I would have to admit that before the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, I thought that natural disasters, the outbreak of disease or the occurrence of terrorism were the largest uncontrollable events that impacted the choice of meeting or incentive destination or the operation of travel programs.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had a devastating effect on travel to, and within, Louisiana for several years. The 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland impacted air travel across the Atlantic and caused havoc on programs in Europe or North America that involved attendees from the other continent.
I know our team ensured that any of our clients who had programs operating in the Caribbean or Florida were kept well aware of the rise of the Zika virus and the steps destinations were taking to control it. As well, we consistently monitor any acts of terrorism and government reactions when suggesting cities or venues for programs and providing clients with information so decision makers can make informed choices.
There have always been some political realities that impacted the meetings and incentive business. Very few industry professionals would recommend destinations that are experiencing violent internal political upheaval or armed conflict. It was not too many years ago that U.S. policies made it difficult to consider Cuba as a destination for groups that had American participants, and even today many international groups try to avoid travelling to or through countries that have numerous visa requirements. This does not mean that planners avoid every destination – just last year our team actively worked with a client to ensure their qualifiers acquired all the necessary visas to enjoy a week-long incentive program in China.
Today, a whole new political reality has arisen that seems to make holding face-to-face meetings or international incentive travel programs more challenging. The March 2017 article “If you plan it, Will They Come?” on Meetingsnet.com spoke of two international conferences that were taking place in the USA the week following the first Presidential travel ban. Both had speakers and attendees cancel because people were unwilling or unable to travel to the United States. It cited both the economic and publicity costs of cancelling or moving events to more “neutral” locations.
The MPI Newsbrief of March 20 featured an article from the Independent that reported on an African business summit in the U.S. that had no African attendees as about 100 participants were denied visas. “Among the people, who were not allowed to attend the event were speakers and government officials from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa.”
In a world that is already divided by politics and economics, what can we as meeting and incentive professionals do? An article by Kevin Hinton, CIS, Chief Excellence Officer for SITE and the Site Foundation, in the March/April issue of Incentive described how the diversity of cultures presents business with a dichotomy: “With the heightened sense of political and economic uncertainty, people across the globe are seemingly more divided. At the same time, diversity and inclusion are playing increasingly important roles in all areas of companies’ human resource strategies,” he wrote.
If our business of bringing people together and exposing cultures to each other is to succeed, we must continue to speak out for a calm and rational approach to international travel policies. Let’s encourage meaningful dialogue that includes national interests but encourages discussion among cultures rather than policies that pander to those who support xenophobia. And most of all, let us support organizations like MPI and SITE that bring members together from around the world to support the value of international coexistence.
– Les Selby is the director of Meetings & Events for Aimia’s Channel and Employee division in Canada. He has been a corporate, third party and independent event professional for over 25 years. Les has earned both his Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) designation and his Global Certification in Meeting Management (CMM). Inducted into Meeting + Incentive Travel Magazine’s Industry Hall of Fame in 2009, he is an active member of Meeting Professionals International (MPI). He served on the Toronto chapter’s Board of Directors, and was the 2000-2001 chapter president. In 1997, Les was recognized as Planner of the Year by the MPI Toronto chapter, and received the President’s Award for 2009. He can be reached at email@example.com.