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The United States of Uncertainty

How are proposed U.S. travel policies affecting international attendance — and projected attendance — at meetings and conferences in the U.S.? We asked event organizers what they are thinking.

In the six-month span between Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States and the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO), Lancey Cowan, J.D., CAE, and her team were on a rollercoaster. ARVO is headquartered in Rockville, Maryland, but close to 47 percent of its membership is found outside the United States — identical to the international/ domestic attendee split at its 11,000-person Annual Meeting.

So when President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning travel or immigration to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries on Jan. 27, ARVO took notice. The 2017 Annual Meeting was slated for Baltimore on April 30–May 4, and abstract-acceptance notifications had gone out just two weeks before, on Jan. 11. Only three attendees whose abstracts had been accepted lived in a country affected by the ban, but 11 were citizens of one of those countries, even if they lived somewhere else. ARVO Connect, the organization’s online member community, lit up.

“The most chatter we got was around a member who was a citizen of Iran who lived in Great Britain and wasn’t going to be able to attend, and he had submitted an abstract,” said Cowan, ARVO’s senior director of meetings/awards and grants. “He posted based on this: ‘I won’t be able to come, etc., etc.’ Then there was a lot of chatter about, ‘Well, if even one ARVO member can’t come to the meeting, I’m not going to come.’”

A federal court blocked the executive order on Jan. 28, but no one knew if that decision would be overturned on appeal. Planning for ARVO 2017 continued against this uncertain backdrop. The schedule for abstract presentations went out on Feb. 20, and early registration ended on March 3. Three days later, on March 6, President Trump issued a revised executive order, this one applying to six of the original seven countries; a federal court blocked that on March 15.

The Annual Meeting date ticked closer. “All that was happening in January, February, March,” Cowan said, “which is when our members are making their decision to attend, trying to get their visas, and things like that.”

There was talk on ARVO Connect and various social-media channels of boycotting the conference in solidarity with people who might not be able to attend, but that never seemed to materialize. Total attendance at ARVO 2017 was a healthy 10,949 — an overall decrease of 9 percent from the year before, with domestic and international attendance each tracking at that rate. ARVO attributes the drop to a variety of factors, including but not limited to “the travel-ban situation,” Cowan said, as well as uncertainty over federal funding for conference travel, a competing event held around the same time in Los Angeles, and ARVO 2018 being held in Honolulu, a bucket-list destination that might lead attendees to skip this year’s meeting for that one.

By most measures, ARVO dodged a bullet. For now. “From our members, there’s a feeling that, okay, the ban was blocked, the executive order was blocked,” Cowan said, “but now [Trump has] essentially said, ‘We’re still going to do something.’ People are still nervous. It’s not gone away.”

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WORLDWIDE WEB

But “it” can be hard to quantify. What has been the cumulative effect of the Trump administration’s travel policies, from attempts to restrict visitors from certain countries, to the recently discontinued ban on carry-on electronics on U.S.-bound flights from airports in 10 Muslim-majority countries? Have they made the U.S. a less-popular destination for international travelers? And for our purposes, are they having a negative effect on international attendance at U.S.-based meetings and conferences?

Early indicators are that international tourism hasn’t suffered, at least in the short term. In its most recent Travel Trends Index, released in June, the U.S. Travel Association reported that travel to the United States in April had actually increased year-over-year, by about 4 percent, but predicted a slight decrease through October. Likewise, in a recent Convene survey, only about one-third of respondents said they had experienced a drop in international attendance that they associated with the White House’s proposed travel ban. (Look for results of our survey below and throughout this article.)

But this question is largely one of perception. In our survey, 61 percent of respondents said they thought the travel ban “has already caused a negative perception about travel to the United States, making potential registrants less willing to attend my event(s).” On a much larger scale, a new study from the Pew Research Center finds that “Donald Trump’s presidency has had a major impact on how the world sees the United States,” with just 22 percent of people surveyed across 37 nations having confidence in Trump’s handling of international a airs, and slightly less than half — 49 percent — having a favorable view of the U.S.

