Bargains Abroad

4 international cities with great prices and group appeal

Bridge at the Danube RiverWhile many U.S. companies are thinking twice these days about meeting outside of the country, a number of international destinations deserve a second look for their value. Along with favorable exchange rates and reasonably priced hotel rooms, the following cities offer convenient transportation, top-notch dining and a wealth of attractions with budget appeal.

Panama City, Panama

The old and the new converge in Panama City, a thriving, modern metropolis with a rich culture and history. Thanks to its strategic location at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, the city has long been a hub for international business and trade.

According to August 2009 figures released by Smith Travel Research, hotel inventory here is expanding more than any other city in Central America, with 1,318 rooms currently under construction. Among the city's many affordable properties are the 363-room Riande Continental Hotel & Casino, which offers 16 meeting rooms and a ballroom that can accommodate up to 100 people; the 330-room El Panama Convention Center & Casino, with 35 meeting rooms; and the 362-room Sheraton Panama Hotel & Convention Center (across the street from the Atlapa Convention Center). Each of the above offers rates starting at about $150 per night.

The Atlapa Convention Center, with 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, can host only one group (of up to 3,000) at a time, but a new center is being planned that will be able to accommodate several events at once. At press time, a suitable site, as well as a 500- to 1,000-room headquarters hotel, were under consideration.

Groups can enjoy excursions to nearby tropical rainforests; rafting and kayaking among the country's 1,000 islands and inlets; the 16th-century ruins of Panama Vieja (Old Panama), and the narrow cobblestone streets of the Casco Viejo historic district. The city offers numerous malls and markets that sell everything from designer fashions to discount electronics to Panamanian handicrafts and jewelry.  

When it comes to food, the city offers a variety of inexpensive Chinese, French and Italian eateries; for Panamanian cuisine, a premier outpost is Las Tinajas, offering traditional dishes made with fresh seafood, yucca, beef and rice. For a tasty snack, try arepas (stuffed corn bread) and fried plantains from curbside food carts.

Recommended transport within Panama City is by taxi or bus. A one-way trip by taxi averages under US$2, while bus trips are less than US$1.

Tocumen International Airport, 12 miles from the city center, recently completed a US$85 million revamp and now features 27 gates and new baggage service. Various carriers offer direct flights from 10 major U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, Houston and Los Angeles.

Contact: Panama Convention and Vis­itors Bureau

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
1109 Kuala Lumpur's Petronas TowersThe capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur is a showcase of stunning architecture, from the postmodern Petronas Twin Towers to the Islamic, New Moorish and Grecian-Spanish influences found in mosques, libraries and museums throughout the city. With a blend of residents who come from China, South India, Thailand and Indonesia, this metropolis is multicultural and amenable to travelers from everywhere.

Indeed, Kuala Lampur ranked the 27th most popular city for international association meetings, having hosted 61 such events in 2008, according to the International Congress & Convention Association's 2009 Destination Comparison and ICCA Statistics Report.

In recent months, the meetings and conventions market has received an added push following the December 2008 opening of Malaysia's Convention & Exhibition Bureau, which offers specials and free services to attract business. For example, a sum of 100,000 Malaysian ringgit (about US$29,000) is being awarded to planners who bring a minimum of 300 attendees to Kuala Lumpur for three nights or more. Requirements include drawing delegates from at least five countries and who constitute at least 25 percent of the group.

Even without a monetary incentive, Kuala Lumpur's hotel room and transportation costs are reasonable. The U.K.-based Hotel Price Index, which studied transactions on from June 2008 to June 2009, found the city's average room rate to be approximately US$108. In the heart of town, the 400-room Renaissance Kuala Lumpur and the 515-room Hotel Istana Kuala Lumpur can be booked for around $80 per night; the 610-room Berjaya Times Square Hotel Kuala Lumpur averages around $100 per night; and the five-star, 384-room Westin Kuala Lumpur and the luxurious Mandarin Oriental, adjacent to the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center, weigh in at $134 and $170 per night, respectively.

Of special interest to planners is the 100-acre Kuala Lumpur City Centre, anchored by the four-year-old Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre with 104,500 square feet of exhibit space, a 25,700-square-foot grand ballroom, a 19,400-square-foot conference hall, a banquet hall and 20 meeting rooms.

Nearby, the 1.7 million-square-foot Putra World Trade Centre has 253,000 square feet of exhibit space, 17 meeting rooms a 3,000-seat theater and a large outdoor space for tented events. Just 20 minutes from downtown and 30 minutes from Kuala Lumpur International Airport is the Malaysia International Exhibition & Convention Center, within the 1,000-acre Mines Resort City development, featuring two hotels, a championship golf course and a large shopping center. An on-site convention hall holds about 8,000 people, while 11 conference rooms can accommodate up to 500.

