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Meeting Planning

Sure, you can plan your next meeting down the road at the local convention center, drive to the nearest conference hotel or even go a little farther by crossing state lines. With so many affordable options to choose from—running the gamut from community centers and university lecture halls to government meeting rooms—it would be all too easy to organize such an event. It’s also a popular trend in meeting planning these days, due to budget cuts and the pressure to avoid even the slightest appearance of extravagance. And at first glance it makes perfect sense—lower your costs, save your budget and get a nice pat on the back for a job well done (a job you hope to keep).

But dig a little deeper into planning such a seemingly aordable meeting, and it may not look quite so attractive. The unintended consequences could result in reduced attendance, lower morale (especially important for motivational and incentive-type events) and, in general, less focus and engagement from attendees, and fewer inspired ideas and solutions. ROI is a simple ratio. You may easily be able to reduce the amount you invest in a meeting or event, but your return can just as easily fall along with it.

Setting can have a tremendous impact on the success (or failure) of a meeting, and can be the single biggest decision you make in planning an event. Which is why choosing a setting across the border in one of the U.S.’s neighboring countries to the north or south, either Canada or Mexico, is a sure way to up your return. The potential positives are many, starting with engaged and inspired attendees, a boost in morale from choosing such a rewarding location, and hosting what could be the most memorable meeting of your year. And despite what on the surface might seem a luxury, a meeting in Canada or Mexico can be a real bargain, given the favorable currency exchange rate for U.S. dollars, the suspension of tourist taxes and the number of deals o ered by hotels and meetings venues in those countries.

Whether north or south, there’s an abundance of attractions and a diverse range of options to satisfy any taste, with easily accessible destinations and reasonable travel times that defy the “international” label. If you choose north, Western Canada is a mix of cities that range from the international experience of Vancouver, B.C., to the cowboy flavor of Calgary and the festival city of Edmonton, all nestled in amazing natural resources of pristine mountains, forests and lakes. “I would say across western Canada, one thing that makes our cities unique is you can have an outdoor experience very close to urban centers,” says Janice Greenwood-Fraser, manager, travel
media relations, for Tourism British Columbia,referring to the abundance of urban parks. “So you can escape from meetings and get right out of the city center within 30 minutes, and that goes for Vancouver, Victoria and Calgary.”

By contrast, Mexico is a tropical country with more than 5,000 miles of coastline, secluded beaches, large metropolises like Mexico City and Guadalajara, and numerous cultural attractions. “There are a lot of cultural activities, I can speak for an hour on that,” says Eduardo Chaillo, director of the strategic business unit, U.S. & Canada, for the Mexico Tourism Board. “Most of the attendees take two days before or after their meeting. Right now they’re doing shorter meetings, that’s a trend, but they go Thursday and Friday for the meeting, and stay the weekend for leisure.”

While a meeting across the border can be a home run for all involved, it’s not without its risks. But the more planners know beforehand, on questions like customs and border issues, health and safety, and cultural and attitude differences, the more they can communicate those issues to attendees, mitigate the risks and enhance the rewards. ROI can be difficult to measure when it comes to meetings, but a meeting across the border in Canada or Mexico may lead to many happy returns.

Crossing Borders
The 5,525-mile border between the U.S. and Canada (2,284 miles for the western regions) is the world’s longest common international boundary, an entirely peaceful expanse that attests to the past and current relations between the two countries. Crossing back and forth between the U.S. and Canada has historically been an easy and routine procedure, whether traveling by car, plane or boat, which until 2001 required only an official photo ID such as a driver’s license.

Since 2007, a passport was required by anyone traveling by air into Canada. But with new U.S. legislation as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), starting on June 1, 2009, a valid passport, or NEXUS Card, will be mandatory for anyone traveling between the U.S. and Canada by land, sea or air. Another issue to keep in mind for planners is that driving under the influence is considered a criminal offense in Canada, which means anyone with a DUI in their past (which can show up on a passport search up to 20 years later) could be denied entry. If attendees know ahead of time, they can simply contact a Canadian consulate in the U.S. for a signed letter of entry to show the border agents.

