Navigating late-night virtual meetings and unfamiliar foreign payment systems are just two of the hurdles conference planner Mercedes Hunt faces while coordinating conferences for The International Ecotourism Society. The organization has coordinated events in Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Kenya, Norway and the United States. The following tips incorporate some of Hunt’s experiences and best practices for planning an event on unfamiliar terrain.
1. Take local culture into account.
When planning a conference in Kenya, Hunt faced cross-cultural barriers while trying to communicate—namely that punctuality may not carry the same importance there as in the U.S. “Kenyan culture is very different from American culture, and that led to miscommunication and people showing up late to meetings, which were all virtual,” she says, adding it was a good learning experience. Hunt also has found that in some countries, attendees may prefer to register for an event on-site, which means planners should allocate space, food and materials for a potential last-minute surge in attendance.
2. Have a translator ready.
Because working internationally can have its fair share of language hurdles, planners should work with reliable interpreters in advance and be prepared to offer necessary translation services. Be sure to allow adequate time to translate conference materials.
3. Figure out local payment systems.
In Brazil, the biggest challenge Hunt faced was working out a payment system. “The Brazilian government has it set up so it’s very difficult to get money out of the country,” Hunt says. “It was difficult to pay vendors and have attendees pay us since many Brazilians don’t have international credit cards.” In many countries, it’s hard to pay vendors through means other than cash, so your PayPal account may collect dust.
4. Network with other planners.
Having a strong network of experienced international conference planners can be indispensable when unusual situations arise. Being able to tap into your peers’ knowledge to help troubleshoot strange happenings—from payment system problems to translation hiccups—is invaluable in case you run into a situation you’ve never encountered.
5. U.S. conferences can be international too.
The U.S. is an international destination for many attendees—a notoriously difficult one to access. The 2012 TIES conference in Monterey, California, had to turn away 20 to 30 potential attendees who were denied visas. “It’s completely out of your hands,” Hunt says. Be aware of planning a conference in a location where it may be difficult for attendees to obtain a visa.