment you were promised are not compatible, not working or simply not there.
The first decision to make is where to source the production company. UK companies argue that they are among the best in the world so it makes sense to stick with a production company from home. There are the added bonuses of dealing with someone who speaks the same language and operates in the same time zone as you.
Nick James, commercial director of design and production company Hodges Associates, has organised events in the UK, the US and elsewhere. He argues: “The most efficient way of running an overseas event is to use an external agency such as ourselves. All client meetings are in the UK and the headaches are ours. We have created strategic relationships with suppliers throughout Europe, North America and the Far East, so we are confident the result will be of a high standard.”
Emma Knights, event manager at Evolution Event Management, which has produced events for Microsoft, Guinness and BT, agrees that her company is in a good position to deal with UK clients. For her part, she relies heavily on destination management companies (DMC) for their in-depth local knowledge and ability to co-ordinate travel and production details.
“Instead of having to source and brief all the different companies required to put an event together, we contact a single DMC in the country we plan to visit,” says Knights. “It also allows us to ensure that we have the correct type and quality of supplier without having to vet each one. And we can purchase services at a good rate.
DMCs are focused on selling their country and the activities, hotels and facilities available for visiting groups. Many have special relationships with restaurants and so on and can call upon additional resources if required.
Knight adds: “We rarely come across a language barrier when talking to DMCs since they manage the liaison with their local suppliers, which they will have used many times before. A representative of the DMC is with us at the event at all times, to ensure we never come across language problems.”
There are other sources of this information for those who choose not to enlist a DMC: hotels, embassies and local trade conventions will all be able to offer advice on suppliers in the region and suggest entertainment and activities for delegates.
When it comes to crew to run the event, Keith Searby, chief executive of event organiser Marketeer, is an advocate of taking staff with the right skills with you. “We’ll use local staff to build sets, but when it comes to technical crew, we would rather use people we have worked with before.
“Conferences are all to do with confidence. You may be assured that the local technicians can speak English, but it may not be good enough English to understand complex technical instructions.”
James Lambie is a producer at Interactive New Media (INM), which recently ran a highly ambitious project for the International Telecommunications Union’s Americas Telecom 2000 event in Rio. INM created ITU Telecom TV, which was broadcast live for seven hours a day during the week-long event, and could be watched from an executive TV lounge, a network of monitors and video walls, a local cable channel or over the Web.
Lambie points out that local staff have advantages: they are used to making do with equipment that may not be state of the art so they are more resourceful. “People are very willing to help and very good at coming up with innovative ways of using equipment and overcoming problems,” he says.
UK brains are best
On the whole, however, INM agrees that brawn can be sourced locally but brains are best sent from the UK.
“Labour rates out there are comparatively low, so we use local staff as runners and to set up stands,” says INM chief operating officer Simon Wall. “But we take our own technicians with us. For the Rio event, we had about 65 people from Rio plus about 15 technicians from the UK.”
Charles Robinson, executive director of the Incentive Travel and Meetings Association, warns that there can be union issues about taking your own staff. “In the US, you have to use local crew,” he explains. “Your crew have to give instructions to their crew and then their crew do the work.”
And what about the equipment that the crew are working with – where should that originate? Shipping costs from the UK may be high, but quality will be hard to match.
“The main UK suppliers lead the way in Europe in having readily available state-of-the-art equipment,” says Duncan Beale, managing director of events organiser Line-Up Communications. “In somewhere smaller like Malta, they may have to hang on to equipment for longer to get a return on it. Also, they may have a video projector, but they are unlikely to have two or three, so there may not be sufficient back-up.”
James Marchant, head of production at Mar.Com Presentations, offers another reason for taking it with you: “Our equipment comes from our warehouse. We’d rather earn money on our equipment than lease it from someone else.”
Beale suggests the decision should be based on how ambitious a production is, arguing that the more exotic or exciting the location, the less spectacular it needs to be. “But if a production was very ambitious technically,” he says, “I would recommend taking the kit from the UK and choosing a destination in mainland Europe, so it could be transported by road. Having said that, some of the island destinations are lovely.”
Line-Up recently organised an event for Thomas Cook in Cyprus. It used a mixture of UK and locally supplied equipment. “We had done recces and we were confident that the local supplier had monitors, video projectors and other straightforward equipment that was not quite up to our specification but good enough. We took our own PCs and Powerpoint operators,” says Beale.
He points out that customs problems should no longer arise within the EU – “though I’m not sure the changes in legislation have filtered down to everyone. And I would always allow for delays.”
Problems importing kit
Further afield, there may be more problems with importing kit. For the ITU event, INM decided to source its technology out in Rio, mainly because the shipping costs would have been prohibitive. “As it happens,” says Wall, “there was some sort of customs strike while we were out there, so we made the right decision.”
Wall agrees that there are constraints on what you can get hold of on a small island, but in Brazil there are large numbers of local suppliers. The most surprising thing was that, in a country famed for having millions of acres of forest, INM could not get hold of enough wood to build its sets.
“We wanted matching furniture for the stand and we couldn’t find that either,” adds Wall. “In the end we did a deal with a guy who owned a furniture store. He organised for a load of matching furniture to be made by hand and we ended up hiring it from the shop.”
When Wall boarded the plane for Rio, he was expecting to be there for four days: he stayed a month. Communicating with the office back home was a challenge: the time difference meant that he was often working at 3am. A lot of his contact with the UK was by e-mail, an invention that is making the business of organising events abroad a whole lot easier.
“The Net is an important and cost-effective way to organise events overseas,” says Knights at Evolution. “Not only can we e-mail our DMCs no matter what time zone they are in, we can also visit the majority of the hotels, restaurants and countries on the Net. For some events, we also use technology and the Net for online registrations. Thus, if the delegate is in another country and different time zone they can still register and get confirmation instantly, as the process is automated.”
Net has some way to go
While most organisers agree that online registration is a boon and that the Net can be useful when translation facilities are called for, many consider that the Net still has some way to go in helping with other aspects of organising an event. “You’d think it would help,” says Marchant at Mar.Com. “But I was recently using it to try to find an audio visual company in Germany and it wasn’t particularly useful.
“However, there are a few sites coming on stream in the next few months that will offer a comprehensive list of services suppliers across Europe. The aim is to make them global.”
Once these are online, sourcing should become easier and conference producers should be able to head to a distant destination confident that everything is in place and that they will be home with their family within a week. Until then, they would be wise to pack a couple of extra pairs of socks and a reliable laptop.