For customs issues, planners can contact the Canada Border Services Agency for details on the Convention Services Program, which serves the meetings and convention industry there. Documentation is required for any exhibits, displays and products brought into the country, including a security deposit, and a letter of request should
be sent to the agency at least six weeks in advance. Greenwood-Fraser advises sending items in one large shipment instead of smaller, individual ones. Crossing the border into Mexico requires proof of U.S. citizenship, but a passport is necessary if you want to get back into the United States. A tourist card is given out to visitors when they enter the country, with a portion they tear off and keep, and need to present to the customs agent when
they leave. “If they are Americans, they won’t have any problems,” Chaillo says, in reference to border crossings.

“In terms of customs, if they bring things to sell, they have to comply with certain rules, fill forms and pay taxes, but everything is very easy. There are certain rules, but if they’re working with international couriers like FedEx and DHL, those companies know how to handle everything.”

Planners have allies available to help facilitate the entire planning process across both borders, in cluding the Mexico Convention Bureau, an office within the Mexico Tourism Board, and the Canadian Tourism Commission. “We are the connectors between suppliers and planners,” Chaillo says.

“We find exactly what [planners] need and connect them to suppliers, and can accept and reply to the RFP.” Chaillo’s office can offer advice on any city in Mexico, and can help a planner apply for tax a exemption, with additional offices in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Houston, New York and Washington, D.C., as well as Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. And just like CVBs in the U.S., each city, state and province in Mexico and Canada have
CVBs available to assist planners.

Health and Safety
Given all the media attention Mexico has received lately, with a glaring spotlight on the violence between rival drug cartels in border areas with the U.S., safety is a concern that many travelers are currently expressing. And while violence in these border areas is very real, Mexican officials have emphasized that there have been no reports of similar violence in the resort cities where most meetings take place, including Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Cancun, and even the business districts of Mexico City and Guadalajara. “It’s only five counties out of 2,000 in Mexico, and they’re located in the border states and have nothing to do with meeting destinations,”
Chaillo says. “In the meeting areas there are no problems. It’s 2,000 miles from Cancun to the troubled area.”

As for health issues, there are hospitals and clinics near every resort and meeting area in Mexico, such as Amerimed with facilities in Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas, that cater especially to foreign visitors. “I think as with any time you travel, you have to make provisions before you go,” Chaillo says. “But there are a lot of
American hospitals here.”

While safety issues for Canada are no greater than most U.S. cities, the same common-sense approach comes into play for travelers to any new destination. Keep an eye on your belongings when in public, and use the hotel safe for money and valuables. As far as health concerns in Canada, Greenwood-Fraser recommends double-checking
with your insurance provider, to make sure your travel insurance extends for the duration of your trip, and that family or friends know where you’re going and for how long. “We have a well-developed medical system across Canada, and in some ways provide broader care [for travelers],” she says. “And visitors want to make sure they’re covered."

New Money
One of the major cost variables that comes into play for meetings in foreign countries is currency. Like playing the stock market, if you hold an event in Canada and Mexico when the U.S. dollar is weak, relative to the Mexican peso and Canadian dollar, you might need to add 50 percent more to the cost of everything. But currently the reverse is true, with $1US buying $1.25CAD, and 13.90 in pesos, which provides a built-in bargain for meetings in both countries. “We had a devaluation of the peso, so it’s a very strong dollar right now,” Chaillo says. “In comparison with what you could buy in December, now you can buy 45 percent more.”

It can also be a challenge for attendees new to international travel, or who haven’t been out of the country in a while, to deal with foreign currency. Figuring out the value of strange coins and bills can be tricky at first, and the exchange rates offered at various locations, including airports, banks and hotels, can vary. Greenwood-Fraser suggests withdrawing funds directly from ATMs, which offer up-to-the-minute and competitive exchange rates. While it’s recommended to exchange currency, many shops and services in larger cities and resort areas will accept U.S. dollars.

Tourist destinations make their living by taxing visitors, and resort areas in Canada and Mexico are no different. But to entice meetings business to come south of the border, the Mexican government has suspended what was otherwise a 15 percent VAT (10 percent for border areas). Foreign meeting planners, and foreign visitors who participate in a congress, convention, fair or exhibition, are exempt from the tax, otherwise levied at hotels and meeting and event venues.

