If there was ever a day when association leadership gave meeting and event professionals the proverbial blank check to orchestrate a meeting or event, it’s not today. Association meeting planners, recognizing the need to get the most bang for their buck, are expected to show budget restraint for all-out events that will generate maximum return on investment.
Increased scrutiny on meeting expenses has placed a tremendous amount of pressure on meeting professionals to cut costs while at the same time, show clear evidence that the money spent will connect the dots directly to growth in membership, attendance and revenue.
For some, tight travel budgets may result in shorter meetings and conventions, and attendees who may not stay for the entire program. And so, as the recently released, second Decision to Attend Study confirmed, the need to create impactful experiences for attendees is more important than ever. Finding the right balance between controlling costs and creating a compelling program is the challenge.
What follows is advice from seasoned planners on how to find savings in key areas, from food and beverage and site selection to transportation, entertainment and technology without compromising the ever important experience.
Many associations are opting to downsize large formal dinners into equally appealing, but less expensive options, such as a wine tasting with locally infused appetizers or perhaps a casual outdoor barbecue — offering a memorable experience at a cost savings from traditional banquets.
Most venues will have a catering menu that offers packages for breakfast, lunch and breaks, as well as an à la carte menu. Jody-Ann Rowe, founder of the Event Certificate says one of the key methods for cutting costs on food and beverage for meetings is working with the venue to create a customized menu for your event.
“While adding up à la carte options can increase your F&B cost significantly, choosing a preset menu package can also mean paying for extra food items you don’t necessarily need,” Rowe says.
The best solution is to work with the venue to create a custom package for the event. For example, if an association meeting planner finds a package offered by the venue that they like but the cost is too high, they should ask the venue to customize the package and decrease the cost accordingly.
“This could include limiting salad options to one instead of two or three, using refillable pitchers instead of individually bottled beverages, or eliminating extra breakfast items such as yogurt parfaits and keeping it more simple,” Rowe says.
Benjamin Rabe, CEM, events director at SmithBucklin, recommends that instead of 1,000 hot breakfasts, ordering a continental breakfast and spicing it up with an additional order of 600 breakfast sandwiches and 600 parfaits, may be a less expensive option.
Likewise, Murphy McGarrity, events director at SmithBucklin, says that spa water — specifically fruit-infused water served in cups — will save more money than offering bottled water. “Most attendees won’t grab multiple cups like they might with bottles,” McGarrity says. “Plus, it enhances the attendee experience because it feels fancier.”
Ashley Pencak, CMP, events director at SmithBucklin, also suggests making the serving sizes of both food and beverages smaller. “Attendees won’t notice the difference if that’s the only size available. Set out teacups instead of coffee cups,” Pencak says. “Offer small plate sizes. As for the bar, it can be open for the first hour, but after that it could become a cash bar. Offer only beer and wine, no cocktails — attendees will still thoroughly enjoy themselves.”
Additionally, save on meal costs by selecting entrées that the hotel chef is already offering. Ask the chef what the kitchen is preparing for a particular day. Then model the menu with the same selections for attendees. This will save money by saving the chef’s preparation time and costs for purchasing specific ingredients for an event.
Michelle Perez, event planner and creative designer at Michelle Perez Events, says some additional key ways to cut costs within the food and beverage arena include:
Choose a venue that offers in-house catering, not one that you have to bring in a caterer as the travel, staff and service will undoubtedly be more expensive with the latter.
Consider a cocktail reception versus a sit-down dinner. Serving bites and stations versus plated or buffet dinner helps to keep food costs down. It’s also fun because you can be more creative with options and varieties.
Service of an open bar can be slowed down if the budget is being spent faster than expected. To make this decision, associations can ask the maitre ’d or the beverage manager to let them know when the halfway point of the estimated budget is reached.
When planning the menu, start with fixed costs such as room rental, bartenders, etc. Request a custom menu to fall in line with your desired budget.
Associations also can save money on meeting destinations by sourcing locations based on demand.
“Organizing the event over a low-demand period can mean greater negotiating power and lower prices,” Rowe says. “Planners can also take advantage of lower rates for off-peak or off-season periods in most cities.”
Rowe says a key to achieving lower rates is flexibility. “Whether this is with dates, location or event options — being open to changing from a Wednesday start day to a Thursday, for example, could end up saving a lot of money, depending on the selected destination,” Rowe says. “It is also important to inform suppliers of a planner’s flexibility so that they can offer cost-saving options if available.”
Association meeting planners agree that historically, the structure of conventions is usually two or three days, however some association groups cut their conventions by half or even a full day to save money. Some associations also are going from a two-day meeting to a one-day meeting to avoid the cost of an overnight for the members.
Rabe further recommends that planners be flexible as it relates to location. Sometimes timing is everything.
“For example, Atlanta was scheduled for a huge two-week event, and our client’s event was planned for the following week,” Rabe says. “Although we had been considering another location, we noticed that Atlanta’s hotel rooms were nearly empty following that big event. We quickly locked in our event, and by switching destinations, the client saved 18 percent on hotel rates.”
