Planning a trip to a foreign country in the past was quite an effort — and without a travel agent, it was close to impossible. Now, with tools like Trip Advisor, Kayak and other online travel sites, the average person can create a dream vacation in hours.
I wish planning an international event was now that easy — at least, that’s what I thought as I planned two large events for oDesk this year.
Early in 2012 we decided to recognize our most active contractors by hosting oDesk events, which we named Contractor Appreciation Days, in a city near them. We held a Facebook contest to determine which locations had the most active and engaged contractor communities, and two of the winning countries were Bangladesh and the Philippines. The goal was to host fun events in each country, where we could engage with a large group of our members, reward top earners, share news from oDesk and enable contractors to network.
I had never been to Bangladesh or the Philippines, nor do I have relatives there. Plus, in addition to planning the events from 7,000 miles away, I was working with a rather conservative budget. At first this project seemed extremely daunting and nerve-wracking, particularly when one event was estimated to have 1,000 attendees! But with a little prep and on-the-ground support, I’m happy to say that these events were a success. We had excellent feedback from our members and we learned a lot about contractors, their countries and ourselves in the process.
As a result, I wanted to share my experiences to help future event planners. I won’t sugarcoat it, it does involve a lot of work. But with the tips laid out here, I hope you can benefit from my experience.
Tip #1: Leverage local talent
One of the best things you can do is find a local event planner — one that lives in the area where the event will be held — who has a lot of experience planning previous events in the area. For Bangladesh, I found a contractor on oDesk who specialized in project management. After an interview over Skype, I knew Saidur would be knowledgeable, capable and proactive. We started with a small task: send me three locations where we can host at least 500 people. I requested pictures of the locations, quotes, and availability. Within a matter of days we had a venue selected and Saidur proved himself invaluable in helping with all the other logistics.
In the Philippines, the event was much larger and needed more than one local contact. This is where a few great contractors came in, two of which were Judy and Jasmine. Judy is a professional event planner who not only works on oDesk, but who also works for an event planning company in Manila — which means she had the connections we needed to secure a facility, food, A/V and security. Jasmine connected with a large network of oDesk contractors. She scoured the talent of colleagues in that network and found us a DJ, registration desk staff, photographers and entertainers.
The big lesson I learned here is that online talent is not just for online work! These contractors were my eyes, ears and feet on the ground, helping to pull these events together in ways that I couldn’t.
Tip #2: Preparation is key
With the proper planning, you’ll find that putting together an event is easier than you thought. First, create a planning document that can be easily understood by both you and anyone you may pull in to help with the event. I’m a big fan of checklists — mine included the basics like the facility, travel, and presentation content. It also included uniquely international items like getting vaccinations, hiring security, and packing every type of AV adaptor we could possibly need.
And when it comes to materials, over-prepare. For example, bring back-up copies of all your presentations (we had copies in an email inbox and a thumb drive, on our laptops, and sent to our local staff) and bring printouts of the attendee list, the presentations and nametags. Try to order all of your promotional items and giveaway products through local vendors. Don’t be afraid to hire an assistant event planner to manage these details.
Tip #3: Plan ahead with payments
In many locations, cash is the only payment option, particularly if you are looking to minimize costs. Some contractors are willing to make payments and be reimbursed; others would like the cash upfront. For any expense that was paid by a contractor, I requested a signed and scanned official receipt from the vendor. Make sure you have the vendor’s contact information, so if you have any concerns, you can call him or her to verify the expense before you send a payment. Remember that it can take several days for a contractor to be able to withdraw the funds they receive through oDesk.
The day of the event is when the bulk of the expenses need to be paid. If you are uncomfortable traveling to a country with upwards of $3,000 with you, there are a couple of options: You can wire funds to a local Western Union outlet and pick it up when you arrive, or you can contact your bank to pre-approve the ability to withdraw a large sum of funds from a bank or ATM in the country you are visiting.
Tip #4: Communicate early and often
It’s good to check in with your online team once a week, over the phone or via Skype. As you get closer to the event, increase the frequency of your calls. You can also keep everyone on the same page between calls by having a daily email check-in and a shared spreadsheet with the budget and task lists. After you have hired people to staff the event, you can make on-the-ground collaboration easier by creating and distributing a document with all their photos, names and mobile numbers. And don’t forget to have a call with all of them in the weeks prior to the event to address any questions or concerns.
Tip #5: Make the most of your trip
Flying halfway across the world is a big investment. Depending on how many people you send, one-third of your costs can be the flight alone. We had about four days on the ground for each trip and not a second was wasted. Prior to the trip, we contracted with a PR specialist for that region and had interviews scheduled with target media outlets. Through our networks we were able to secure meetings with government officials to discuss online work opportunities, and our contractors also organized a little sightseeing trip. (Clearly, sleep was not a priority.)
While we did put a great deal of time and effort into these events, in retrospect it really was a treat to be able to plan and attend them. Not only did I meet many great contractors and establish a team of resources in the local community, I learned so much about each culture and now can better visualize the daily lives of the people I work online with every day.
If you are planning an international event, I wish you the best of luck and a bon voyage!
For those who have already experienced planning an international event, what did you find most important? We would love to hear your tips in the comments section below!