New visa requirements for visitors to the U.S., long lines at security checkpoints, security pat-downs that some women find a little too personal—-airline travel has a new set of hassles, and a new set of headaches for some event planners.
DMCs are seeing changes in some of the basics of their business. VIP meet-and-greets have moved from the gate to the baggage area, and curbside pickup and drop-offs for clients close to their gate can be a challenge, notes Madelyn Marusa, vice president of industry relations for Carlsbad, Calif.-based PRA Destination Management (www.pra.com).
“We have had international groups where a number of individuals were hand-picked for intense security clearance, which took several hours, and the client thought that we should have been able to do something about it,” adds Linda Higgison, head of The TCI Companies of Washington (www.tcico.com). “Clearly this was not a logistics issue, but a federal security issue. All we could do was stay in constant communication with customs to establish the status of the individual we were picking up and continue to wait for the passengers so that when they were released, we were there to pick them up.”
Travel hassles also put some new tasks into the lap of planners.
Today, fewer guests travel with their computers, “so our staff is utilized more to handle the executives’ communication needs,” notes one in-house corporate planner who prefers to remain anonymous. Many of her guests traveling from abroad don’t check bags at all, relying instead on the hotel’s dry-cleaning services, so “now I have to always check the hotel’s dry-cleaning prices and turnaround times.”
Besides creating more work, the new delays in moving through airports have eaten into attendance for some events.
In order to cut the expense of an extra night in the hotel, attendees who fly in the morning of the event’s first day “rarely show up to a meeting before 9 a.m.,” explains Karen Polastri, executive director of the California Association of Mortgage Brokers in Folsom, Calif. (www.camweb.org). Events on the final day also get squeezed “as people start thinking about the traffic and what time delays they might experience at the airport, so they start calculating what time to duck out of the last meeting -- and if that last meeting is not riveting, we lose them.”
Even worse, some potential attendees are not showing up at all.
“During the past two years we have seen at least four major groups from Mexico cancelled because travelers could not secure visas in sufficient time, or because the elevated level of alert alarmed them,” notes Don McPhail, vice president and general manager of San Francisco-based USA Hosts (www.usahosts.com). “We sense no objection to the need for diligence and security as it relates to prevention of terrorism. But the limited number of State Department people attempting to serve a larger number of potential visitors, under new rules that require an increased number of personal interviews for visas, has deterred group travel from Mexico.”
NO VISA, NO EVENT
Shelley Rote, creative director and manager partner of New Orleans-based Signature Events (www.signature-dmc.com), recalls a guest from Amsterdam who was turned away upon arrival in the U.S., even though she came with her return ticket, her hotel confirmation and credentials to support that she worked for the company producing her mandatory meeting in New Orleans. Rote reports that a recent panel at a SITE meeting concluded that “because of the current administration, travel restrictions and hassles in airports, the Europeans are staying in Europe. Not even the favorable exchange rate is making it worth the trouble.”
The in-house corporate planner says she is looking at taking her international meeting this year to Mexico or Canada rather than the U.S., to avoid visa hurdles and to get better direct flights.
Yet an equal number of event professionals tell Special Events’ Eventline that event guests tend to be seasoned travelers who are taking today’s travel hassles in stride.
Ronnie Davis, managing director with New York-based Great Performances (www.greatperformances.com), thinks that the “significant drop” in travel after 9/11 ended in 2002. Now, “I feel that everyone has adjusted, and business travel is actually up on all fronts,” he notes. “My out-of-town [outside New York] events have increased by almost 60 percent.”
The corporate clients served by Los Angeles-based Extraordinary Events (www.extraordinaryevents.net) include sophisticated guests who travel frequently for business already, notes company founder Andrea Michaels.
TENDER LOVING CARE
Even so, her team makes it a point to show special concern for guests, such as offering travel tips beforehand and greeting guests with drinks or soothing music upon arrival, “anything that makes them feel recognized and appreciated,” Michaels says.
She puts special focus on arrivals. “Mostly people want to know they are taken care of, so that means the pickup needs to be perfect,” she notes. “Since it's only the last experience that you really, really remember, even if the departure has been less than perfect, if the arrival is just plain terrific, then the experience is good. Then put them on a van or bus, and treat them to refreshments, [with] a happy guide who welcomes them sincerely and personally, and listens carefully and commiserates if they complain.” What’s essential: “It's all about being up close and personal, even with the liabilities of today's travel.”
Planners can turn to their DMCs for help in overcoming travel hurdles, Marusa adds. “DMCs are knowledgeable about their airports and can provide meeting planners with information on private rooms available in airports and signage opportunities for groups,” she notes. “In addition we are experienced in dealing with arrival/departure air formalities in each destination, and can assist with logistics and local staff who know the ins and outs of the airport.”
Sally Webb, head of London-based The Special Event Co. (www.specialevent.co.uk), travels often between Europe and the U.S., and she believes that apart from longer lines to clear security, travel poses no more hurdles than it has in years past.
"There is a lot of media hype both in Europe and the U.S. about the difficulties that international travelers face with U.S. customs and immigration, but in reality I do not feel the immigration, security and exit procedures are very different to the status pre-Iraq or 9/11," she explains.
"The main challenge I feel needs to be combated is the perception that traveling is difficult, as opposed to the reality that the world has changed, and that we must all accept that procedures need to be more stringent, but will not necessarily be problematic."