Dollar-Smart Destinations

Places where your budget will go further overseas

Lisbon


Live large in Lisbon:

The euro may reign,
but the dollar still
gets good value in
Portugal and its capital city.

With the U.S. dollar at an all-time low against major foreign currencies like the euro and the pound (at press time, one euro was equal to US$1.42; one British pound equaled US$2), and with the Canadian dollar now equal to its U.S. counterpart, the diminished buying power of the dollar is a huge conundrum for many organizations that meet outside the United States.

In fact, according to M&C’s 2007 Global Planner Survey, 69 percent of corporate meeting planners and 80 percent of association planners say favorable exchange rates are an important consideration when selecting a destination for their international events. But while the most popular meeting and incentive destinations of Europe and Canada might be priced out of reach for many U.S. groups, there are plenty of places where greenbacks still go a long way.

Following are our picks for the best international buys for U.S. meetings and events abroad, based on favorable currency exchange rates (for latest rates in more than 80 currencies, go to xe.com); the 2007 Cost of Living Survey conducted by New York City-based Mercer Human Resource Consulting, an annual ranking of 143 global cities based on factors including food, transportation and entertainment costs; the Hotel Benchmark Survey by Deloitte (for the first half of 2007), and input from industry experts. Of course, the cost of air transportation from your attendees’ hub cities is another factor to consider when weighing affordability.

Riga, capital of Latvia


Baltic bargain:
Riga, the picturesque
capital of Latvia,
has been called
“the new Prague.”

Europe

With the euro holding sway over the dollar, it makes sense for planners to look to countries on the continent that have not adopted it as their official currency. Among those deemed a good value (and with good infrastructure) for U.S. groups: Poland, where the average daily hotel room rate in Warsaw is US$120, according to Deloitte. Values also can be found in Hungary and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Patricia Durocher, managing director of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based site-selection firm HelmsBriscoe International, is a big fan of Latvia and its capital, Riga. “It’s the new Prague,” she says. In recent years, she adds, “multinational companies have flocked there to set up offices, and low-cost carriers followed, making Riga easily accessible from almost anywhere in Europe. And then came the hoteliers. More than 30 properties were developed in 2005-’06 alone. For HelmsBriscoe associates, Riga ranks in the top five destinations booked during the first five months of 2007.”

Other high-value European countries that eschew the euro are Bulgaria, Montenegro and Slovenia. While HelmsBriscoe sources recommend the Croatian capital of Zagreb, they say the country’s resort areas are bargains only during the off-season (fall, winter and early spring).

Surprisingly, one country that uses the euro -- Portugal -- made our list. The capital, Lisbon, is very affordable compared with other Western European capitals, according to Durocher. “Keep in mind that most hotels here quote rates inclusive of VAT, taxes and services, while most other destinations quote rates exclusive of these elements,” she says.

The country also was lauded for its low hotel prices (according to Deloitte, the average room rate in Lisbon for the first half of 2007 was US$137) and proximity of the airport to the capital, which minimizes ground transportation costs.

BEYOND CURRENCY
What is it that makes a destination dollar-friendly? Besides a favorable exchange rate, says Patricia Durocher, managing director of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based site-selection firm HelmsBriscoe International, consider the following.

Is there a glut of hotels? For future bargains, seek out destinations where there is overbuilding of properties. Among those Durocher thinks will fit the bill over the next few years: Dubai and Abu Dhabi (both United Arab Emirates), China (due to the developments in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics) and South Africa (host of the 2010 World Cup finals).

How pricey are ground transportation and food and beverage? Tim Leffel, author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, came up with his picks based on these factors, along with the cost of hotel rooms.

Is the destination relatively new to the meetings and incentives market? In many cases, the cost of hotel rooms in lesser-known or emerging destinations will be lower. Durocher cites Berlin as an example: “In the past 18 months, Berlin was a good value, but most people would not have thought of it. There was a lot of hotel development, and properties were offering guaranteed U.S. dollar rates.” But times have changed, she says, and as demand has gone up in the German capital, so have prices. -- L.G.

Central/South America

According to Mercer’s 2007 Cost of Living Survey, four of the five least-expensive cities of the 143 analyzed are in South America: Buenos Aires, Argentina (where average daily room rates are US $139); Quito, Ecuador; Asuncion, Paraguay; and Montevideo, Uruguay.

Tim Brooks, president of Chicago-based planning firm The Austin Group International, and Tim Leffel, author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations (www.Booklocker.com), like Latin America because most currencies are tied to the U.S. dollar, making costs predictable for U.S. groups. Even countries like Costa Rica, says Leffel, might not be inexpensive, “but you get a lot for the dollar compared with places like Scottsdale or Miami.” He adds, “From an incentive perspective, group activities like rafting or zip-lining cost much less in those destinations.”

Asia

Southeast Asia is another region where the dollar goes a long way today. Malaysia is the country that came out tops with all our sources. Says Pat Durocher, “Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is to Asia as Lisbon is to Europe: For a capital city, you can get great value for your money.”

Depending on the season and day of week, she says, groups can secure five-star accommodations for less than US$200 per night (the average room rate is US$96), and the daily meeting package (separate from hotel costs) at the same five-star properties runs from US$39 to US$50 per delegate.

Other destinations singled out in the region: Bali, Thailand and Vietnam for value pricing on hotel rooms, transportation, services, and food and beverage.

China and Singapore, though a bit more costly than the countries mentioned above, still are dollar-friendly, sources agree, because their currencies are tied, to some extent, to the U.S. dollar.

Africa

Experts like Tim Leffel say the best meeting and incentive bargains on the continent can be found in North Africa, particularly in Egypt and Morocco.

Richard Wise, president of San Diego-based Wise Incentives, held a program for Fox Broadcasting Co. affiliates in Morocco in September. “We really got a lot for our budget -- much more than we could in other destinations,” he says.

Wise was most impressed by the low cost and great service of the Moroccan destination management firm he used (Grupe Voyageurs du Monde au Maroc) and says he would like to do more programs there in the future.