Addressing Cultural Differences in International Meetings

After recently planning a meeting in Belgium we were inspired to share our secrets to success. Brussels plays an important role in the list of top convention destinations for a relatively small country. Global corporations often choose this city because of its location in the heart of Europe and easy transportation routes. To assist our readers who are managing international events we'll explore some of the unique challenges affecting communication, cultural differences, and special legal considerations.As global meeting planners, To Plan Ahead understands that cultural differences will vary by country or even specific regions. Take Belgium as an example. Did you know Belgium has three official languages? That's because like some other countries in Europe including Switzerland, they have strong ties to their surrounding neighbors including France, The Netherlands and Germany. Even if people in these regions speak multiple languages you should know that any government or academic communications are mandated to follow the official language of the region in which they are located. This is important when preparing contracts as we'll explain next.

What's important to consider when organizing business meetings, conferences, or events in Belgium? First off the Belgium's take great care in their appearances and homes and pride themselves on being punctual to meetings. So it really goes without saying but look your best and be on time! According to "The most suitable time for a business meeting is probably about 10 a.m. If the proceedings are positive, it may lead to lunch, when the agenda can range from a continuation of the business discussion to purely social affairs. This will help build the sense of mutual trust that is so important to Belgians." Secondly, they develop relationships first and then handle business. People there are very friendly and helpful; however, their contract negotiations should result in a win-win or compromise. You should be prepared with a list of contract concessions but plan not to win all of them. Relationships are important to Belgium's and you'll find them receptive to your suggestions within reason. Luckily your counterpart will probably deal in English with you, however like with any international deal, if there is any language in the contract unfamiliar to you be sure you have an independent professional translate it into English and that both copies are compared for continuity. Use your problem solving skills and have patience.

Useful Tips!

  • Watch out for European Holidays which can span either the whole month of July or August. It will be hard to get any contracts or planning done then.
  • European participants are more culturally inclined to book their hotel room either outside of the block or at a totally different hotel from where the meeting is being held. Consequently, you may want to start off with only the absolute minimum amount of guest rooms necessary.
  • As is typical when booking meeting space in Europe, space is at a premium. Unlike the US where meeting space can be complimentary based on food and room pick-up, there is always a fee attached to each meeting room and pre-function area.
  • Gratuities are not expected since employees are paid well and don't have to rely on tips. The only downside to this cultural aspect is their service staff doesn't always have the flexibility and "can-do attitude" that we are used to in places like the US since they do not have to rely on commissions.
  • Traffic in Brussels is horrendous so most people tend to drive rather than use public transportation. However, the freeways have a dedicated lane for buses and taxis so that helps to ease the situation a little.

If your meeting includes time for networking or even an extended stay while abroad, Brussels and surrounding cities pack a real punch for such a small geographic area. We recommend you offer a dine-around opportunity on the first night of your convention in the City Centre so people can get a chance to experience the culture, local cuisines and people of Belgium first-hand. If you are planning an off-site group dinner we recommend a beer tasting which was one of our favorites. Be sure to serve one of Brussels' most popular dishes – mussels in wine with parsley. Yum!

Overall we found working with the Belgians a positive experience. They tend to be very detail oriented and decisive which as Certified Meeting Professionals we really appreciated. Please contact us if you would like help with your upcoming international meeting.

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