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by Michael C. Lowe | September 01, 2010

Themed events can be entertaining and engaging for attendees, but they also can be expensive. The challenge for most planners today is to make a splash without using a lot of cash. Following are some creative theme concepts that can be carried out on a modest budget.

Welcome to town Some destinations provide natural themes, with iconic foods, décor and more. For example, instead of expensive floral centerpieces, pile tables high with the meeting city's most touristy trinkets, which guests can take away as mementos at the end of the night. Anything from key chains with dangling landmarks to shot glasses featuring famous neighborhoods can be arranged on the table for a smorgasbord of souvenir send-offs. "It immediately brings a sense of the destination to the table, and it gets people to play with things," says Jennifer Witherington, director of sales at Mana, Allison & Associates in San Francisco.

Witherington recently threw a Welcome to San Francisco event for a Canadian insurance group, with souvenir-shop centerpieces that included stamped postcards of the City on the Bay that could be mailed home to friends and family during the conference. She also decorated food stations with low-cost replicas of neighborhood icons for photo ops. Thus, Nob Hill was equipped with a wooden replica cable-car front, Fisherman's Wharf had crab traps and moraea plants, and two six-foot-tall Chinese parade dragons were set up in Chinatown.

Instead of a formal sit-down, Witherington suggests buffet stations to highlight food from a destination's different neighborhoods, such as clam chowder, crab cakes and shrimp cocktail for San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, and pastas and pizza for the city's Little Italy. Likewise, attendees could head to a faux Ghirardelli Square for chocolate.

Mary Baird-Wilcock, owner and senior event planner of The Simplifiers in Austin, Texas, says planners should invite local food vendors to cater the event as sponsors; it gives the vendors a high profile, saves money and offers attendees a variety of local flavors.

Salsa night "It's tempting to overload on décor," says Rachelle Stone, vice president of sales and marketing with Miami-based Advantage Destination. "But you can hit so much more space just with lighting and sounds."

For a recent client bash, Stone spiced things up with a Latin theme. Instead of spending valuable budget dollars on fancy room decoration such as hacienda furnishings, tropical flowers or a rustic fountain, she spread the wealth by engaging as many senses as possible.

To set the tone, Stone hired a Latin band (although a Spanish guitarist could be substituted for less) and five Latin-dancing couples who brought attendees onto the dance floor, where they whirled around under festive lights splashed across the room. It was an effective way to fill the space and kept the 3,500 guests entertained and engaged.

In the past, Stone also has included a Cuban coffee station and a cigar roller to allow the complex aromas to add to the atmosphere.

"Today, companies want to see the value for their dollar," Stone notes. "People aren't going to remember what the tables looked like, but they will remember the dancer who pulled them onto the floor and taught them the samba or the smell of that hand-rolled cigar."

When it comes to food, Stone says Spanish tapas can be a more cost-effective alternative to a sit-down or buffet and can feature mini tacos, bacon-wrapped dates and Cuban-spiced prawns.