By Phelps R. Hope, CMP
Between skyrocketing fuel costs, a struggling U.S. economy and rising airfare, it should come as little surprise that many Americans are scaling back their personal travel plans. The same goes in the meetings and conventions industry, where the weak U.S. dollar has some U.S.-based businesses reconsidering international destinations.
How much has the dollar fallen? According to a Fed index, it dropped 10 percent in the past year against the currencies of major U.S. trading partners. Specifically, the dollar has fallen about 12 percent against the euro and nine percent versus the yen since September, when the Fed began cutting interest rates.
Still, many hoteliers continue to see increases in occupancy and room rates, while in the U.S., international visitors are flocking to cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to enjoy the bargains brought on by a devalued dollar.
With the desire for foreign travel still strong among U.S. associations and companies, meeting planners simply must work harder to find solutions. With the proper research, meeting professionals can ensure a first-rate overseas event complete with value-added services and affordable attendance for clients.
Here are a few tips to planning a successful meeting in a far-flung location:
- Protect your prices. Rather than booking a traditional European Plan – or a quoted rate that only includes the price of the room – go with the all-inclusive American Plan. There is also a Modified American Plan, or MAP, which features the room cost and two meals a day. Either way, it’s probably better to lock in a set meal price now than deal with potentially escalated costs two years from now.
- Do your homework. Just like with domestic market planning, conduct plenty of research before starting negotiations with international properties. Utilize the Internet to uncover hotels off the beaten track or determine which are selling value discounts. Look for newly-opened or planned renovation sites that might be willing to provide contract concessions immediately following their opening or re-opening. Of course, you will need to keep on top of property construction schedules.
- Dollars to pounds to euros. Just as you can go to the U.S. Department of State web site to get travel tips and news updates about various destinations, you can also log onto to a number of different Web sites to find the most up-to-date international currency exchange rates and trends. For example, check http://www.dailyfx.com/charts/ to see real-time market analysis and financial information.
- First-tier isn’t always the best. Within the U.S. in recent years, low-cost regional airlines have helped boost meeting interest in “secondary” or “third-tier” cities like Indianapolis, Nashville and Baltimore, as well as suburban locations near major cities. The situation is similar in Europe, where lesser-known sites like Bruges in Belgium, Valencia, Spain and Croatia’s Zagreb are becoming increasingly popular among tourists. Meeting planners willing to schedule events in these secondary markets may find more availability and value dates.
- The early bird gets the rate. So what can you do to help ensure the attendance of conference-goers and corporate meeting sponsors? Provide better incentives, such as deeper discounts on early bird rates. In some cases, you can also renegotiate with a contracted hotel to increase the number of lower room rates included in an existing block. For example, if you have a room block booked at a certain property next season, you can ask to boost the number of lower-priced garden-views and decrease the amount of pricier ocean-view rooms. Inquire about any added value the hotel may provide, such as utilizing their staging or equipment for a conference, as well as airport pickup. The better the package, the more attendees you’re likely to draw.
- Cater to an international audience. In the case of many global associations, the destination of a meeting may rotate between continents – with a spring event taking place in Europe, while a fall or winter conference is organized in the U.S. or Asia. Plan those meetings accordingly. If the event is in Paris, for example, choose activities, meals and incentives that appeal more to Europeans, as they will likely make up the bulk of the audience.
Although the meetings industry has been impacted by America’s slumping economy and weakened dollar, our job remains the same – to negotiate the best deal on behalf of the client. The hotels and suppliers understand that and remain vested partners in this challenge. And remember, this is not the first time we have gone through a downturn of this magnitude. Use your past experiences to guide you through this latest cycle.
Phelps R. Hope, CMP, is Vice President of Meetings and Expositions for Kellen Company, an Association Management Company (AMC) with offices and representation in the United States, Europe, China, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 404-252-3663.
Mr. Hope authored this article for republishing in Association Conventions and Facilities Aug/Sep 2008.