12 December 2022, etc.venues Monument, London
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
21 November, London Hilton Metropole
When it comes to crossing borders the world is still far from a global village, says Jonathan Hart, but for a little outlay your passage can be smoothed considerably
Next time you are parted from belt, shoes and dignity while being frisked and quizzed at an airport, remember the words of poet John Berryman: "We must travel in the direction of our fear".
A suggestion made back in the wartime 1940s, but one you may think holds true for today's increasingly beleaguered business travellers whose allocated destinations or company spheres of operation, together with the hassles, perils and pitfalls of gaining entry, are commonly dictated by necessity rather than choice.
In the interim, populist governments in bursts of ideological whimsy have long been promising to help eradicate unnecessary barriers and ease the red tape encumbrances of international travel with everything from no border-blocks to iris recognition and documentfree passage.
Yet more than 60 years on from Berryman's observation, in addition to the spectre of terrorism plus heightened security that is essential but irksome, captive road warriors still face a mountain of seemingly mindless, self-serving bureaucracy apparently hell-bent on making their travelling lives doubly tiresome and expensive.
However, a fear for many these days is not so much of the time-consuming tedium, indignities or potential dangers involved in reaching their appointed destinations, but of facing the extra drudgery of obtaining or renewing a visa to visit countries already partnered with global trade bodies and purportedly open for business.
A fear that can also make companies, with alternatives such as video-conferencing at hand, question whether going to the extra effort and expense of gaining visas for employees - at a cost that can be equivalent to a no-frills European trip - is worthwhile in the ever more critical revenue-versus-cost equation. Business travel and tax-hungry state bureaucracy have never been the best of bedfellows, of course.
Show me an amenable immigration officer and I'll show you an extreme rarity, and 'civil' services in general are viewed as an obstruction or thorn in the side of an industry that flourishes on free and unfettered enterprise. Sadly, though, even the apparently harmless and most cost-efficient way of travelling for business on a free or lower-cost tourist visa is in danger of being knocked on the head, thanks to the extra vigilance against terrorism and adoption by authorities of Stasi-style methods of tracking and checking.
All of which means that getting or renewing a business visa that exactly matches the purpose of your visit to any of the current or emergent economic giants can prove a logistical nightmare for the average traveller. And all this coupled with the everyday difficulties of spiralling costs and depletion of perks, allied to an inter-governmental mix of paranoia, undue protectionism and opportunistic state stealth.
Making initial visa applications online is an undoubted modern advantage, but only the start of what can still be a long and involved process that can play havoc with itineraries.
And while help is at hand via specialist agencies and larger TMCs who can do much of the legwork, the onus for collecting, collating and providing the precise paperwork inevitably rests with the client company or individual - particularly for entry into countries that are never really satisfied until they see the whites of your eyes.
The US, which in the wake of 9/11 has chopped and changed its entry requirements faster than it casually hands out sub-prime mortgages to hobos, is a case in point. Ironically for a country that has tightened procedures and installed guard dogs at the gates, you can happily conduct business here, subject to refusal at the airport, under the visa waiver scheme designed for tourists.
In theory, obtaining a B1 (or Visitor for Business) visa is also simple, and it is clear what you are and what you are not permitted to do as a nonimmigrant. For example, you can conduct negotiations, make investments or purchases and attend meetings but not run a business, or be gainfully employed or paid by an organisation in the US.
But woe betide the traveller who is a previously-registered B1 or whose passport containing a still-valid business visa has been lost or stolen. In either case, total renewal, hinged around a pre-assigned appointment and interview in person at fortified Grosvenor Square, on a day that is not negotiable, is the only option.
This is accompanied by a sizeable fee that is cashed before your appointment and whether or not a visa is ultimately issued, a rigid 8am reporting time regardless of where you live in the UK, queuing for up to three hours and up to eight weeks processing time. All for the privilege of being thoroughly vetted and given a dressing down, more than likely by someone displaying a keen interest in your social life or computer habits.
