For incentive trips, Europe is a big draw — at a big price. But with forward contracts, careful site selection, and rooms at sea, savvy meeting planners can still offer qualifiers “the Continent,” even as the euro climbs to a record high.

Financial and insurance conference planners consistently look overseas to motivate top producers. Eighty-four percent of the FICP members who responded to a recent FIM survey have held international incentive trips, and an additional 5 percent are going overseas for the first time in 2008.

In past years, that may have meant a trip to London, Paris, or another European capital. But while Europe remains highly desirable, it has also become highly expensive. According to our sister magazine Corporate Meetings & Incentives' 2008 Incentive Trends Survey, while nearly 80 percent of respondents take groups outside the United States annually or biannually, Europe has become a less likely destination because of the devalued dollar. So, if you want to satisfy the persistent lust for European travel, you are going to have to figure out a way to overcome the expense.

Europe at a Cost

In May 2002, the dollar traded at 90 cents against the euro. As of this writing in February 2008, the dollar was trading at close to $1.50 — about 65 percent more. Similarly, in early 2002, the dollar traded as high as $1.41 against the British pound; by January of 2008 it had fallen to $1.98 against the pound — a decrease of more than 40 percent.

“This is terrible for groups that are going outbound,” says Bill Boyd, CMP, CMM, CITE, president and CEO of Sunbelt Motivation & Travel Inc., Irving, Texas. “Planners with incentive trips tied into a fixed budget can no longer afford any currency associated with the euro.”

One planner facing the euro challenge is Todd Zint, CMM, CMP, vice president, marketing communications, NFP Insurance Services in Austin, Texas. Zint plans his company's annual Partners Financial Convention, which in 2007 took place with 425 attendees in Ireland and London. “I thought about Salzburg and Vienna for 2009, but with an exchange rate of $1.50 [against the euro], I had second thoughts,” says Zint. “We're going to Buenos Aires instead.”

Koleen Roach, director, recognition and conference planning, Securian Financial Group, St. Paul, Minn., goes international bi-annually with Securian's Leaders Conference and Chairman's Club incentive programs. In 2007 she took 365 attendees to Ireland and Malta and counts herself fortunate that she paid for most of the trip's deposit “before the euro went through the roof.”

Planners use many strategies to deal with the escalating cost of European travel. Roach says that it's possible to find hospitality partners in certain countries who will negotiate in U.S. dollars — she has been able to do this in Greece and in some Italian cities, for example. She also points out that some European countries have yet to tie their currencies to the euro. This worked to her advantage last year in Malta where the Maltese lira traded at a favorable rate with the U.S. dollar. (On January 1 of this year Malta introduced the euro.)

Currency Strategies

When you must deal in euros, currency fluctuation is an important consideration. “I would always recommend that you negotiate a locked-in rate with your vendors at the time you are signing the contract,” advises Lisa Ramsay, a meeting planner with the Life and Annuity Division of Protective Life Insurance Co. of Birmingham, Ala. “Or purchase futures when you contract so you can be guaranteed that your program cost doesn't increase due to the fluctuation of foreign currency.” (With a futures contract the buyer agrees to purchase a specific amount of a currency at a fixed price in U.S. dollars on a certain date in the future. When that day arrives, the buyer pays the specified rate, no matter how the currency may have fluctuated.)

Another way to control costs and still offer a European incentive: Try a cruise. Zint booked a Mediterranean cruise, which he negotiated in U.S. dollars with the cruise line, for this year's Partners Financial Convention. The itinerary includes Athens, Crete, Alexandria/Cairo, Valletta in Malta, and Sorrento and Civitavecchia/Rome in Italy. “If you visited these cities via land you'd be paying $500 or $600 a night for hotel rooms alone,” says Zint.