Changes in Latitudes/Attitudes
Except for a few curious spellings and pronunciations, there’s little difference between Canadian and American English, with cultural distinctions that vary only slightly as well. And since French is the official language of the eastern province of Quebec, some signage throughout the country is in both English and French. In general, Canadians are liberal in their attitudes, low-key and friendly, with international-flavored cities like Vancouver that owe their multicultural mix to the country’s welcoming immigration policy. “I think that most Americans will feel quite comfortable and at home in Canada,” Greenwood-Fraser says. “But it’s good to know who the winning hockey team is in town.”

Otherwise, Canada is all about wide open spaces and the great outdoors, a point of pride for Canadians who enjoy their nature all year round—winter for skiing in the Canadian Rockies and summer for the pristine lakes, rivers and forests. And for visitors, Canada is like a breath of fresh air. Meetings attendees can quickly escape into large and untamed urban parks, like Stanley Park in Vancouver, or simply drive a short distance for a full immersion into the outdoors.

Spanish, of course, is the official tongue of Mexico, but most people in resort areas—in shops, restaurants and hotels—can communicate in English, and one of the few language issues a visitor may ever have is deciphering a menu. But a little bit of Spanish can go a long way, and further enrich the experience.

“There’s a perception that Mexico is dirty and dusty, but it’s very clean. It’s a different look, feel and touch, and it’s definitely a different pace, which is one thing Americans enjoy about Mexico,” says Alison Brainard-Sydney, director of sales and marketing at the Grand Bay Hotel, Isla Navidad Resort in Manzanillo. “Mexican’s don’t live to
work, but work to live. They’re very gracious and giving, but they don’t move at our pace, and that’s what makes it such a lovely experience here.”

It’s an experience that visitors seem to embrace. While the Grand Bay Hotel is all about luxury, according to Brainard-Sydney, guests at the Four-Diamond resort often take a water taxi into town, which is nothing more than a simple fishing boat—no official ticket-taker requesting payment, just a guy and his skiff. For Americans, the simple life and relaxed pace of Mexico are some of its biggest attractions.

Activities and Attractions
If Vancouver is your destination, expect a sophisticated city experience, with an array of shops, clubs and restaurants in popular areas such as Gastown, or the farmer’s market atmosphere at the Granville Island Public Market. The city is set to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, and several new venues have been constructed for the games. Whistler is a popular ski resort just outside the city, and Victoria on Vancouver Island is a short ferry ride away.

In the southern region of Alberta Province, Calgary has a well-earned reputation as a western rodeo town, despite the growth spurt and oil wealth that has come to the city over the last several decades. To the north is the provincial capital of Edmonton, dubbed “The Festival City” for its year-round lineup of world-class events that include the International Beerfest and the Vocal Arts Festival. And just 90 minutes from Calgary in the heart of the Canadian Rockies is the quaint mountain town of Banff, and Banff National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site—an Alpine paradise offering numerous outdoor activities.

There’s no shortage of attractions in Mexico either, starting with the many beach activities found at the numerous seaside resorts, from Cancun in the East to Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of Baja in the West, while visitors can explore the country’s many colonial cities, including Taxco and Oaxaca. But there’s also a host of cultural attractions, the most famous of which are the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula outside of Cancun, such as Chichen Itza and Tulum. The area also has several eco-theme parks, including Xcaret and Xel-Ha. And just 50 minutes outside Acapulco is the archeological zone of Tehuacalco dating back to 750 B.C., which opened to the
public at the start of 2009.

Meetings Venues
With all the recent new and renovated properties in Mexico and Canada, meeting groups give up nothing by crossing the border, in terms of the size, scope, condition and amenities of event facilities. To the north, the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre unveiled its expansion in April, tripling the size of the state-of-the-art, green-friendly facility to a total 473,523 sq. ft. of space. The Victoria Conference Centre on nearby Vancouver Island has 73,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre offers 122,000 sq. ft. of function space.

Opening in April in Mexico is the new International Convention Center in Puerto Vallarta, a 105,000-square-foot facility, which includes the 54,000 sq. ft. Gran Salon Vallarta and a massive 250,000-square-foot outdoor square. Mazatlan has also just unveiled a new convention center, while the International Acapulco Center offers 170,000 sq. ft. of space and is home to the annual Tianguis Turistico travel show. Planning an event in Canada or Mexico may involve more work than a trip to the local Sheraton.

But like a piñata full of treats, a meeting across the border can hold a wide array of hidden rewards, and have your attendees engaged and talking about their experience for years.