The exchange rate's a killer and you have no international negotiating experience. If you think that sounds like budget disaster, take heart. We checked in with an expert, Carolyn Zusi, who shared her secrets for keeping costs in line overseas. So go ahead and book that meeting in Bruges! The rewards for your attendees — and for you — will be well worth the effort.
Beyond Borders: When booking overseas, where does it pay to be most flexible?
Carolyn Zusi: Dates. Hands down. I had a group paying $150 per night at a five-star hotel in Brussels because they went in mid-February. Look at your time of year. The preferred arrival/departure patterns are the same as in the U.S. But meeting space is at a premium in Europe because there's less of it. So you'll also want to be creative in booking breakout rooms. Consider using a parlor suite, for example. Remember that they have very strict revenue management policies for meeting rooms. You will rarely get comp meeting space in Europe. I always advise choosing the Daily Delegate Rate.
BB: What is the Daily Delegate Rate?
CZ: The DDR normally includes a morning and afternoon break, lunch, audiovisual, general session, taxes, and gratuities. Taxes vary so much, you could be blown away when you get the bill. That's why I find that, budgeting-wise, it's much easier to have it all included. Note that the DDR normally doesn't include breakfast because a full breakfast is usually included in your room rate. But in all cases, confirm what is in the DDR, as it varies by country.
BB: What fees should meeting planners watch out for when booking overseas?
CZ: Ask for Internet access to be included in your room rate. A hotel in Rio recently added an $18 charge per room per day for Internet access. That's normally negotiable.
BB: What would you say are the most cost-effective destinations right now?
CZ: Because the dollar is so weak, look to Central and South America — Costa Rica and Rio de Janeiro, for example. You also can do well in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I recently booked a five-star hotel for $97 per night. But if you have your heart set on Europe, try smaller cities outside major cities. You still have the history, the culture, and the ease of lift. I had a client that really wanted Amsterdam, but they couldn't afford it. So they are going a bit outside, to Haarlem, and taking a day trip to Amsterdam. In Germany, consider Wiesbaden or Mainz outside of Frankfurt. They're half the price, but you still have the ease of flying into Frankfurt.
BB: Are there up-and-coming destinations where planners might save money by being ahead of the curve in booking them?
CZ: Croatia is growing but still hasn't hit it big, or consider destinations in Northern Africa such as Tunisia and Egypt.
BB: What are some strategies for dealing with volatile currency exchange rates?
CZ: Consider negotiating in U.S. dollars. With a larger program, you can do spot payments. You retain a firm such as Reuters or Wells Fargo, and when the exchange rate hits a predetermined benchmark, they pay your deposit. You could also look at destinations that have “guaranteed exchange rates.” Monaco, for instance, is guaranteeing its exchange rate through 2009. Another thing to watch out for is paying by credit card: Know what fees you will be charged for the foreign transaction. Also, find out if there is a cost difference depending on how you pay. I recently got afrom Russia stating that I could pay in rubles by cash or wire transfer, but if I used a credit card, I would be charged extra.
Carolyn Zusi is regional director of sales for HelmsBriscoe in Houston. She has more than 15 years of experience with hoteland meeting planning in more than 40 countries, on every continent.