And in the world of innovation and entrepreneurship, which is closely tied to scientific and technical conferences, business experts have expressed concerns over the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s announcement in July that it was suspending implementation of the International Entrepreneurship Rule, introduced by the Obama administration in August 2016 as part of an effort to attract immigrant entrepreneurs. “A lot of immigrants have dreams and they want to start their own business and make it big in the U.S.,” Cyrus D. Mehta, a New York City–based immigration attorney, said on the “Knowledge@Wharton” radio show. “This was one pathway for immigrants to do so, and by not having it and freezing it, we are being less competitive. America needs to realize that it is not the only game in town. There are other countries that want to compete, and we need to be up there — and we are not, unfortunately, by freezing this rule.”

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That’s something conference organizers are also worried about. “For us, the biggest risk is that our scientists will say,‘You know what, I’m not going to submit to AGU. I’m going to go somewhere else,’” said Lauren Parr, vice president of meetings for the American Geophysical Union (AGU). “That fracture in the scientific community is something that we really want to avoid at all costs.”

‘HOW OUR MEMBERS WERE FEELING’

With the travel ban pending before the U.S. Supreme Court and the prohibition on laptops and other portable electronic devices just lifted in late July after being imposed in March, what international conferences in the United States face most is uncertainty. No one is sure if the travel ban will be overturned or upheld. If it is upheld, would it remain temporary or be extended? Would that keep away significant numbers of attendees from the affected countries as well as other attendees who boycott in solidarity with them?

The experiences of conference organizers we spoke with fall across the spectrum, and are mostly anecdotal or speculative. The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) held its 2017 Annual Conference & Exhibition at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando on Feb. 19–23, right between President Trump’s two executive orders. Attendees came from all over the world. “I was really expecting our Middle Eastern delegates to back out at the last minute,” said Cathy Ryan, who as HIMSS’s senior director of international events is responsible for programs outside the United States. “Honestly, I didn’t hear of one single person having a problem, and I didn’t have a single person cancel because of it.

“I was kind of surprised by that,” Ryan said, “because I really thought it would keep people from coming. Granted, they were not coming from countries that were banned, so that could have been why. But I also expected there to be some skepticism on their part and just not come.”

AGU had its 2016 Fall Meeting at San Francisco’s Moscone Center on Dec. 12–16, immediately after the presidential election. The Fall Meeting is AGU’s largest event as well as the biggest meeting for Earth and space science in the world. Of its 24,000 to 25,000 attendees, 32 to 36 percent come from outside the United States. For Parr, the timing couldn’t have been better. “We had our meeting in December, so we saw everybody right away,” she said. “We were able to get a pulse check on how our members were feeling, and we were able to also talk to our members and our leadership about concerns that they might have. Because at that point, the dialogue around those executive orders was brewing, but there was tremendous uncertainty.”

When the two executive orders were issued in the months after the Fall Meeting, “we saw everything that everyone else saw in the scientific-society memberships,” Parr said. “We saw a lot of people get very upset. We saw the chaos of the implementation of that first executive order in terms of people being pulled off planes and being detained for hours and hours. People being outraged that they could be prevented from coming to a country, in some cases a country that they had a green card to access. We had the benefit of being able to ride that out, because the executive order was then challenged in the courts, then there was the second executive order, and even that is still ongoing, so we’re living in this time of great uncertainty.”

The 2017 Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) wasn’t so lucky in terms of timing. Held at NRG Park in Houston every year, OTC focuses on the offshore-energy industry, with attendees coming from more than 100 countries. At OTC 2017 on May 1–4, top participating countries included the U.S., China, Nigeria, and the U.K. “We expected minimal impact to OTC [from U.S. travel policies],” OTC Executive Director Stephen Graham said in a statement to Convene. “More than 64,700 attendees gathered at OTC 2017; 78 percent of attendees were domestic and 22 percent were international.”

Another energy show, the World Gas Conference (WGC), is being held in the United States for the first time in 30 years — at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., on June 25–29, 2018. It coincides with the 100th anniversary of the American Gas Association, WGC 2018’s host organization, and reflects the U.S.’s status as the world’s largest producer and consumer of natural gas, as well as its transition from the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to an LNG exporter. Rodney Cox, WGC’s Sydney-based exhibition director, estimates that about a third of the show’s 12,000-plus attendees will come from the United States, with the rest coming from 90 to 100 other countries.

