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International strain

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China ranks as one of the top merchandise trading nations in the world, a distinction highlighted by a planned Chinese pavilion at the Associated Surplus Dealers/Associated Merchandise Dealers trade show to be held in Las Vegas in August.

"Trade and travel to and from China are on the top of everyone's mind right now," said David Korse, VP-general manager of the Merchandise Group at Nielsen Business Media, which organizes the semiannual show. "It's the only large country where we get organized pavilions."

However, visa wait times in countries such as China represent travel obstacles and have become a target of the Discover America Partnership, an advocacy group pushing Congress to adopt legislation that could balance post-9/11 security initiatives with the demands of a global economy.

"The travel restrictions make it more difficult for [international exhibitors] to obtain visas to participate in a trade show," said Korse, who sits on the board of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, an organization that in February threw its weight behind the partnership. "It affects our business negatively."

The IAEE will conduct a survey to measure the impact of the restrictions on U.S. trade shows, said Steven Hacker, IAEE president. In the meantime, he pointed to a 17% drop since 2001 in international travel to the U.S.—a decrease that delivered an estimated $93 billion blow to the U.S. economy between 2000 and 2005, according to figures released by the Travel Industry Association in January.

The origin of travel often dictates the difficulty of obtaining a visa, said Jeff Price, president of Cygnus Expositions and chairman of IAEE. For example, ALM has seen a rise in the number of British attendees at its events, according to Stuart Williams, senior VP of the company's Conference and Trade Show Division, while Reed Exhibitions has lost exhibitors from other countries because of complicated visa processes.

"We do spend a lot of time with the consulates around the world," said Vincent Polito, senior VP of Reed Exhibitions. "China is the place where we spend the most. We've had a lot of situations where we've had people who were hung up. The person who decides to come at the last minute now just opts not to attend."

Trade show producers interested in maintaining an international presence at their shows have focused on increasing lead time, with Polito recommending that information go out to new prospects at least six or seven months before the show. Chinese exhibitors interested in appearing at the August ASD/AMD show, for example, were already applying for visas in February, Korse said, even though the State Department reports a typical interview appointment wait time ranging from one day to about three weeks.

"Earlier on, there were people who took for granted the fact that a visa for a legitimate business trip would be approved," Korse said. "They had to cancel their participation because there was some kind of logjam in the processing of their application. Some of that will go away as our clients get better educated and apply further in advance."

The Discover America Partnership may also help alleviate some of the headaches if it successfully lobbies Congress to advance such initiatives as a 30-day visa application standard, increased consulate staffing, the use of videoconferencing for interviews and speedy processing at the point of entry into the U.S.

"For the first time since 9/11, policymakers are beginning to look at the problem and say, `How can we find a balance?"' said Geoff Freeman, executive director of the partnership. "Let's no longer mistake poor treatment for security."

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