by By Lisa Grimaldi | February 01, 2009

Frugal3While some planners are learning to work with severely tight budgets for the first time, a group of their counterparts have spent their careers planning for nonprofit organizations with limited funds. These professionals are masters of creating events on a shoestring. On the following pages, they share cost-saving strategies planners in any field can use to get the most bang for their buck.

Cut the coffee.
If you serve a continental breakfast, there's no need to provide coffee or snacks during the morning break. However, keep the break in the schedule, so people will have a chance to use restrooms and check e-mail. "People have had plenty of coffee and food to tide them over until lunch," notes Nedra Forrest, the Fayetteville, Ark.-based regional vice president, North America, for Global Cynergies, a site-selection firm with many association clients. She recommends providing ice water in the meeting rooms -- in pitchers or coolers, not bottles.

Have lunch for dinner. Cher Lorentz, director of the Evangelical Free Church of America Leadership Conference, based in Minneapolis, typically serves lunch portions or has the caterer work from the lunch menu for dinner. "The prices are lower and people really don't notice the smaller portions," she says.

Do double batches.
Lorentz saves on giveaways by buying the same item, such as tote bags, in larger quantities and using them for two years in a row. "I'll order half in one color, half in another for the next year." Printing on items also costs less per item for volume orders -- just stick with the company name or logo, and leave out dates or theme.

Bag the tote. If you really want to cut costs, eliminate totes and bags entirely. Prior to the conference, ask attendees to bring their own bags.

Fill a gap. "Many times you can get a better price if you can fill a hole in the facility's calendar," says Debra Kilpatrick, a planner and claims representative for the office of the attorney general in Richmond, Va.

Be flexible. "In the religious market, we all too often pick the dates and the meeting venue before we pick a hotel, then wonder why we can't get the price we need," says Rev. Alan Morrison, business manager of the general conference for the Nashville-based General Council on Finance and Administration of the United Methodist Church. "I've encouraged committees I work with to pick the week or weeks they want to meet and give me the flexibility to set the start date based on hotel availability and pricing. That flexibility has garnered room rates as much as 25 to 30 percent lower."

Tweak time. Another way Morrison cuts costs is by holding shorter meetings. "However, it may make more sense to lengthen a meeting by a day if it means we could eliminate another face-to-face meeting during the year," he notes.

Go paperless. Limit the use of printed materials/collateral for attendees to reduce printing costs. Or, e-mail attendees all materials ahead of time so they can either print and bring documents themselves or load them onto their laptops to access during presentations.

Some planners set up computer stations on-site, where attendees can download materials onto their own USB drives -- just be sure to ask attendees in advance to bring the drives with them. Relevant materials also can be posted on the event website for attendees to review or print after the meeting.

Clarify your contract. "Make sure you have a rebooking clause in your contract to cover cancellations," advises Arlene Sheff, CMP, a former independent government meeting planner who  presently works as senior meeting and event planner for The Boeing Co., based in Seal Beach, Calif. She says the clause should spell out that if the group needs to cancel, they can rebook the property and use a percentage of the cancellation fee (which should be based on lost profit, rather then lost revenue) toward a future meeting held within a specified amount of time.

Earn commission credit. If you don't use a third party for site selection, add a clause to your hotel contract allotting the 10 to 15 percent commission to be a credit to the meeting's bottom line, recommends Liz Jackson, president of Jackson Consulting, a Washington, D.C.-based planning firm that organizes association events.

Meet in a suite. Consider using one-bedroom suites as breakout rooms. The rooms can be a negotiated upgrade or comp from your room block, or even part of the block and used to house VIPs; a suite also can be used as the setting for an intimate reception.

Buy, don't rent. In many cases, it makes good financial sense to purchase and ship equipment you typically have to hire for every meeting. Examples include printers (some cost as little as $100, while rental fees can be as high as $250). Other items to consider: a laminator for stand-up signs needed at the registration desk; LCD projectors; and power strips and extension cords, which can cost $25 per cord/per day to rent from the hotel.