By JOE SHARKEY
Web Site Makes Timely, Detailed, Foreign Exchange Data More Accessible
There's a conversational icebreaker for those interminable hours that you may be spending in airport lounges as this summer of endless flight delays grinds on: Did you know that 10 Bolivian bolivianos got you 3.4 Bulgarian levs at the money-changing counters yesterday? How about that Cyprus pound, one for $1.62. Or that Indonesian rupiah -- 9,100 for $1 today.
This sort of detailed foreign exchange information, which I guarantee will instantly trump any unwelcome lounge colloquies on the mind-numbing subject of someone else's frequent-flier miles, used to be somewhat inconvenient to obtain with any precision and convenience. But smart international business travelers have recently been discovering a Web site that offers current foreign exchange data in exhaustive detail. It's www.oanda.com, extensively revamped last spring by the OANDA Corporation, an Internet company that was spun off four years ago by Olsen & Associates, the Swiss econometrics firm.
oanda.com's most useful feature is called the FX (for foreign exchange) Cheat Sheet, which allows a user to find a current exchange rate by clicking on one currency and comparing it with any of 173 other world currencies. The chart can be printed out. You also can instantly find out what the historical exchange rates have been for any of those currencies.
Growing numbers of business people are making multi-destination international trips. When they come home, they confront the headaches of filing an expense account that needs to figure, say, how much that 400,000-lira-a-night hotel room in Milan actually cost. Answer: $194 yesterday; $187 just 60 days ago.
"Being a business traveler, it was always kind of a nightmare to figure out the exchange rates, especially if you didn't do your expenses right away," said Timothy Kelly, OANDA's chief executive. "You'd be, 'What the heck was the rate two weeks ago or a month ago, when I had a thousand dollars of expenses in Milan, and some more in Frankfurt, Paris and London.' It could get a little hairy."
Hairy even for the beetle-brows in the accounting department, by the way. "Those fluctuations can total 10 or 20 percent during an extended trip abroad," he said. "On extended trips abroad, a 10 percent differential can add up to real money. It's a matter of not shortchanging yourself and not overcharging your company."
OANDA said that its currency-converter technology was licensed by 13,000 clients, many of whom use it on their own Web sites. Among them are travel and airline sites, and even retail merchants who can rig their online catalogs with OANDA's software to instantly display prices in various currencies.
Incidentally, I am one of those travelers for whom even the simplest permutations of foreign-exchange remain invincibly unfathomable. In a long conversation the other day, Mr. Kelly managed to keep my attention when he told me that OANDA is about to join up with Thomas Cook Ltd., the travel and foreign exchange services company, to offer an online service for ordering foreign cash and having it sent quickly to your home. This way, you can have a modest stash of local currency in your pocket when you hit the foreign airport.
Some banks and travel service companies already offer similar foreign cash delivery. But the Oanda site had 25 million hits in June, and has about four million users, according to WebTrends, an Internet traffic measurement concern. That's a lot of potential customers who might be persuaded to push a little button and order cash, Mr. Kelly suggested.
"Isn't it dangerous to send cash through the mail?" I asked him. "Nothing that would dissuade us from doing this business," Mr. Kelly replied. He said that the cash would be sent either by priority mail or, for an extra charge, by express or overnight shipping -- in envelopes that don't advertise the fact that they contain loot.
"The outer envelope is of course the generic delivery service envelope," he said. "It doesn't have a big emblazoned logo like, OANDA the Currency Site, which would basically be a steal-me sticker."
Having thus reassured me on a simple financial point, Mr. Kelly began to outline OANDA's ambitious plans to one day soon become an "online trading interface for individuals," and a "business-to-business exchange service" linking importers and exporters and others.
"Within three to six months' time we will be a fully integrated FX trading hub," he said, adding that OANDA's online "penetration, traction and velocity" will aid in the establishment of a new electronic marketplace for foreign exchange.
Obviously, there are people, including some reporters, who can fathom the implications of this. Me, I was listening politely and taking notes, while at the same time fiddling on my computer with the OANDA Web site.
I can report that it has many entertaining travel features besides those currency conversion charts. For example, you can click on "Temperature" and convert Fahrenheit to Celsius and vice versa. Another chart has shoe-size comparisons: American, British and Continental, men's and women's. Another has those old back-of-the-composition-book favorites like charts for converting from meters to miles and grams to ounces.
Incidentally, did you know that a British hectare contains 107,639.10416709722 square feet?
Business Travel appears each Wednesday. Joe Sharkey's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.