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January 14, 2014

PCMA: How to Navigate Cultural Differences in Global Meetings

As more businesses go global, and as more events bring in international attendees, the chances are fairly good that you will have to plan a meeting or conference for an international crowd. At PCMA’s Convening Leaders conference in Boston, the session “How to Navigate Cultural Differences When Planning Global Meetings” covered a wide range of issues that can impact your international event. 
The problems can begin with “Hello.” Literally. In some countries, you shake hands when first meeting a business contact. In others, you bow. But what if you have been speaking to this person by phone for months? Should you hug? And how close together should you stand? 

“Do your homework,” said Phelps Hope of Kellen Meetings as the session began. “It’s important that you understand as much as possible early on. Is this a formal environment with government people or high-ranking officials? Do they have people around them who they have to impress?”  

The fail-safe, Hope said, is to behave formally for your own environment. Almost all international businesspeople understand cultural differences, and as long as you demonstrate that you are making an effort to respect their social mores, small missteps will be easily forgiven. Jody Egel of Million Dollar Round Table added that the Internet has a wealth of information on how to conduct business interactions in different countries, so research should be easy. 

Language Lessons

Then there are the language barriers. While one should always learn the basics—”Hello” and “Thank you”--before going to another country, it’s impossible to learn every language fluently. Lisa Astorga of the International Society on Thrombosis & Haemostasis noted that many international business professionals speak English, and that translators are widely available through CVBs. 

As a service, simultaneous translation should be available when needed, Astorga added, especially for a small or regional meeting where language is more likely to be a barrier. “At a large conference, there will usually be an official language for all events,” she added. “You must state that upfront and then keep it consistent.” 

But what you talk about matters just as much as what language you use at the meeting, and Hope suggested doing a bit more research before departure. “Has their local soccer team just won a major game? Has Ramadan just ended? Make a comment that shows you’ve taken time to understand the local community,” he said. “It helps builds relationships.” 


While many large-scale events are planned years in advance, it is important to study local calendars and make sure your conference will not overlap with any major holidays. “New Year here is not New Year in China,” Hope said. In some countries, bank holidays will affect not just event attendance, but deliveries of items to the venue beforehand.”

Cultural differences can also come into play in smaller scheduling issues. For example, Hope said, Americans tend to respond to email quickly. But when communicating with people in Asia, especially China, you may not hear back from them for several days. “They know you’re busy,” he explained, “and they feel that their email would be an interruption, so they lower their own priority.” His advice? “Be patient. Exercise understanding.” 

Astorga also pointed out that different cultures treat punctuality in different waysl. “In Germany, meetings start exactly on time,” she said. “In South America, people might show up an hour later.” And this does not simply come into play in terms of the host location, she added, but in terms of where event attendees come from. 

Other tips: Know the daily schedules of a destination. “In Malaysia, you must adjust the schedule for prayer time,” Egel said. “You can’t have an event over those times--it’s seen as an insult.” And pay attention to plane schedules when booking flights. If most planes land early in the day and attendees will arrive at their hotel in the morning, it may be good to book their rooms for the previous night so they aren’t kept waiting. 

Ultimately, Egel said, it is important to talk with a representative from the local CVB, or with other industry professionals who have traveled to the destination before or even planned events there. 


“Be sure you’re speaking the same language,” Egel said when asked about the challenges of international contract negotiations. “They may have another phrase or word for the same concept.” For example, are those tall tables at the reception called highboys or cocktail rounds? Is “pipe and drape” a universal term? Be sure all terminology is understood before the contract is signed, Egel suggested. 

Also, ask lots of questions about what is included in the contract. “Every venue is different,” Egel said. “In Japan, nothing is included in the venue, including toilet paper in the bathrooms. You have to pay for everything. In Thailand, everything is included--chair covers, bouquets for meals--everything! In the U.S., we don’t usually have breakfast included in our room rate, but it’s expected in Asia. If you have many Asian attendees, they’ll expect it.”

“Be creative,” Hope said. “Before you begin to negotiate, determine what you really need, and understand what your fallback is. If you want four of something, can you live with three? Get everything in writing and be flexible.”

But there are other problems that can emerge in cross-cultural negotiations, especially between women and men. “In Japan, if you’re there with a man, you may be talking, but the person you’re talking to will answer the man,” Egel said. “I just kept talking. You have to be flexible. Establish yourself as the contact, as the professional, as the voice of the association. I have not had any situations where people would not communicate with me.” Similarly, some convention centers will not work with international planners, requiring a PCO as an intermediary. 

Food & Beverage

“Look at local delicacies,” Egel said for planning food and beverage at an event. “Then look at the  translations to know what you’re ordering: Someone had wonderful sweet breads in France. They ordered sweetbreads in another country...and got something very different.” In some Asian countries, Hope added, live sea cucumber is considered a delicacy, but many Westerners are not willing to try it. 

“Focus on the attendees and what kind of meals they’ll expect,” he said. In Malaysia, a largely Muslim country, all food served at a conference should be halal in accordance with Muslim dietary restrictions. India has many vegetarians, and all meals are expected to be hot, so cold sandwiches are out. Also, be aware of what food is considered “peasant fare” that, while tasty, would not be considered appropriate for a business meal. 

As the session ended, an audience member mentioned that she had experienced confusion at an event when she wanted to confirm that the evening reception would be open bar. “Did you ask for ‘open bar?’” Hope asked. “Because if you did, they may have just confirmed that the bar was open.” 

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About the Author: Jena Tesse Fox

Jena Tesse Fox





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