It's easy to underestimate costs associated with offshore meetings — there are, for one thing, more expenses involved. Here is some help for managing the bottom line.

Preparation

Some veteran religious planners estimate that an offshore program will cost $1,000 to $1,500 more than a domestic one, and some advise doubling the operating budget. Others say that with very careful planning, an offshore program does not have to cost much more than one held in the United States. One thing everyone agrees on: Build in a generous slush fund — as much as 25 percent greater than your domestic meeting's contingency fund.

Put together a budget worksheet that covers every imaginable expense, including air, hotel, meeting rooms, AV, food and beverage, shipping, speaker support, translation, spouse programs, staff costs, printing and copying, local transportation, and telephone and fax costs.

Don't expect deeply discounted hotel room rates or free meeting room space. Meeting space is at a premium in many foreign countries.

Hotels in general are smaller, so if you need more than 50 rooms, you may have to use more than one property. That can drive up shuttle costs.

Currency Strategies

Dealing strictly in U.S. dollars is the simplest currency strategy. It will work to your advantage if the American dollar falls in value against a given currency. However, expect to pay premium exchange rates, and in some cases, service fees. If you go this route, it is best to use a credit card for your financial transactions.

Monitoring currency fluctuations with the goal of locking in a favorable exchange rate can reap fiscal rewards. But making an educated guess as to how foreign currency will move vis-à-vis the American dollar requires regular monitoring of such areas as interest rate trends, inflation, trade surpluses and deficits, and political conditions in the chosen destination. The best approach is to set a target number when currency exchange rates will enable you to meet your budget and then lock in the rates.

Opening a local bank account will yield good exchange rates and allow quick payment to suppliers. However, it requires a lot of management and may not be worth the effort for organizations that do not have branch offices or sister associations in the chosen destination. (Each country has its own banking rules, and there are IRS regulations as well.)

Another option, the forward contract, is an agreement to purchase a set amount of a foreign currency at some future date for an agreed upon number of American dollars. The exchange rate is locked in. The forward contract can be handled by the foreign exchange department of a commercial bank, but you will get the best deal from a currency management company. These firms operate like a bank, with added services and savings.

Forward contracts are usually purchased about a year before the program date but can be purchased up to a month before the meeting. A $10,000 minimum is standard, as is a good-faith deposit (around 15 percent). You can arrange to pay the remaining 85 percent in staggered amounts that coincide with suppliers' payments.

What happens if you purchase a forward contract for more money than you need? Part or all of the contract can be sold at any time. The selling price is based on current market rates.

Options contracts also lock in exchange rates, with the advantage of a built-in escape clause: You can reserve the right to do nothing. But the clause carries a hefty fee.

VAT Charges

Perhaps the most vexing area of currency management for European, Canadian, and a few Pacific Rim programs is a hefty indirect tax collected on most good and services. These taxes are called the value-added tax (VAT) in Europe and the goods and services tax (GST) in Canada. They could easily represent 15 percent to 25 percent of a total meeting budget and should be included as line items on the budget worksheet.

Most of the countries in the European Union have adopted VAT refund procedures that allow U.S. companies to reclaim the taxes charged on many of their overseas meeting expenses. The bad news is that the procedures governing VAT reclaim are complex and vary from country to country. Each country has its own application form that must be completed in the country's official language, and that's the first of many steps, which end in a refund in local currency as much as six months later.

Few planners tackle the process on their own. Currency management and VAT reclaim companies can help out. (See Resource Guide on page 57.)

Overseas Tip

Printing and copying charges can be very high in some offshore destinations. If your program requires printed materials, either bring adequate supplies with you, ship early, or strike a deal with a local printer.