Attractions include guided nature tours of the 100-year old Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve, an 11-acre tropical rainforest in the heart of the city; bustling markets selling colorful silks, batiks and pottery wares at bargain prices; mosques and museums showcasing Islamic art; and tours of the extraordinary limestone Batu Caves, eight miles north of the city.

Transportation is served by a light-rail transit system and the Monorail; one-way journeys via either option to most parts of the city cost just under $1.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport is one of the most modern and, being Green Globe-certified, environmentally sustainable airports in the world. This past summer, construction began on the US$555 million Low Cost Carrier Terminal, which will be able to accommodate up to 30 million passengers per year upon completion in 2011.

Contact: Malaysia Convention & Exhibition Bureau.

Budapest, Hungary
This classic Eastern European capital was ranked the sixth most popular city for international association meetings by ICCA, with 95 events recorded in 2008. Gorgeous art-nouveau and baroque-style buildings dominate the skyline, with the winding Danube river separating Buda and Pest. The former is known for its hilly geography and charming medieval Castle District, while the latter offers commerce, nightlife and more than 5,000 hotels.

According to the Hungarian Central Statistical Office, the gross average room rate from January to August of this year was US$178 for a five-star, US$88 for a four-star and just US$59 for a three-star property. Among recent and future hotel projects in the city:

• Last December, the 261-room Ramada Resort Budapest and Aquaworld opened with a conference center for 1,000 attendees and a spa with 17 pools.

• This past July, the 160-room Expo Congress Hotel opened with the Panorama Bar, named for its view, along with three conference rooms hosting up to 250 attendees.

• Next June, the 280-room Continental Hotel Zaza will wrap up a US$66 million renovation. The venue will be able to accommodate groups of up to 250, while its rooftop garden will hold 150.

• The Syma Congress Center has received approval for a 43,000-square-foot extension for exhibitions; construction began this month and will finish in spring 2011.

Budapest is a city of baths, home to 118 natural thermal springs. On the culinary scene, hearty native staples like goulash and stuffed cabbage share the spotlight with sophisticated cuisine from all over the world.

Public transportation on buses, trams and trolleys is easy and affordable; unlimited day travel passes in the city go for about US$8.

The Hungarian Convention Bureau

Buenos Aires, Argentina
1109 A shop in Buenos AiresMost agree that the heart of Buenos Aires lies in its 48 barrios, or districts, each retaining its own cultural heritage and vibe. Attendees will enjoy taking in the café culture and street life of Microcento, the tango-themed bars and bustling markets of San Telmo and the colorfully painted homes of working-class La Boca. The city also offers 132 museums, featuring collections of everything from Latin American art to soccer memorabilia.

Though not be the bargain it was several years ago, the city remains economical for dollar-carrying visitors. While certain goods and services such as electronics and rental cars are pricier than in the United States, hotel rates average at about US$148, per the Hotel Price Index.

According to the Buenos Aires Convention and Visitors Bureau, the city has a total of 17,000 hotel rooms and 1,614,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space within centrally located hotels and convention centers.

Many projects are in the works. In the Puerto Madero district, the St. Regis Hotel and Residences Buenos Aires will open in 2010 with 160 rooms and a retail and entertainment complex. About 16 miles from the city, the InterContinental Nordelta Buenos Aires Hotel, Residences and Spa will offer 160 guest rooms, two restaurants and six meeting rooms able to host up to 600; completion is set for 2011. The 150-room Alvear Plaza San Martin and the 150-room Alvear Puerto Madero are slated to open in 2012, both with meeting and event space.

Buenos Aires has three main convention facilities. In the trendy Palermo district is the La Rural Predio Ferial de Buenos Aires, offering 484,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space, with another 107,000 square feet of outdoor space. The Centro Coste Salguero, near the newly revamped Puerto Madero district, features six pavilions, comprising 212,000 square feet of space, and five auditoriums, the largest of which holds 800. The Centro Municipal de Exposiciones offers six pavilions, 215,000 square feet of exhibition space, 32,000 square feet of outdoor space and an auditorium.

The city is famous for world-class Italian, Spanish and French cuisine, while native eateries such as Cabana Las Lilas, in the Puerto Madero neighborhood, offers some of the best grilled beef anywhere for $8 to $14 a plate. High-class restaurants, such as the Italian-serving Piegari, in the Recoleta barrio, offer gourmet meals for less than US$25.

In September, Ezeiza International Airport, about 15 miles from downtown, broke ground on the first phase of a US$250 million expansion and renovation. When work is completed in 2011, the airport will span 1,400,000 square feet and accommodate 13 million passengers a year.

The Buenos Aires Convention & Visitors Bureau.