by Sarah J.F. Braley and Michael C. Lowe | September 01, 2015
Meeting budgets are on the rise, according to recent research. In M&C's own "2015 Meeting Spend Survey", released last month, 48 percent of the nearly 200 respondents said their 2016 budgets will increase, and 46 percent said their budgets went up in 2015. That's good news for planners, right?

Not so fast. Year-over-year cost projections by finance and procurement officers typically are based on overall inflation and not necessarily adjusted for specific market conditions, notes Michael Dominguez, senior vice president and chief sales officer for MGM Resorts International. "The problem is, what our industry is buying has nothing to do with a consumer price index or an inflationary index," he says. "The finance people say, 'Inflation's at 2.5 percent; let me grow my budget by 2.5 percent.' Yet, room rates are growing at 6 to 6.5 percent."

And it's not just hotel rooms. Grocery bills are skyrocketing; eggs prices rose 80 percent this year because an avian flu forced farmers to kill more than 40 million chickens. And California's drought has taken a toll on vegetable crops, setting off a spike in costs to consumers.

Even with a modest budget bump, to offset rising room rates and F&B prices, planners will be pressed to cut in other areas. These tips will help when it's time to trim.

1. Don't sit. If you typically plan seated dinners for every night during a meeting, save a bundle by changing things up for a night or two. "Have a standing reception, or some heavy hors d'oeuvres, some heavy food stations," says Dominguez of MGM. "Schedule it for a limited time frame, and people can move on."

2. Cut portion sizes. Talk to the chef about how much food is going on each plate, says Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, president and chief connecting officer for Atlanta's Thrive! Meetings & Events. "A six-ounce steak is an ample size for a meal," she says. "A 10-ounce steak is too much food. The average attendee probably consumes 500 to 1,000 extra calories a day while at meetings. By reducing the portion sizes, you're also helping your attendees manage their health while away from home."

3. Simplify breakfast and lunch. "Breakfasts and lunches are becoming more about sustaining our nutrition than being meal experiences," says Dominguez. If your group is going to be working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., just make those meals about nourishing everybody. There's no need to go over the top with décor or theming, which can add costs.

4. Limit hotel labor. If you save the hotel in labor costs, ask that the savings be passed on to you, suggests Dominguez. For example, it's particularly labor-intensive to set up a meal function in two locations, such a cocktail reception by the pool followed by dinner in a ballroom. "I've had to set up two bars, two sets, two strikes: That's heavy labor for us," Dominguez points out. "Having the reception in the foyer of the ballroom might not be sexy, but it's very cost-effective."

5. Delay dessert. Karen Hanson, senior administrative assistant and event planner for ASML, a semiconductor company, has a trick for cutting the cost of midday sweets: "When I order lunch for a group, I will ask them to hold the dessert, and serve it as my afternoon snack or break," she says.

6. Trim the bar tab. For a 500-person reception at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology's annual meeting in February, meetings manager Marlene DeMaster saved $8,000 over a similar event the previous year by paying a set fee for drinks. "Many off-site venues are now providing bar packages at a flat fee per hour or half-hour," she notes. "We provide complimentary premium wine and craft beers at this event, while offering a cash bar for well drinks. I found this to be a win-win for both the AAAAI and the guests."

7. Let food serve as centerpieces. F&B expert Tracy Stuckrath suggests placing dessert plates and bowls of local fruit or miniature fruit trees on banquet tables. Some organizations donate leftover whole fruits to local food pantries -- and get a tax credit for the good deed. Also, pay attention to quantity. "Watch how much a hotel puts on each table," adds Stuckrath. "I attended a breakfast where there were enough pastries pre-set on each table to feed three tables."


8. Use apps. "You've heard the saying, 'There's an app for that.' If you're looking to do something better, faster or easier, do a quick Google search for some free technology to help you out," says Liz King, founder of Liz King Events in New York City and an expert on meetings tech. "From check-in apps to task-management systems, there are plenty of great free options out there."

9. Bring your own. The fewer elements you need to rent from the A/V provider, the more money you can save. "We have purchased several projectors, so we save lots of money on A/V by shipping them to the event and just purchasing the tech-support package," says ASML's Karen Hanson.

10. Be wise about Wi-Fi. The AAAAI offers an annual Practice Management Workshop, an education program for managers of medical offices. In advance, meetings manager Marlene DeMaster determines which speakers will need full Wi-Fi capabilities to enhance their interactive sessions. "Those sessions are all scheduled in the same room, preferably on the same day, to minimize the need to provide this costly service throughout our entire meeting space," she notes. "Limiting it to one room for one day reduces our costs significantly."

11. Track bandwidth usage. To accurately budget for Wi-Fi, use data collected from last year's venue to predict the maximum number of simultaneous users and your group's bandwidth needs. "Share this with your next venue," advises Benjamin Rabe, event services director for association management company SmithBucklin. This ensures that you will buy the amount of Wi-Fi your event really needs.

12. Share resources. Find out which groups will be in the venue's same space immediately before and after your event. Depending on their requirements, your show might be able to share A/V services, which can help offset labor and equipment costs, says Patti Rouzie, vice president of meetings and membership for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Beer Wholesalers Association.

13. Watch for hidden costs. Delivery, setup and post-event storage: Fees such as these can jack up a bill. "Consider using digital elements already available at many venues (built-in lighting or screens), or piggyback onto the AV bill with a striking but simple lighting concept," says Lizz Torgovnick, managing director of Sequence Events in New York City. "Often, when a room gets full, the décor concept gets lost in the crowd anyway."

14. Theme sparingly. Instead of adding décor to each area of your event, invest in one focal point. "Whether that's an interactive piece in the reception, a tablescape for a dinner, or a stage for an awards program, put the money where people can easily see it, and forget the places they're just passing by," says Torgovnick.

15. Raid the closet. When planning meal functions, use the hotel's in-house décor and linens, instead of renting your own, says Rouzie of the NBWA. The property also might have props from prior events, such as artificial plants or other elements that would be a good fit for your group, perhaps eliminating the need for fresh flowers or other centerpieces.

16. Seek talent from within. If your entertainment budget is slim, poll your group for performers. "You'd be surprised at what hidden talents you'll find within your organization," says Buffy Levy, event services director for SmithBucklin. "We have found members who perform magic, take professional photographs, perform in bands or play classical instruments." You can waive attendees' registration fees in exchange for their willingness to entertain the group, perhaps during a reception or break. (Note: Be sure to hold an audition or view videos in advance of the scheduled event to confirm that their talents are, indeed, impressive.)

17. Get more from your speakers. When deciding which keynote speakers to hire for an event, consider if it makes sense to have them stay to do a breakout session or a book-signing. "Some people will include such a session in their base fee," says Brian Palmer, CMM, president of the National Speakers Bureau. "Others will add it for a modest amount, and you won't have to pay the expenses to fly in another person." (See also this month's research, "How Do You Choose Speakers?".)