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September 2013

9 Steps to Making International Attendees Feel at Home

By Molly Brennan, Contributing Editor
an international meeting, you’ve got to leave a little slack between events or the seats are going to be empty.”

Morrison agrees that attendees need some downtime between sessions so they can catch their breath and mingle with other attendees. “Yes, they’re here to build their network and do business and learn, but not everyone is going to love this very edgy, high-tech frantic [vibe] we have in the U.S.,” she said. “They’re weary and they need their cup of coffee and a civilized moment and to check with their family. They might want to talk to the presenter or the people they just met. They’re not running straight to the next session.”

6. Consider making space 

International attendees’ needs and customs should also be considered when organizing event space. This is particularly true if there will be a large percentage of Muslim visitors, Graham said. “We have prayer rooms at most of our large events, and we’ll put that in our program guide,” he said.

“You need to schedule breaks around prayer times and put a sign on the wall so they know where east is,” Hope agreed. “It’s not a must-do, but it’ s a courtesy. If you don’t do it, they’ll find their own place; but by making it more convenient for them, it shows you’re paying attention to their needs.”

A designated hospitality suite for international attendees is also appreciated. “It’ s a safe zone. They can go in and feel relaxed,” Hope said. “If they’re relaxed, they become flexible and forgiving of any other mistakes.”

Finally, don’t forget that much of the world still smokes — and a frustrated, nicotine-craving attendee is not a happy attendee. “Europeans and Asians smoke. But you come to a U.S. venue and there’s no smoking anywhere,” Hope said. “You have to communicate where the designated smoking area is and make sure they know where it is. Then make sure they’re not just shoved out on the back dock. Make sure it’s an accommodating area.”

7. Research dietary needs 

Some of the most common cultural slips are those involving food-and-beverage. Many organizers are sensitive to religious dietary restrictions and know they must have vegetarian options, avoid serving pork to Muslim attendees, and make sure there are nonalcoholic beverages. However, there can still be gaffes. Eyring notes that many sauces contain alcohol, and those can derail the most carefully selected and culturally conscious menus.

It's important to consult with the chef or caterer to make sure everyone understands which ingredients and food items are taboo.

Beyond the food and drink, the organization and pacing of social events are important to consider, Morrison said. “When you’re in a convention, you often have these very large tables that make it hard to talk with anyone besides who’s right next to you. I would make the tables smaller and give them more time for the meal,” she said. “Forget that it’s harder to serve small tables; the attendees will get more out of it.”

Also, think hard about opening and closing parties. “Often, we create these events with a band that we think is going to be very fun and relaxed. Because we’re loud, we think that’s great, but the noise levels can be abominable for people from other cultures,” Morrison said. “Maybe put the sound as a backdrop, but not as the function of the evening.”

8. Formality Matters 

Finally, when in doubt about how to communicate with your international attendees, err on the side of formality, experts agree. “It drives people from countries that put a great emphasis on hierarchical order crazy when a name badge has only the person’s first name,” Weaver said. “At the least, make sure you include both first and last name. Making it too casual is not a good idea.”

Be especially mindful of this when introducing speakers, he added. “I’ve had people say This is Gary,’ and be very casual with the introduction. I have no problems with that, but if people in the audience are from non-Western cultures, they see a person with a beard and gray hair and to them that introduction is an insult,” Weaver said. “We think we’re making them feel comfortable by being very casual, but we’re actually making people from other cultures very uncomfortable. They’re far from home, they don’t know the rules, and then the formalities that they’re used to have been pulled away. That doesn’t make them relaxed.”

At its root, that’s what protocol is all about — making people comfortable, Weaver said. And that’s why protocol is relevant to all international meetings, even those that have no dignitaries or official delegations in attendance. If people know who will speak first (the most senior person) and how they will be greeted (formally and with deference), it puts them at ease. “Protocol is very important, because what protocol does is eliminate surprises,” he said. “At a meeting or conference, it’s to make things move along smoothly. If it’s done well, you don’t even notice; everything just seems to move smoothly.”

9. Find common ground 

For some very global organizations, such as ICCA, which attracts 70 nationalities to its annual congress, asking people to leave at least some of their own customs at the door might be the best route to cross-cultural understanding, Sirk said. “We have to create our own cultural environment,” he said, “so that the ICCA culture is not viewed as European or American or Dutch.

“We work very hard and quite consciously at defining and creating a style that exemplifies our organization. We then use that as a bridge between nationalities so nobody has to go so far from their own business culture into someone else’s business culture. Instead, everyone is invited to join our business culture,” Sirk said. “It requires an organization to think about what is special about that organization, then highlight those elements and turn those elements into the association’s own protocol.”

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