Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: February/March 2008
25 Ways to Keep Your Meeting Budget Under Control
By: Michael Bennett

You’ve labored on this convention for over a year now. You’ve meticulously worked every angle to save money. It’s that delicate balance all meeting planners face between keeping costs down and insuring those who attend walk away with the experience of a lifetime. Let just one thing be out of place though and everyone will notice it’s missing.

How do those successful meeting planners put on a world-class event on a shoestring budget? How do you get more with less as the demand for a great event rises in an era of shrinking budgets and tight-fisted hoteliers, suppliers and vendors trying to squeeze you for your last dollar? A good meeting planner’s success will ultimately depend on ways to cut costs in such a manner that those efforts go unnoticed by everyone else. What a thankless job!

Richard Lee Snow

Richard Lee Snow, executive director of Kappa Alpha Psi says flexibility is the key. “A large convention can mean many surprises,” Snow says, “I always leave myself some flexibility in budgeting to add events as appropriate. It may also be necessary as you move forward to trim your agenda; especially some of the smaller events, where there may not be adequate attendance.”


Patricia Norman

Patricia Norman, director of Conference Services for the National Medical Associations says last minute additions and changes can wreak havoc on a budget. Norman says these changes can often “increase budgets by twice as much.”

Norman’s advice — plan ahead. She pays particular attention to audio/visual needs for her events along with food and beverage.

John Cychol

John Cychol, vice president of Meeting Sales at the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau believes, “meeting planners wanting to keep budgets under control should look at dates, rates and space. Flexibility in those three areas can often provide greater cost savings.”

One common theme in my research for this article had to do with the final bill. It’s time to settle up with all the suppliers and vendors who contributed to the success of your event. Surprise, Surprise — you discover unaccounted for expenses and surcharges for things like; power and electricity usage for the ballroom audiovisual equipment, fees to cover the cost of banquet staff, automatic gratuities and restocking the mini bar. Many of these fees were listed in the initial contract so read carefully and add a clause to all contracts that prohibit additional fees without your consent.

Here are 25 more budgeting saving tips that all savvy planners should consider to keep those costs under control. In the area of food and beverage:

  1. Offer pitchers of water instead of bottled water.
  2. Use smaller plates; especially at receptions people will eat less.
  3. Eliminate hard liquor and mixed drinks and serve only beers, wines, and sodas.
  4. If you do serve hard liquor and wine use house brands.
  5. Know the history of your event. Not everyone who registers for an event is going to eat every meal. That way you can order less and save money.
  6. Whether it’s a cash bar or hosted bar, don’t pay more for drinks than you would pay in other hotel outlets.

Negotiating favorable room rates can be a little tricky. It’s the largest revenue source for the hotelier and in a seller’s market it takes a tough negotiator to get a concession on room rates.

  1. Meeting planners must know the total value of your meeting. When negotiating with hotels you must come armed with everything your group has spent in the past. That includes things like food and beverage, hotel restaurants, bars, golf, Internet usage and gift shops to name a few. That way you are bargaining from a position of strength when trying to get concessions on room rates.
  2. Think about second-tier markets. In today’s marketplace many second-tier markets such as St Louis or Indianapolis have more than enough facilities to host events of 10,000 or more.
  3. Think about multi-year deals. If you plan to return to the same destination next year, or at some point in the not-too-distant future, hoteliers should be a little more flexible.
  4. If possible, be flexible on dates. If you must hold your event in a top-tier market this flexibility could save you a ton of money.
  5. Give conservative room blocks, overbooking could cost you dearly.
  6. For meetings booked several years in advance, try negotiating a room rate cap tied to some figure like inflation. And even the inflation rate should be capped to hedge against runaway inflation.
  7. Get to know the business of your hotel supplier. Find out about their competitors and how that particular market is doing.
  8. You might want to leave the room rate alone and use that as leverage to negotiate lower food and beverage costs, comp rooms and free Internet or free airport transfers.

Transportation has become a significant expense for the meeting attendee. Lets face it, rising gas costs alone has forced the airline industry to raise prices several times in the past year. Ground transportation in several top-tier markets has followed suit. So try some of the following suggestions:

  1. Try to schedule events in close proximity to your hotel. If they are in walking distance even better.
  2. If you need buses know how many so you only contract for what’s needed.
  3. Instead of expensive “meet and greet” services why not hand out vouchers for airport shuttle services or other forms of public transportation.
  4. If you have VIPs attending your event, try negotiating a complimentary limousine service with the hotel.
  5. For all other guests, ask the hotel if they have complimentary airport shuttle service. Below are other areas of interest for the meeting planner that lends to cost savings.
  6. Get sponsors for meal functions.
  7. If audio/visual equipment is required put all sessions that require such equipment in the same room so you don’t pay for more than you need.
  8. Try and negotiate a discount if a major portion of the bill is paid on-site.
  9. If you want to hire a speaker, check in the local market first. This will save transportation costs.
  10. Negotiate flat rates with speakers or entertainers as opposed to fees plus expenses.
  11. Use interns and volunteers as much as possible. Many of you have better ways to save than some of those mentioned here. During my research for this article I found over 200 cost savings ideas in just five minutes. I tried to pick those generic enough for everyone to use.

Competition for good conventions is fierce. If you are a meeting planner for one of these top-tier events, by all means leverage your strength. When accepting bids not only should you consider rates, look for things like cancellation fees and discounts on convention space. One planner I spoke to told me they’ve received free convention space because of their continued patronage over the years. Also check into privately owned hotels and conventions centers. Because they have other revenue generators besides room rates, you might be able to gain some measure of flexibility in your negotiations. One example is the Gaylord properties such as Opryland in Nashville, TN.

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