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Going Global: Harnessing Lessons Learned
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By Emily Reineke, MA, Senior Associate, MCI USA & John Chen, CAE, Director, Marketing, MCI USA


Whether it's foreign companies producing products for the US market, or call centers for US-based companies located overseas, there is no question that we are part of a larger global community and every day associations are looking for ways to take advantage of this globalization to grow their membership, programs and services. At MCI USA, we have a number of global clients, and one specifically has a membership base in six continents, 60 countries, a board of directors representing 17 different countries, and hosts three (and sometimes four) conferences a year on different continents. This association is headquartered in the United States, with staff working in the Washington, DC office.  

Many professionals are familiar with the joys and challenges of running a national organization, and these joys and challenges are expounded when working on a global scale. There are many benefits to working globally and connecting members in cross-border conversations daily:

  • A global exchange of knowledge;
  • Providing an opportunity for members and conference attendees to learn how their industry works in different countries; and
  •  Networking at a level they could never achieve without membership in a global association.

These opportunities also come with challenges as an association grows globally. An association’s global evolution does take time and careful planning.

What’s Involved in Working Globally?
Working in a global association can provide an organization with exciting new opportunities for growth. However, there are inherent differences in working globally that require additional planning and thoughtfulness to be successful. 

Cultural Perceptions 
If you have always lived and worked in the same state or region, it’s easy to become accustomed to how decisions are made, time is managed and conversations are had. If you travel to a state in another part of the country, there are almost always differences in the pace of life, the choice of words in a sentence (for example, do you call it soda or pop?) and the disposition. These differences are magnified when working globally and every time your association’s staff speak with people in multiple countries. When your membership includes representation from a variety of countries, clear communication is paramount. The idioms and references that Americans are accustomed to making often hold little weight on multi-country conference calls and marketing materials sent to different countries, and many times lead to confusion. Speaking and writing clearly and succinctly is central to achieving success. 

Not only are idioms and communications important to navigate, but there are also work norms to understand. For example, in Europe it is acceptable to take a few days to reply to an email, and many Europeans take a multi-week holiday in August. This can create difficulty when planning a fall conference in Europe. To overcome this, a longer timeline is necessary, clear expectations must be set on deliverables, and all local planning partners must be committed because amidst best-laid plans there will be many last-minute confirmations.

Multiple Time Zones
Many of us have setup a conference call with people located in Washington, Chicago and someone remotely working in California, and we can almost always have a conversation on the same-day or next-day. When working globally, setting up a phone call becomes much more difficult because the participant’s time zones span an eight (or more) hour time difference. This requires everyone being flexible with some accepting calls at inconvenient times, especially when the call is with someone in Arizona, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. Good notes for those who could not call in, who fell asleep, or who spilled their morning coffee during the call are a must. And remember, when one is on a call at 6 am or 10 pm, they might not be as aware of their choice of language and idioms. 

Finally, using a reliable tool to make sure you have the correct times for everyone is imperative. You will also want to double-check that tool when the clocks change for daylight savings; there is nothing worse than listing to the chimes of a conference call line for five minutes before realizing you have erred in setting up a call! We find timeanddate.com’s World Clock invaluable for this purpose.

National Currencies
For those of us working domestically in the United States, our receipts always correspond to our bank statements and money is pretty straightforward until we have dig deep into understanding financial statements. When working internationally, finances become very complicated very quickly. There are around 200 countries using more than 150 national currencies, and the conversation rates change by the minute. So, if you purchase a bottle of water for €1.50, your bank statement might show $1.65 or $1.69. In this example, four cents doesn’t really matter, but when taking conference payments in euros, sponsorship payments in dollars and euros, and making local vendor payments in euros via wire transfer, conversion rates, transfer fees, and final accounting is difficult. And, before, during, and after the event, an organization must follow the tax rules of the country and file returns quarterly. This makes detailed accounting practices, scrupulous record keeping, and a basic understanding of foreign tax structures vital to the success. 

One word of advice: hire a strong local vendor to assist with country-specific tax structures. 

