With the passage of time since 9/11, a rebound in the economy, and an unexpected chance to pick up some travel bargains, insurance and financial services companies are again looking to take incentive programs beyond U.S. borders.

Isabel Mahon, director of global sales, insurance, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, says “those days of feeling like you need to stay closer to home are past.” And Pam Ferguson, director of insurance sales, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC, says that during a recent meeting of the Ritz-Carlton Insurance Advisory Board, planners in attendance unanimously believed that “international is coming back.”

The U.S. dollar appreciated in value against the euro by about 7 percent in 2005, a big change from the dollar's steady decline over the previous three years. The bottom line: The dollar buys more today than it did a year ago. This, as well as the U.S. lodging industry's “seller's market,” have made Europe more inviting to planners. “You have places like Monaco that will guarantee [the exchange rate for] U.S. dollars,” says Mahon. “And it has gotten to the point that you can buy better packages, except for the airfare, in countries that are on the euro than in cities like Chicago or New York.”

Good Deals

Deals are very possible if you're willing to look outside the traditional incentive hot spots. For example, Ferguson points to Portugal: She recently had an insurance planner buy out The Ritz-Carlton Penha Longa Hotel and Golf Resort outside of Lisbon after finding that other European destinations were too expensive. Beth Harris, senior marketing executive, Wales Tourist Board, maintains that an emerging destination like Wales can “consistently provide better value for money to the overseas business traveler.” For example, she says that in 2004 a meeting in Wales would have cost 27 percent less than one to Scotland and 50 percent less than if it had taken place in England — and golf and greens fees in Wales are about a third less expensive than both Scotland and Ireland.

Richard Granger, assistant director, conference planning, Hartford Life, notes that because of the fluctuating U.S. dollar, Hartford Life is “primarily looking at second-tier international destinations, particularly in Western Europe where we can control our air costs a little more effectively.” Granger says Hartford Life looks for program sites “where the U.S. has a strong presence and favorable relationships with the foreign country,” to reduce the risk of terrorism.

Dori Marx, executive manager of the Austrian Business and Convention Network, says she is seeing a steady stream of insurance and financial groups heading into Central and Eastern Europe via Vienna, not only to the more customary destinations like Prague and Budapest, but to up-and-coming sites like Croatia.

Jim Henson, senior vice president and senior marketing officer of Shenandoah Life Insurance Co., Roanoke, Va., is bullish on non-European incentive destinations. “I think China is the upcoming hot location,” he says. “And Central and South America will be big as well.”

After Shenandoah Life Insurance agents went on a Danube River cruise in 2004, Henson also became a fan of international cruise programs. Todd Zint, CMM, CMP, assistant vice president, meeting planning, NFP Insurance Services, Austin, Texas, agrees. NFP chartered a Silverseas cruise ship from Portugal to France last year, “which was a definitely a hit since the entire ship contained our guests and we were able to customize,” he says.

Close to Home

Closer to the United States, Canada and Mexico remain favored destinations for international incentive programs. “We have been looking at Canada and Mexico, where there is still some good value,” says Granger, adding that Vancouver, British Columbia; Los Cabos, Mexico; and a recovering Cancun are particularly desirable destinations.

Fairmont's Mahon says that while she had seen Canadian bookings slow down in 2002 and 2003, they have come back, a phenomenon she attributes to groups returning to such destinations as Banff and Québec City.

Grant Snider, vice president, JPdL Destination Management, Québec City, says that while proximity to the U.S. continues to be a big factor in deciding to bring incentive programs to Canada, a good price-value relationship also plays a huge role. The Canadian dollar, although much stronger against the U.S. dollar than it was up until a few years ago, still trades at only $.87 U.S. (as of this writing in mid-February). “In Canada you can still buy a first-rate hotel room that ranges between $150 and $250 U.S. per night” he says. In addition, the Canadian Goods and Services Tax is rebated at the point of sale for corporate meetings, and that rebate is extended to a variety of services if they are used for the meeting component of an incentive.