For top producers who are well seasoned when it comes to travel, escalating costs pose other problems as well. “If we were go to certain European destinations, we couldn't afford to give our producers enough of a luxury experience,” says Roach. “We'd have to scale back the program to a level well below what they are used to. “

Then there's the fact that attendees can't afford their own discretionary spending. “When you think about it,” says Zint, “Europe is getting so expensive that your attendees can't afford to pre-extend or post-extend their trips.”

“Our producers are not going to enjoy traveling to a destination where they can't spend their money at a reasonable exchange rate,” adds Roach. “So at this point I'm hesitant to go back to a country where the euro is the currency.”

Some European countries still remain affordable, even with the strong euro. Spain, for example, has become an A-list incentive location — it is the only place in Europe to make CMI's list of the top six international destinations. Ramsay, who has held Protective Life incentive conferences in Paris, Rome, London, and Dublin in recent years, is dealing with the strong euro problem by bringing her next program to Barcelona.

Hotel Challenges

As in the U.S., Europe's hotel industry is now experiencing a seller's market with no end in sight. And then there's the challenge of finding hotel inventory. “It's often a challenge to book European hotels for large groups where the room block exceeds 150 rooms per night,” notes Roach. “European hotels don't look at group business the same way it is looked at in the U.S. Many are highly committed to the individual business and leisure traveler, and they hesitate to give rooms to group business. I've found that working with a U.S.-based national sales office representative goes miles in helping to negotiate a contract.”

Roach points to an incentive conference in Scotland that took three years of negotiations. “The hotel had a 300-room inventory and at first they wouldn't even consider giving us the block of 200 rooms per night we needed,” she recalls. During the negotiations, her national sales contact was invaluable in convincing the hotel to give up such a sizeable room inventory.

“There are many instances where planners end up splitting their attendees into two different groups because hotels don't want to block out such large portions of their inventories,” adds Roach. “I don't like to do that, so I'll spend a lot of time searching for a hotel that will take my entire group. At the end of the day, it's always easier to take programs of under 200 people to Europe in any situation.”

There can be some hidden wrinkles in hotel contracts as well. For example, Roach says, “You really have to be careful with how European properties sell their guest rooms. Many hotels base their rates on a per-person basis, not cost per room. So the first reference in the contract might quote a room rate of $200 per night, but as you read on, you learn that the rate is actually per person.”

Security Matters

No matter where you go outside U.S. borders, security “is the first issue we talk about now,” says Roach.

Mary Keough Anderson, manager of conference and meeting management at Liberty Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Boston, completes a risk management survey that includes a nine-page group function/event risk assessment questionnaire before booking international hotels and other suppliers.

While no overseas destination can be 100 percent secure, says Anderson, “it is up to us to constantly monitor the security situation before we go.” For example, she'll keep track of whether the U.S. State Department has issued any kind of travel advisory for the city or country in question.

“Every meeting planner should have many Web sites bookmarked to use as a reference when researching the particulars of a destination,” says Roach. “And you really need to be aware of what's going on in each country you are considering for a program. We didn't do a 2007 meeting in one European location we were considering because my research revealed documented terror cells there — which I was very surprised to learn about. “

Potential language barriers are another consideration, says Ramsay, who looks for cities that have English as a first or second language. She also points out that for companies like Protective Life, an aging workforce has become a factor. “As our qualifiers get older,” she says, “traveling long distances becomes harder.”

The hassle factor involved with traveling abroad is not restricted to baby boomers. Among the hurdles facing international travelers are changes in passport and visa requirements, confusing security requirements, intolerably long security lines, flight delays, and airports ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of travel in the 21st century. And now there's a new wrinkle: If a European Union proposal comes to fruition, all travelers entering Europe — including United States citizens — will be required to submit biometric data before being allowed to cross Europe's borders. Travel has become such an ordeal that in the “2007 EIBTM Industry Trends and Market Share Report,” the author suggested that one of the issues facing the industry is whether travel can still be viewed as a reward.

Yet despite all the challenges, financial and insurance planners say that Europe is still the gold-standard for top-tier incentive programs. You just need to figure out how to afford it.

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