Industry Standards
If these cultural differences, time zone challenges and financial practices weren’t enough to make any meeting planner pull their hair out, it turns out that industry standards and terms aren’t consistent around the world either. If you put two meeting planners from the US in a room, they could plan an event together because they have the same general assumptions about the industry and the hotel staff, caterer, and vendors know the same language. 

Terms such as high-tops, crescent rounds, podiums, and stages are commonly understood by US meeting planners. Globally, many of these “industry standard” terms have different meanings. In the US a podium is the tall stand from which someone speaks behind. In other countries it’s called a lectern and the podium is actually the stage on which the speaker stands. Again, as it’s important to speak clearly and succinctly, and it’s also important to test your understanding and the translation of common words and terms. Without doing this, a meeting planner could show up on site and have the event look completely different than anticipated.

What is an association to do when working on a global scale?
MCI USA is in a unique position to manage these challenges for any association. As the United States platform for the largest global provider of strategic engagement and activation solutions, MCI USA is part of a global workforce of nearly 2,000 professionals worldwide operating in 60 cities across 31 countries. This network of global partners provides clients with unique access to a global workforce that operates in the same countries that they hold their events. Here are a few lessons we’ve learned along the way.

Identifying Local Partners
While much planning can be done from the United States office, having local partners on the ground is vital to the overall success of events in foreign countries. This can be done through member volunteers, hired vendors, or local corporate offices. This means that the US-based association staff has local partners to ask about industry norms and regulations in specific countries, greatly reducing communication barriers. 

Dedicated Staff Specialists
At MCI USA, we have staff with expertise in global events. They have repeatedly navigated the cultural challenges, time zone difficulties, currency conversions and industry language barriers to execute high caliber events in foreign countries. Not only can staff understand the big challenges, they can understand the small ones too – like how to get a shipment of bag through customs before an event, how to find a printer locally to avoid going through a customs declaration, and how to build a relationship with every person involved in the event- from the president to the hotel wait staff. While not every association or company may be able to hire individuals with global expertise, this skill can be taught to someone who is open minded, pays attention to detail, and will prioritize understanding an event/activity from the perspective of the end user. 

Working with Strong Global Vendors
When it comes to planning a conference, you need strong partners and vendors to help make your event a success. This is especially true when it comes to planning events in foreign countries. One of the most important vendors is a tax/regulation vendor who can advise the association on country-specific legislation and instructions. Additionally, many US-based service providers offer international services, and/or have offices in foreign countries. Selecting these vendors carefully can help mitigate potential problems with language barriers, country-specific legislation, and local norms. 

Final Thoughts
Many associations are considering expanding globally, and to do this effectively, a comprehensive growth strategy is required. It means including multiple country representation on your board, deciding on a standard currency, undertaking a market analysis of potential members, and ensuring an understanding of where your association can have a global impact. A decision to expand globally is one that the board should consider carefully and pursue with a specific strategy in mind. The strategy could mean expanding membership, programs, services, and events to multiple countries. Other benefits for global expansion may include:

Extending the sales life of existing and products and services by identifying new markets;
Developing international networks for members;
Building new country-specific tools and resources; and
Hosting a comparative education program/conference to facilitate cross-border learning.

Working in a global arena can provide an association with exciting new opportunities. It is critically important for associations to evaluate their strategies and capabilities to ensure that global growth will be a rewarding effort.

MCI USA (formerly Coulter Companies) helps companies and associations to strategically engage and activate their target audiences, building the dedicated online and offline communities they need to strengthen their brands and boost their performance. Headquartered in the Washington, DC area with offices in New York and Miami, MCI USA is proudly recognized by the American Business Ethics Awards as one of the top companies in the United States for vision, leadership and integrity. Through the merger of MCI and Coulter Companies in 2015, MCI USA serves as the United States platform for the largest global provider of strategic engagement and activation solutions. This union results in a workforce of more than 1,950 professionals in 60 cities and 32 countries, accelerating MCI’s ability to work global and deliver local to senior influencers and decision-makers in associations, corporations and governments. Find out more at www.mci-group.com/usa.


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