A major news story in recent days involves a Norwegian woman attending a meeting in Dubai. After she was allegedly sexually assaulted by a co-worker at her hotel, she asked the hotel to call the police. She was examined by law enforcement and a blood sample was taken. Shortly thereafter she was charged with having sex outside of marriage, found guilty, and sentenced to 16 months in jail (by the way, her attacker received a 13-month sentence).
This morning the woman’s jail sentence was dropped, but this incident highlights an emerging problem as international meetings become more frequent and spread around the globe. Attendees often do not understand and respect the differing legal traditions in many countries–particularly those nations just emerging as meeting destinations. And meeting professionals have a responsibility to take this into account as part of their jobs.
It’s not just an issue for meetings in Asia and the Middle East. Foreigners have also been arrested in Europe and Mexico, and sentenced to long prison terms for drug offenses and other crimes that might be a minor infraction in the US.
One reaction to these cases is to show outrage by boycotting the country involved, but is this really the best reaction? Many of these countries offer enticing attractions and beautiful meeting facilities. And remember each country has the right to set its own laws, and to enforce them against both the citizens and visitors as they see fit. There is probably no location where meeting attendees from one country can go without any risk that they may unwittingly commit a crime. Consider chewing gum in Singapore, or insulting the monarch in Thailand.
The better reaction is for planners to step up their efforts to ensure that their international meetings are appropriate for all attendees. This includes learning about a location’s laws and customs, tolerance for different lifestyles, and law enforcement; and then ensuring that it’s a good fit for their attendees. If guests like to party and drink, some destinations may not be a safe choice. If they are not open to different cultures, exotic locations should be avoided.
Moreover, planners should seriously contemplate engaging a destination management company (DMC) to help them navigate the local culture. It's often wise to engage a local attorney in advance to deal with any problems faced by the meeting or its attendees when they arise. A crisis management plan is not a bad idea either.
Another thing to consider is distributing a “know before you go” guide to attendees before they arrive, to acclimate them to the do’s and don’t’s of the local culture. This shouldn't be the dry and tedious consular warning sheets produced by the US State Department or other governments. Rather, it should be a short but to-the-point summary of what SHOULD be avoided, and what MUST be avoided for your attendees to enjoy their foreign experience.
The Norwegian woman’s unfortunate situation was horrible, but it is not an isolated incident. As foreign cities build new hotels and convention centers and business becomes increasingly global, demand to meet abroad will continue on the rise. The key is to plan for the unforeseen, and to make sure that it doesn't happen to those under your watch.
Final Note: This blog is not “legal advice”; rather, it’s a discussion intended to make you think and draw your own conclusions. Legal advice can only be rendered after a discussion of your particular circumstances with an attorney competent in meetings law.