Conducting events abroad is never going to be easy and, after years of doing it, we have seen many changes – including clients’ expectations of how things should happen – particularly as a result of the most recent improvements in communications technology.
There are a few ground rules that must be considered when staging an event abroad.
Inexperienced UK production companies often arrive at a foreign venue with an attitude of “we’ll show them how it’s done”. This rarely gets the best results.
Local ways of doing things have to be understood and respected. They can be turned to advantage. You can’t fight local culture any more than you can fight a union (for experience of the second problem, go to the US).
Cultural divides and differences are nowhere more in evidence than in Saudi Arabia, although the Saudis have a much better sense of hospitality than some European countries.
The male members of Jack Morton Worldwide’s staff – no female workers are allowed into Saudi Arabia unless they are teachers or nurses – recently staged two events for Toyota in Jeddah and Riyadh, being careful to avoid the holy month of Ramadan.
The running order of the show had to be planned so as not to conflict with Muslim prayer times, which happened three times during the show day. We designed a private area for delegates to pray, with clean floors, prayer rugs, a Mecca directional indicator and adjacent bathroom facilities.
Working on Friday is also difficult if not impossible in some Islamic countries, as it is the Muslim holy day, so activities have to be scheduled accordingly.
Europe also has its peculiarities. In Spain, hotel staff are just as scarce during the mid-afternoon siesta period as Germans are in the office on a Friday afternoon, so the best advice is to take account of these factors in your schedule and work around them.
Finally, if you do venture more than four hours outside the delegates’ home time zone, try to allow them a good night’s sleep before bombarding them with the company’s vision for the next ten years. Everyone (speakers included) will be in a better frame of mind to transmit or receive communication and exchange ideas.
As soon as you step outside the EU and select a venue more than seven hours’ flight-time or four hours’ time difference away, then it becomes more difficult to organise everything from the UK.
Transport costs, communications and culture will mean you must establish a local point of information and organisation to get every thing you need done.
The scale and breadth of the services required to deliver a project will also dictate how and what you can source locally.
The US, of course, has everything, everywhere, all of the time. But be prepared to pay and as mentioned earlier, in the US unions rule the day, in terms of hours of work and overtime costs.
Events in less-developed or smaller countries will require a greater degree of preparation and a greater proportion of your budget will be tied up in transport costs.
Climatic conditions should not be taken for granted. We recently managed an event in Sweden, driving through weather at minus 20 degrees. At these temperatures, prefabricated metal structures for exhibition stands or lighting support equipment will not fit together because everything has shrunk.
A useful tip is to allow a few extra hours in the building timetable for metalwork to warm up once it has arrived at the venue.
Conversely, when we filmed at a palm plantation in Malaysia, the videotape stock had to be carried in sealed bags to protect it from the intense humidity, with all reel changes taking place inside an air-conditioned vehicle.
To get the best insider knowledge it is wise to team up with an established destination management company (DMC) during pre-production. These companies tend to perform with widely varying degrees of success, and in any corner of the globe they will range from the totally brilliant to the utterly useless. Once found, a good DMC is invaluable and every effort should be made to encourage a constructive working relationship during pre-production.
To avoid hidden surprises, it goes without saying that comprehensive reconnaissance of your destination and venue is essential before you try and cost the project.
Test the water
Easy access is imperative – meaning there must be direct daily flights – and you also need to ensure that there is enough accommodation at any destination to cater for groups. If your programme involves night-time activities, visit those venues at night, not during the day. You need to know what lighting is provided both internally and externally.
Also, make sure you check both temperature and humidity at the time of year when the event will be held, not just when you visit. Use independent meteorological data, not just the view of the taxi driver on the way to the venue.
If you plan to use local suppliers extensively, remember to allow for several visits to the destination as more local liaison will be involved.
A necessary precaution for senior personnel and large groups is to carry out a risk assessment of the whole project and then prepare prudent precautions, alternative plans and insurance for the event. Some client companies have policies about the number of people from the same company who may travel together.
Political stability and acts of terrorism are sometimes an important factor to be considered when choosing a destination.
Expect the unexpected. With the strong pound, most overseas costs for UK companies would appear relatively reasonable at the moment. However, if you have a large budget at your disposal, approach the finance director with the proposal to “buy forward” and protect the client from fluctuating exchange rates.
The further off the beaten track you venture, the more unpredictable finances become, so be sure to allow a margin of error of at least ten per cent of the local expenditure budget.
Within the EU, VAT is reclaimable for certain types of event but not others, so take professional advice before assuming you will be able to reclaim this tax element.
Moving the merchandise
If you plan to deliver large quantities of product samples, literature or other goods, make sure shipping arrangements include all necessary documentation. Get professional support if you need to arrange for this type of documentation.
A quick check with the UK embassy of the country you intend to visit will provide you with information on any visa regulations. Then confirm this with the Foreign and Commonwealth office.
Do not assume every delegate will have a British passport. If any don’t, deal with this well in advance, because the rules will be different for different nationalities. And don’t forget to check the inoculation requirements and travel insurance position.
The total delegate travel, hotel, hospitality and creative production costs for a three-day event can easily be &£2,000 per head. A typical event in Europe for 200 people would by this calculation cost about &£400,000. It would be wise therefore to consider cancellation insurance, sourced through a specialist broker. Rates tend to be about one to two per cent of the total budget, but read the fine print as policies also vary in their scope.
In all of this, the thing that probably counts the most is the experience and quality of advice you receive from your supporting agencies. Check they have country-specific and internationally experienced people on the team, and preferably a genuine local office near where you will be working. Ask if any of the production team have lived and worked abroad, for example.
Don’t be fooled by companies’ membership of spurious international associations either. These are usually a smoke-screen just to get your business.
Rupert Evans is project director at Jack Morton Worldwide