“We’re still one year out from the event, so what is the travel ban [in 2018]?” said Cox, talking to Convene in July. “How long does it last? Who does it apply to? Has it been watered down? All these things are unknowns. One of the countries [targeted by the ban], Yemen, was a major player in natural gas, often an exhibitor and participant in events. The reality is, Yemen — because of its own issues, with effectively a civil war going on — has not been a high-profile participant at any rate.”

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Dealing with the unknown is nothing new for WGC, which is held every three years, Cox noted, or for any other international conference. “Whenever you move a show around the world, there’ll be some kind of dynamic, wherever you are,” Cox said. “When we hosted the show in Paris [in 2015], at the beginning of the three-year [planning] cycle, the sanctions against Iran meant Iran could not participate. During that three-year cycle, the European Union and the U.S. actually brought the sanctions down a bit, and then Iran was allowed to exhibit and send delegates. It can be very fluid, even within the timespan of the event.”

INTERNATIONAL AID

How are organizers helping their international attendees cope with that fluidity? How are they responding to the uncertainty of travel to the United States for certain people? First, by knowing when not to respond. “One of our biggest challenges was not to react to every post [from an attendee upset about the potential ban],” ARVO’s Cowan said. “We tried to have more of a thoughtful response to the issue. We dealt with it more as, what can we do to help anyone who is directly affected?”

Raising your voice To start, you can let them know how you feel about the ban. In January, right after the first executive order, 171 scientific, medical, and education organizations co-signed a letter to President Trump asking him to rescind the order — including ARVO and AGU. ARVO also highlighted its Statement on Diversity and Open Scientific Exchange, which reads in part: “Science is at its best when scientists work collaboratively without restrictions or limitations.”

Similarly, AGU signed on as a partner of the March for Science, which drew more than 1 million participants in cities around the world on Earth Day, April 22, including an estimated 100,000 people to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where AGU is headquartered. “I’m so proud of the work that AGU did under the board’s leadership to participate in things like the March for Science,” Parr said, “and to really say, okay, we’ve got these challenges now, but it’s not about our meeting. It’s about these scientists and it’s about the attack on science. How are we going to move that forward in a way that makes sense, and how are we going to be part of that dialogue?”

Working with State The U.S. Department of State can help — and not just with information about the status of the travel ban or the Visa Waiver Program. “You can start a dialogue with them today to say, ‘Here’s the purpose of our meeting, here’s why people are coming from around the world, here’s who we are, here’s where the meeting is located and some background information on us as an organization,’” Parr said. “They’re going to add that information to their internal systems to make sure that [U.S.] consulate offices around the world — as they are in that visa-approval process — have access to the information about your meeting.”

Added Cowan: “One thing that is an important point is that what we’re dealing with in terms of this executive order and visas for our members isn’t really that much different than what we’ve dealt with for the past 10 years. Members from the countries identified by the executive order have always had a harder time getting a visa to come to a meeting in the U.S., just because they have.”

Expanding access If someone wants to come to your conference but can’t or won’t, you can make it easier for them to access its content. AGU was already in the process of implementing a new meeting strategy designed to “optimize an individual’s meeting experience, whether it was virtual or in person,” Parr said, and the current travel climate has only accelerated the organization’s plans around virtual participation, including allowing for remote poster presentations. “I’m not a good virtual attendee unless I’m engaged,” Parr said, “and engagement means more than streaming content for me to consume. Engagement for me and I think for most of our attendees means that I have to be able to contribute to content and direct my own experience.”

Creating a great program For the World Gas Conference’s Rodney Cox, nothing is more important than creating a live program that’s irresistible to attendees — wherever they’re coming from. “The American Gas Association has done a fabulous job on the quality of [WGC 2018],” Cox said. “When we were 13 months out from the event, they already had 40 keynote speakers from all around the world — senior people, CEOs, ministers, policymakers. What this does is it demonstrates to the marketplace that this is a global event, and it’s an event where policymakers will be charting the course of the future of the natural-gas industry. You need to be there to be part of the conversation.”

*This survey was conducted by Lewis&Clark, lewisclarkinc.com; sponsored by Destinations International’s empowerMINT.com; and edited by Michelle Russell. All material © 2017 by PCMA. This survey, conducted in June 2017, was completed by 100-plus respondents.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso is executive editor of Convene.