Four Lessons Learned: Planning European Conferences

Have you ever heard something like this?

“Our association is hosting a first-time international conference and you are the staff person assigned to it. You need to find a hotel and make all the logistical arrangements. You’ll also work with the committee to finalize the program, and promote the event. Did I mention it’s in Italy? In two months.”

I have. No kidding! It was a bit unsettling at the time but it turned out to be the best assignment … ever.

Now four years and various international conference assignments later, I wanted to share a few of the lessons I’ve learned (the hard way).


For our first European conference, we scheduled the opening reception the evening of November 1, which is All Saints Day, a religious holiday for many denominations but also a public holiday in Italy. So we were at a hotel in Rome but most of the hotel staff wasn’t with us and some of our attendees waited until the next day to travel. Ask your hotel contact about local holidays and how they will affect your event.


Countries in the European Union collect a Value Added Tax (VAT) on goods and services. Even non-profits must charge the VAT on registration and exhibiting fees. It’s basically a consumption tax and ranges from 15-25 percent, depending on where your event takes place. You likely will be eligible to recover some of the VAT you have paid during the course of working with a local hotel, destination management company, etc. We hired a company that specializes in managing the entire VAT process on our behalf starting with filing for a VAT identification number through filing tax returns. Hire a professional to make this complicated system much simpler.


The schedule of events for our first European conference was based on the schedule for our U.S. events. Not only was the general session room still empty at 8:30 a.m., but most attendees weren’t bothered by the delay. As we pulled out our hair trying to adjust times for everything through the rest of that day, the early arrivals simply went to the lobby for some coffee and wandered back to the meeting an hour later. Since then we promote start times as 9 a.m. and build in a delay of 20-30 minutes.


Not just in the schedule of events as above, but also in your planning processes. Our first European event was planned in a hotel sight unseen. As a first time event, the expectations of attendees were easy to meet. For our second European event, the budget still did not allow for an international flight for a planning site visit. In order to see the facility, I arranged for an association volunteer in that area to tour the property carrying an iPad connecting me for a virtual site inspection. Seeing the space showed that the foyer area we’d reserved for tabletop displays was actually a narrow hallway so the tabletops were moved.

Of course, everyone learns from their own experiences. How about sharing some of yours? What lesson have you learned in planning events outside the U.S.?