ILLUSTRATION: MARK FISHER
I've just been tasked with planning several international marketing events. What are some tips to help me avoid critical communication and cultural snafus overseas?
Globalization has broken down trade barriers across the world, but many communication and cultural hurdles still remain. When it comes to exhibit and event marketing, even the smallest stumble can throw your whole program off track. So here are a few simple tips to help you sidestep as many issues as possible.
1. Supplement written communication with photos or drawings.
When you're communicating with people (whether they're vendors, show-management reps, or even your own company's overseas employees) who speak a different language, a picture is worth a thousand words. After all, if English isn't someone's first language, it can be very difficult for him or her to understand the subtle but often critical differences in tools, materials, components, audiovisual gear, and other exhibiting elements.
For example, "Gatorfoam," "card stock," and "lollipop signage" are mostly U.S. terms ndash; and if you specifically request these items from someone outside of the United States without some type of visual cue, who knows what you'll actually get in the end. So consider including as many pictures as possible (even if you have to resort to hand-drawn sketches) to get your point across with clarity. Also, when you're requesting specific materials, try to send along clearly labeled samples so the recipient can see and feel exactly what you need.
2. Don't assume anything.
Ask every question you can think of, even if your query seems like overkill. You will undoubtedly get answers that surprise you, and a surprise prior to the event is much better than one discovered on site.
Processes, rules, laws, etc. are different across cultures, not to mention countries. Something that might seem totally obvious to U.S. event planners may be completely unexpected in another country. Even something as simple as checking into a hotel can be a radically different process elsewhere. For example, in Singapore, you are legally required to provide your passport information and a signature upon check-in. This can make it incredibly difficult to precheck VIPs in order to allow them to bypass the registration process. So ask now to avoid complications later.
3. Allow for cultural fluctuations that can affect timeliness.
Depending on the country and culture, "I'll be there in five minutes" could mean you should expect the person in five minutes or merely within the hour. In some countries, this phrase is code for "I'm not sure I'm coming at all, but I don't want to be rude and tell you so." What's more, arriving 10 minutes late to a dinner party in the United States pretty much means you're on time or even early, but the same timing in Germany could be seen as a serious offense.
Thus, it's critical that you do your research into cultural time norms before you even start planning your exhibit or event. Doing so can help you avoid myriad scheduling snafus ndash; not to mention social faux pas.
4. Adjust for alternate mealtimes.
Generally speaking, people in the United States eat dinner earlier than the rest of the world. Particularly in Europe and parts of Central and South America, some restaurants don't even start serving dinner until 8 or 9 p.m. This is a significant factor to keep in mind if you're planning staff meals or client dinner meetings.
Always verify dinner-service times whenever you book a reservation. If you have a large, U.S.-based crowd, see if the restaurant will open early for you. Keep in mind, however, that you'll likely pay a hefty per-head cancellation fee if your plans change or numbers drop. Another option is to make a reservation as early as possible and to pre-order appetizers so they're already on the table when your famished guests arrive. Just a few quick nibbles can prevent some guests from getting "hangry."
5. Arrive early.
Some exhibit and event marketers arrive up to a month in advance of major overseas events just to ensure that every potential wrinkle is ironed out long before guests or additional staffers arrive. While a month may not be feasible for most people, even an extra day can help you avoid major potholes. Remember, it usually takes a little longer to manage even the smallest hiccup when you're in an unfamiliar city, especially when you don't have a digital Rolodex of vendors to turn to for assistance.
Arriving a few days before your staff will also give you time to become familiar with the area around the event venue and your chosen hotel. This way, you can provide arriving staffers with suggestions for the most cost-effective options for everything from restaurants and sundries to transportation ndash; and hopefully trim their per-diem expenses.
As you can see, these five simple tips aren't exactly rocket science. But you'll be surprised how much of a difference they can make. By simply sidestepping some of the biggest cultural and country-specific issues, you can ensure that your event goes off without a hitch, and that you and your staff are stress free in the process.
— Jennifer Sand, senior event manager, Event Strategy Group, Plymouth Meeting, PA