Beyond Borders: How closely do you watch exchange rates?
Leigh Wintz: I have been paying attention to currency exchange rates since 1991 when I came to work for Soroptimist International of the Americas. I follow the exchange rates that may affect contributions, meetings, dues remittances, and the like. For my association, that means watching exchange rates for the British pound sterling, euro, Japanese yen, Canadian dollar, and, most recently, New Taiwan dollar, as our convention was held in Taipei in 2008.

While we accept dues and donations only in U.S. dollars, we have an annual payment of about $250,000 to our U.K.-based umbrella organization. We collect dues in U.S. dollars from our members and send a per-member fee of 3 pounds sterling about six months later. We have to fix the rate to invoice the members the appropriate amount so that we don’t lose on the transfer.

I use Windows “gadgets” that include exchange rates right on my desktop. So it takes only seconds a day. Twenty years ago, you had to buy The Wall Street Journal and look at the chart on exchange rates. Now you can check sites like xe and get not only the current exchange rate, but charts and graphs about the rate and its fluctuation over months or years.

BB: What’s the first step a meeting planner should take when dealing with foreign currency?
Wintz: During the site-selection process, establish the base currency. Countries with “hard” currency (currency that can be traded outside the country’s borders) typically negotiate only in their currency. Your organization assumes the risk associated with exchange rates fluctuating over time. Developing and controlled-economy countries with “soft” currency (which has no value outside that country’s borders) typically negotiate in a hard currency (U.S. dollars or euro, for example). Confirm how payments can be made when dealing with soft currency: You may be unable to use wire transfers as forms of payment. Both alternatives have inherent risks. It is vitally important to understand those risks and determine how to manage them.

BB: What are the best ways to manage that risk?
Wintz: There are two basic options. One is to negotiate fixed-rate exchange contracts, then insist that all income be priced at an exchange rate equal to or greater than the fixed rate. This option still has some slight risks.

The safest technique is to buy foreign currency on the futures market (that is, buy a forward contract) at the rate prevailing when the meeting contracts are negotiated. A forward contract doesn’t cost anything but you do guarantee to purchase a certain amount of currency at a fixed rate within a certain time frame (usually 12 months). Factor in the time-value of money when assessing risk of currency exchange fluctuations, then determine the relative advantage of insuring against a loss by buying futures. If the amount of money involved is relatively insignificant, or if the value of the dollar is considered to be low at the time of negotiations, your organization may elect to take the risk with the hope of some reward.

To minimize the impact of currency fluctuations on your budget, you may be able to open a bank account in the city/country that is hosting your event, although there will be some restrictions. This can be extremely beneficial if you plan to hold an international event on an annual basis. As you receive revenue generated by exhibit sales and registration, you can make scheduled payments and forward the funds to an international bank that will convert the U.S. dollars into the appropriate currency. In addition, you can write checks in the appropriate foreign currency from this bank to pay for on-site expenses. This will eliminate the effect of exchange fees, which can be quite costly as the number of transactions goes up.

Also currency restrictions vary, so become familiar with the requirements and limitations imposed by the host country. Failure to observe proper limits and procedures can result in money being confiscated or impounded in the host country indefinitely. An experienced travel agency or professional congress organizer can be a valuable resource in this area.

BB: How do you account for potential exchange- rate fluctuations in your meeting budget?
Wintz: We include a line item for currency fluctuation of about 10 percent of overall expenses. Usually you don’t need to use that expense line, but what doesn’t get used falls to the bottom line.

BB: Do you ever base site-selection decisions on a particular currency’s value against the U.S. dollar?
Wintz: A wildly fluctuating currency says a lot about the economics of a country and would be a factor in the overall consideration of a site. We have a meeting booked in Montréal in 2011 and one favorable factor was the excellent exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Canadian dollar (about US $1.00 = CA $1.25) at the time. Now the two currencies are on par so the room rates don’t look as great to someone from the U.S. But to the Canadian hosts, of course, there is no difference. All the bills will be paid in Canadian dollars; the budget has been prepared in Canadian dollars and for this meeting, the accounts will be held in a Canadian bank.

A meeting planner has to decide in which currency to work with suppliers and which currencies will be accepted for meeting registration. In the case of the Montréal meeting, we will be accepting Canadian dollars, U.S. dollars, and euros. Each meeting needs separate consideration.

BB: Should planners aim to make money on their currency exchange or should they just try not to get burned?
Wintz: To me, trying to make money on currency exchange rates is like day trading with your organization’s reserves. It’s better left to the professionals. Remember, it’s not your money. Planning and budgeting is key. You can certainly look bad if you get “burned,” but you can also look bad if you make too much money. I honestly think that a fluctuation up or down of more than 10 percent reflects inadequate research, planning, or handling of monies received.

Leigh Wintz, CAE, is executive director, Soroptimist International of the Americas, in Philadelphia. She is also principal partner, Tecker Consultants LLC. Reach her at leigh@soroptimist.org.