by Jonathan Vatner | December 01, 2013

It happens far too often: A meeting ends, and the planner comes face-to-face with a food-and-beverage bill that is shockingly higher than expected. Sometimes costs pile up in dribs and drabs -- heavy drinkers at a reception, a few surprise coffee refills, unexpected service charges -- and sometimes the overrun strikes all at once in the form of a forgotten F&B minimum that exceeds what was spent.

No matter the cause, the following five case studies in budget-friendly F&B planning can help avert post-meeting sticker shock.

Tactic: Quantity control
Planner: Jane Kooiman, director of meeting services for Equinox Creative in Minneapolis
Meeting type: A corporate convention
Event: A weeklong sales and education convention put on by a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning company for some 1,200 independent representatives and top customers, held at an upscale resort in San Antonio

Kooiman's major coup with this meeting was a 15 percent rebate on all food and nonalcoholic beverages, secured during contracting more than two years in advance. That alone saved the company $75,000. She notes that it's generally easier to negotiate a rebate than a discount.

Rather than paying for meals based on a head count, Kooiman ordered most foods à la carte, specifying smaller quantities of a range of items to provide diverse offerings without creating massive leftovers. Knowing the group's history helped her figure out how much to order.

In the final weeks leading up to the event, Kooiman reviewed the hotel lists to tally how many people would be present for the opening and closing events, and she created a spreadsheet with head counts for every event.

"It might seem like nitty-gritty details, but knowing the exact number really helps from an F&B spend standpoint," she says.

This group included lots of heavy eaters, so she paid for extra servers and carvers at the buffet, rather than giving attendees free rein to serve themselves. "They'd love to eat six cheeseburgers if you'd let them," Kooiman says.

 For breakfasts, she cut all the muffins and pastries in half, and she reduced her quantities by approximately 30 percent, assuming that many guests would prefer to sleep in. Then she asked that the remaining breakfast items be used again a bit later at the morning break. Some hotels will agree to this, she says, and some won't.

For box lunches, to be taken to the golf course, Kooiman had the sandwiches cut in half, so that attendees who wanted to sample multiple selections could take two or three. But because many took just a half, she only needed an average of three-quarters of a sandwich per person, saving her a significant sum. She also eliminated the pasta salad from the take-out lunches, as most of her guests wouldn't want to fuss with a fork while traversing the course in the golf cart.

As for beverages, she didn't offer pricey bottled water, instead letting attendees use water stations, which hotels typically provide for free. For most evening events, the bar offerings were limited to beer and wine.

At $100 per gallon for coffee, including tax and gratuity, Kooiman ordered as little as possible, since she could always ask for more on the spot. Instead of struggling to negotiate the coffee price down, she asked if it would be cheaper to brew standard coffee instead of Starbucks. "Some hotels have different prices for different coffee," she says.