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April 16, 2008

GLOBAL CONFERENCES Bridging the cultural divide

The BACD’s recent deal with the DMAI highlights the growing international perspective that the conference and meetings industry is looking to cultivate, but can cross-boundary partnerships like this work when the markets are so different?

Of course, it’s not just cultural ways that set the various markets apart there are much more intrinsic differences. “The UK market has quite a fragmented conference and meetings market,” says Sue Etherington, international sales manager at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre (QEIICC), London. “Although Europe is not dissimilar to this, the UK is fragmented to a greater degree. The UK meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) market is also quite dynamic; moving and changing very quickly.”

Market convergence
Corporate culture can vary widely across the globe, too. Geoff Fenlon, general manager, the International Convention Centre (ICC), Birmingham, highlights some key differences in approach on either side of the Atlantic. “Due to the popularity of early morning breakfast meetings in the US, conferencing venues need to operate much earlier in the day than those in the UK or Europe. The American market also operates on a much tighter timescale, with conferences usually booked no longer than one or two years in advance, whereas, at the ICC, we are looking at meetings booked into our calendar as far ahead as 2020.”

Fenlon believes we are currently seeing a convergence of international markets, due primarily to globalisation. “Aspects of the different cultural markets are gelling together, streamlining international conferencing and narrowing cultural divides,” he adds. “For instance, US-based companies will often adopt a more European style of operation when dealing with overseas markets, which provides a more fluid and effective method of doing business.

"Global brands based in America, such as Nike, have dedicated overseas centres in Europe with staff trained in European practices. If you want to do business with a company like Nike, you go straight to their European office, because they have the resources to conduct business with you straight away on a level that you both feel comfortable with.”

Fitting together
This may indeed be the case, but you may still need to conduct business in a different country, and for this reason Etherington feels it is crucial to understand how the conference and meetings market fits together around the world, and what they can bring to the relationship and the ultimate success of the event. “For example,” she says, “you need to know about the conference booking agent’s role in the UK, which Europe does not generally have and the US has, but to a different extent.

"This third-party involvement between the end client and the venue has a role to play in bringing the two together, but also the dynamics need to be understood. Quite often this relationship will work alongside another supplier role, such as an event management company, production company or conference organiser.”

Etherington also advises that countries can have differing attitudes from everything from the amount of time allotted to social networking to catering. “I think the important thing is to be aware first of all that, to a certain degree, these differences exist in all these markets, and indeed others,” she says. “Ensure you explore and understand the differences and dynamics, and how it might impact on your business. When dealing with new clients or suppliers, it is sensible to discuss all these elements and ensure you understand the chain they are working in.”

A deeper understanding
Fenlon adds: “Having an understanding of people, treating them as individuals and recognising their cultural backgrounds are the three vital elements of dealing with international markets. Key to understanding differences in international markets is effective research, both of the markets and cultures. It is vital to understand and work with the clients’ individual, established methods, not against them.

“There is no point trying to impose a way of operating on an organiser just because that is the way that a venue has operated before, because they will just kick-back against it, and you could potentially lose a client. For example, many Croatians won’t do business until they have got to know you on a personal level, with a lot of focus on family and background. In the USA, this isn’t the case, and they want to get straight down to business. There is a definite distinction between personal and business lives.”

For further advice, Etherington recommends companies to approach bodies such as Visit Britain, Meeting Professionals International (MPI) or the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE), all of which will operate in a variety of business cultures.

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