If another group will be in the same location right before your organization’s event, find out whether the same AV and exhibit hall entrance structures can be used for your group. That way only the logos and the conference look need to be changed.
“Three of SmithBucklin’s client organizations did this when they had back-to-back meetings in Seattle, and each group saved significantly on labor for setup,” Pencak says. “In another recent example, one client wrapping up its event left its existing stage set for another client just arriving at the same venue, saving additional labor charges for both events.”
Money can be saved through room blocks at the hotel and by hosting the event at the same hotel or resort in which the guests are staying.
“And remember, planning excursions and negotiating rates beforehand can be a money-saver, as associations will be able to confirm a certain number of visitors to the attraction or excursion venues,” Perez says.
Entertainment expenses can be a huge line item on an association’s meeting budget. Luckily entertainment also can be controlled significantly by sourcing locally in the destination. While high-profile performers might seem like a great option for increasing audience engagement, finding local talent at the meeting destination not only can help to save on cost, but the subject of some acts may revolve around a regional or cultural uniqueness.
Vanessa Colosio Diaz, national meeting planner at creative services and consulting company Pipeline Pepper, also suggests inviting local talent. “It’s less expensive, there are fewer travel fees, and it brings in a different flavor,” Diaz says. “Also if it is in L.A. or New York City and you are bringing in known names, bring in talent that lives in that given city. Don’t bring in someone from New York City to an L.A. event; there is already a great amount of talent in L.A .and vice versa.”
McGarrity says tapping into the membership’s talent also can help cut costs. One health care-related client organization McGarrity serves “hired” association members who moonlighted in a band to be the event’s entertainment. “We only paid for AV. The members in the band loved it, and the members in the audience had a great time cheering on their peers,” McGarrity says.
Planners also can trim expenses by booking speakers who also offer an entertainment option in their fees. For example, a speaker who also works as a master of ceremonies (MC) could save on the cost of hiring an MC for the event. That is essentially one less speaker fee, hotel expense and travel expense that can be deducted from the budget.
And remember, says Rabe, offsite venues can be the entertainment. He advises, “Hold your special event at a football stadium with locker room tours, player meet ‘n’ greets, tailgate-themed food, and use the existing digital signage to brand the venue with your own logo. It will nicely roll entertainment and venue costs into one.”
Associations are incorporating more and more technology into events, whether to enhance the attendee experience or make their events more efficient. But what some don’t realize is that technology also can act as a cost-cutting measure.
According to Michael Balyasny, CEO and founder of Attendify, a data platform that helps users harness event data, putting agenda, speaker listings and maps on the event app can significantly cut the costs of printed programs (and increase convenience for attendees). In addition, using online registration systems can free up your team to focus on other cost-cutting (or ROI-enhancing) activities. “Event organizers also should consider that money still can be saved post-event as well, by effectively collecting and using data from past events to better plan and promote future ones,” Balyasny says. “Using technology, associations can analyze everything from speakers/session ratings, poll results, social activity and more. Then, they can use that information to save money, increase attendance and improve attendee sentiment at future events.” That same data can be used to more cost-effectively follow up with attendees after a conference with targeted communications for future event promotions, offers and incentives. This kind of sophisticated targeting can drive down marketing costs by eliminating inefficient marketing campaigns while generating revenue at the same time.
In our age of transformative transportation, options such as Uber, can help associations get creative with their transportation. If an association is covering the costs of attendees’ transportation, UberEvents is definitely an option to explore. Attendees can use Uber to get to and from the event and, unlike reserving mass transportation, an association is only charged for the rides that they’ve used.
If attendees are paying their own way, meeting planners can still utilize Uber as a sponsorship partner for the event’s transportation needs. Planners can work with the association’s marketing team to create a discount partnership where attendees are provided with a unique ride code, and in return, planners can include their branding as a sponsor.
Perez recommends providing a shuttle service that can accommodate larger groups to help cut costs. Typically these charge in four-hour increments with as many trips as can fit in that amount of time — not by the number of trips.
Diaz also suggests meeting planners make sure the association is collecting flight points and, when possible, secure an Amtrak, airline or other transportation sponsor to cut costs.
“For an event in San Diego, having Amtrak as a sponsor to bring in talent, speakers or guests is much less expensive than sending individual drivers,” Diaz says. “In addition, when booking talent, make it clear in the negotiations what their needs are and what you are and are not willing to cover. If you need to order a car service, it will be less expensive booking in advance instead of ordering in a pinch.”
According to Pencak, there are opportunities to cut costs in a few other areas as well. For example, digital signage, such as using a TV outside a meeting room with a PowerPoint setup, is less expensive than multiple physical posters because it’s a one-time TV cost.
“In the end, keep as much as possible in-house,” Perez says. “This includes linens, flatware, dance floor, tables and chairs. The lesser number of rentals, the more cost-effective the event will be.” AC&F