Forget any notions of special US-UK relationships or hands across the pond, the US has always been always picky about issuing or renewing visas, going to inordinate lengths to ensure you never smoked a joint at college, copped a speeding fine or held political views anywhere this side of Genghis Khan.
Add to this that you have to provide a waterproof alibi for travelling anywhere in or near the so-called 'Axis of Evil' and have to virtually swear allegiance to the Stars and Stripes forever, and there's still a chance you will be refused entry or consigned to Guantanamo Bay without passing 'Go'.
The US's former Cold War enemy Russia, by contrast, seems less concerned with family history, distinguishing marks and political leanings than in keeping its gargantuan state bureaucracy funded with the kind of fees and peripherals that help to make Moscow the world's most expensive city.
Like China and India, the prerequisite for a business visa here is a letter of invitation from a local company or sponsor , the immediate inference being that if you fail to toe the line or do a runner during your visit there is someone to suffer the consequences on your behalf. Alongside Russia, China and India also have their methods of making business visitors pay to avoid potential future entry hassles, including time-sensitive double or multiple entry visas, though these can cost less per visit than a single.
But at least all three countries are amenable to issuing visas by proxy through the services of agencies, according to Carlos Claro, senior account manager at VisaSwift. In addition, the consulates of China and India have established their own separate visa centres in London in an effort to reduce queues and speed service, with Russia soon to follow suit.
The new Chinese Visa Application Service Centre is particularly well-equipped to handle both individuals and agency representatives, says Claro. The downside to this outsourcing trend, in the case of China, is an extra £30 plus VAT for regular applications and £40 plus VAT for express services, according to Peter Kite, HRG Europe West managing director.
"Unfortunately, it's not something we can minimise for clients because you can't mess about with entry regulations," he says. "We can help with everything else but if you turn up at the airport without the right documents, you're not going anywhere. "We have a visa procurement team that consistently warns clients to plan ahead rather than fix an itinerary and think about documentation at the last minute. Considerable time is required to prepare and keep on top of often-changing entry requirements for places like China, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia and we go to great lengths to ensure our clients' documents are spot on."
Although usually London-centric, express services are the most painless solution for clients wanting a quick turnaround, says VisaSwift's Claro. "In some instances and for an average £100 charge, a client can be met on arrival at the airport in the morning and have his or her passport collected, checked, prepared, stamped with a visa and delivered back to the airport or their home the same evening," he says.
It seems that providing advanced warning and being prepared to pay a premium are the two keys to cutting visa hassle, whether you work for a large corporation, an SME or yourself. "Clients overseas can treat you like a king but when it comes to getting a visa you're always on your own," says John Sanders, managing director of global executive education company The Learning Partnership and a frequent visitor to Saudi. "Frankly, I'd be lost without the services of an agency. It costs me roughly double the price of the visa every time, but it's the old personal time-is-money thing and, if you're not going to run yourself ragged, you've simply got to bite the bullet."
HOW THEY COMPARE
*Express Service is limited to certain embassies and the same day turn around can only be achieved for clients living within London and surrounding areas. Source: VisaSwift
Waiver goes online A change to the US visa waiver programme, for visiting the country for pleasure or to conduct temporary business, will take effect from January 12, 2009. For travel from that date, online applications for entry under the programme must be made at least 72 hours prior to departure, according to a Hogg Robinson Group client advisory.
The new ruling by US Homeland Security should help provide travellers with advance warning of potentially being refused a visa waiver on arrival, says HRG Europe West managing director Peter Kite.
Problems, problems... The UK Identity and Passport Service claims to have quickly cleared the estimated backlog of 60,000 passports caused by this summer's three-day strike and following work-to-rule by members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) over a 2.5 per cent pay claim and regional passport offi ce closures. In the meantime, UK and European travellers, among others, face a backlog in visa issuing from local US embassies from January, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Forward planning mix-ups between the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department have sparked staff and funding shortages, it is reported. They don't make life any easier.