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IAEE Interview with Cynthia Cortis, Events Director, SmithBucklin

Nicole Bowman, Vice President of Marketing & Communications with IAEE, sat down with Cynthia Cortis, Events Director with SmithBucklin, to gain insight on the appeal of China and international considerations when planning events abroad. Cynthia has been in the exhibitions and events industry for more than 20 years.

Was this a career of choice when you started or something you stumbled into?

I stumbled into it. I have my degree in economics, and I started my career as an investment banker. The company I worked for in Beverly Hills, California, did very high-end events for its clients. I was quite jealous of my co-workers who went to events at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and planned dinners for famous people, while I was crunching numbers in the basement. That’s how I discovered that event planning could be a great career.

You have over 15 years of experience in conference production and management. Have you been with SmithBucklin for the majority of your career?

I started in Los Angeles doing corporate meetings mostly in the technology world with Microsoft, Cisco, and IBM and then moved to Chicago to take a position with SmithBucklin, and yes, I have been here about fifteen years.

Let’s jump into the appeal of China. In your opinion, when did show organizers start taking notice of China as a destination and revenue generator?

I think they started taking notice just after the doors opened to China. It’s been on people’s radar for fifteen years or so, but the infrastructure just wasn’t there. It’s been relatively recent that we have had the ability to do business there.

If the Visa Waiver Program, which they are thinking of changing to the Trusted Traveler Program, included China, how much of an impact do think that would have on the exhibitions industry in the U.S.?

I think it would be absolutely huge and not just for the U.S. It is difficult for people to get into China for meetings as well as getting out of China for meetings. I can only imagine that we would see huge increases in attendance from the people of China. A huge impact both ways.

In your own words, what do you think is the appeal of China? 

I think what everybody sees is a huge new market. My clients are interested in China. I have an aviation client organization, and China has new airlines popping up practically every year. This is credited, in large part, to their strong middle class, and the fact that more Chinese nationals are traveling. China has so much growth potential, and businesses want to be part of that growth. As for my clients, whenever we are researching a future destination, China keeps popping up.

As an event provider, is it difficult for you to get demographic information on citizens in China or does the government make that fairly easy to obtain?

It’s not really an issue for the meetings that I do. We work with our associations – who have members working in specific regions – to identify and reach out to those potential attendees, members, sponsors, speakers, etc. They have the data and a clear understanding of the market there.

Moving on to international considerations, priorities and concerns, what are your top three considerations when you are planning an event internationally?

Quite honestly, it’s the same as a domestic meeting. Some of the first questions I ask:

  1. Is there a market? Is there a need for us to be there? Am I artificially creating a market?
  2. Is it a place that is easy for my potential attendees to get to, as opposed to somewhere like Russia, which has had a difficult visa situation?
  3. Right now, what are the perceived safety issues? A year or two ago, my third answer would have been the attractiveness and affordability of the destination. But my clients are sophisticated travelers, who are willing to go just about anywhere if it’s safe.

What has been your biggest success internationally?

Some of my biggest international successes are the Asia Aviation Show, the America Aviation Show, and the Europe Air Show. Four years ago my client put on a seminar in Beijing in conjunction with a local university. It was only going to be a seminar, and the first year we had 25 attendees, second year we had 40 attendees, and we just completed our show in Tokyo this year that had 700 attendees. Our sponsorship revenue in Asia has grown to match sponsorship revenue at our meeting in in Europe, which has been around for 20 years. We’ve seen a 300% growth in membership. Watching a market grow so rapidly has been exceptionally rewarding and very fun to watch. A lot of shows have been around for 50 years and you don’t get to watch them develop and grow.

This particular organization’s events have become very regionalized. Meaning, the content and speakers are focused on that particular region. You would not have the same speakers or programs that you would have in Orlando or Barcelona, and we are very proud of that.

On the flip side, what is the biggest challenge that you have had to overcome in Asia?

It would definitely be the first time that I did an event in China. In Asia, the countries have significant differences in their business practices and regulations. Japan is really different than China and China is drastically different than Thailand. I didn’t realize certain things when we went to China the first time, such as that attendees traditionally do not pay to attend events because corporations subsidize the cost – that’s unusual in the association world. Also, in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo, or Seoul, I am accustomed to finding several members of the hotel staff who speak at least a little English. However, in China, the farther away from Shanghai you get, the less likely you will find someone fluent in English and aware of Western customs. That can be quite a challenge when negotiating contracts. However, there is a huge potential for an upside, so it’s well worth the undertaking.

You talked about how the regions in Asia are so different and how that can actually be one of the challenges you have to deal with. Is it because of cultural differences? Or is it more because of the way people do business?

I think it is just the way they do business. In Tokyo, things are very by the book. But in China, everything is up for negotiation. It also can be difficult in China to get things in writing. It’s just how people do business there. Your team is going to have to put in more effort to get agreements finalized, and it probably will take more time. However, since my first meeting in China five years ago, I have seen a huge difference in how quickly Chinese hotels and convention centers are adapting to working with Westerners.

If you had one piece of advice to give somebody who was going into a new Asian market for the first time, what would that be?

Rely on your local experts and partner companies that have local offices and staff. They can tell you, for example, whether a particular cuisine is a good or bad choice for dinner. Don’t be afraid to rely on them because they are going to help you navigate the waters, especially when you go to places like China. Locals can be invaluable.

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