When planning international events overseas, event professionals must take into account a host of important legal and cultural considerations. Attorney John S. Foster of Foster, Jensen & Gulley, LLC in Atlanta, and Joshua L. Grimes of Grimes Law Offices, LLC in Philadelphia, spoke at MPI’s WEC 2016 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, about planning international events. Below they share some insights:
Cultural stereotypes and habits influence international business negotiations. Learn as much as you can about the culture of the country where you are planning your meeting in order to understand how they prefer to do business. For example, Germans value punctuality, while arriving late is acceptable in Mexico. Consumption of alcohol is often part of sealing a deal in China, but is inappropriate in most Muslim countries.
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To avoid committing a potentially fatal faux pas, consult with a locally-based destination management organization or convention and visitors bureau. They will help you avoid cultural taboos such as booking an event on a major holiday in Thailand (which celebrates many holidays unfamiliar to Westerners), or serving beef at an event in India (which Hindu custom eschews.)
The U.S. Department of State can be a helpful partner. Check its website for detailed information about passport and visa requirements for individual countries. It also issues regular travel warnings and alerts about dangers or threats around the world.
Foster notes that meeting planners have a fiduciary responsibility to pass along relevant information about known hazards, and can be sued if they fail to warn meeting attendees about them. He recommends meeting professionals link official Department of State warnings to their websites or the landing pages attendees visit to register for an international event. Grimes suggests meeting planners create a digital or printed primer to be distributed with registration materials that includes a release for attendees to sign, stating that they take personal responsibility for their behavior.
In some countries (such as China, India and the Philippines), business matters must be presented to a group, which discusses the details and arrives at a consensus. Everyone must be present when negotiating, as individual decisions are frowned upon. In other countries (such as Germany), an autocrat who might not even be present at the negotiations could be responsible for decision-making. Know what to expect before entering the boardroom.
While it may be the way things are done in America, a blunt and straight forward business approach does not go over well in China, where long process of negotiation is both expected and respected. In many Asian cultures, it is traditional to begin by negotiating a single objective. This allows both parties to establish trust with each other.
Americans traditionally get right down to business, but some friendly chit chat is an important icebreaker in Latin America. In China, it is imperative to establish a personal relationship before launching into business. This may entail learning the history and background of each member of the team. It is traditional to ask about their personal life and inquire about the well-being of family members before moving on to business issues. The Chinese may pose personal questions that Americans find offensive, such as: How much money do you earn? However, it is important to openly answer such questions in order to demonstrate trust.
On the flip side, the French do not like to get personal. They rarely invite business acquaintances to their homes, preferring to keep their private lives private. They do not expect (and generally feel uncomfortable) socializing with clients.
Business negotiations usually begin with introductions. It is always better to be more formal than casual. Introduce colleagues with their full titles, using Mr. or Madam before their names. In China and Japan, seniority and age is highly respected. In these countries, the presentation and exchange of business cards is taken very seriously. Those who do a lot of business in China may want to have cards printed up with one side in Chinese and the other side in English. The Chinese appreciate ornate business cards, with features such as gold seals. Use two hands when presenting your business card; when receiving a business card, carefully study it. Shoving a business card into your pocket without looking at it is a sign of disrespect.
The process of negotiation varies globally. The French do not necessarily negotiate sequentially. Germans want to have agendas in advance, and are generally not flexible about deviating from them. You may think you have finalized a deal in Russia, only to discover that they are also negotiating with a competitor. In Japan, saving face is valued, so make sure to disagree without being disagreeable.
Some cultures are uncomfortable saying “no.” In China, ambiguity is an art and negotiators use silence to their advantage. In India, negotiators that don’t want to say “no” avoid doing so by stating that they need to research a particular point, and then never mention it again.
In some countries, it is expected that business be conducted face-to-face. In others, such as tech-loving Scandinavia, email or Skype is an acceptable form of communication.
In the United States, verbal agreements are traditionally followed up with written documents. European contracts tend to be much shorter than the highly detailed American contracts. If a European contract seems too vague, don’t hesitate to add details. Negotiators in some countries, such as Russia, may attempt to re-negotiate written terms that were previously agreed upon, or may disregard them.
When negotiating contracts, Foster notes that you should never make assumptions. Everything should be clearly defined, even if it seems painfully obvious. To illustrate this point, he shares a story about how a planner orchestrating a meeting in Spain requested a “typical American breakfast.” She was shocked when cold fried chicken and coleslaw was served.
Likewise, be careful of nomenclature when describing rooms and accommodations. In Europe, a single room may be defined differently than in America.
Specify what currency payment will be in. Grimes notes that this is especially important in countries where fluctuations are commonplace. To assure a fixed rate, pay in U.S. dollars. He also notes that it is important to inquire about necessary permits and licenses. In some foreign countries, you must actually secure a permit to hold a meeting in the hotel you have booked.
Force majeure is defined as unexpected and unforeseeable circumstances that might prevent someone from fulfilling a contract. This might include a hurricane, terrorism or a disease outbreak. While it is common in America to have a force majeure clause in a contract, this may not be the case in other parts of the world. Make sure protection is included in the contract.
Some Other Tips for Planning International Events
Grimes points out that behavior acceptable in one country could be illegal in another. Kissing in public is commonplace in Italy, yet you could be arrested for public displays of affection in the United Arab Emirates. In Thailand you can be jailed for making negative remarks about the King, while in Singapore you could be taken into custody for jaywalking, spitting or not having your passport with you. To sidestep the chance of attendees engaging in embarrassing or potentially illegal acts in a foreign country, he recommends staging most social events onsite at the hotel, where behavior can be more contained.
Grimes also believes it is prudent to engage local legal counsel in advance—just in case. It may not be desirable to bring that attorney to the negotiating table, however. In Japan, for example, this would be perceived as a sign of bad intentions. When negotiating international contracts, establish a mutually-acceptable protocol for dispute resolution. Arbitration is always preferable to going into court internationally.
Finally, don’t assume that other countries will provide special access or accommodation for those with disabilities or special needs. While this is expected and even protected by law in America, it is not the case globally. Make sure to write special requests for accommodations into the contract.