by Louise M. Felsher, CMP, CMM | February 01, 2004

Remember 1998, when we were desperately finding ways to cram 500 ravenous bankers into a hotel ballroom that maxes out at 350 theater-style? In 2004, we’re less likely to be scrambling to find overflow tents, closed-circuit monitors and tables set up in hallways.
   Participant projections now require pure clairvoyance there’s just no way to accurately predict who’s going to show up at events in this economic environment. Recently, I was asked by our finance director for more accurate 2004 projections. I did not know whether to laugh or cry.
   Planners do need to be able to turn on a dime these days. Below is a helpful primer for scaling down.

Communicate upward, sideways and downward that attendance is extremely hard to predict and you are best off assuming a worst-case scenario. Your budget should consider the goals and objectives of the event, but also a break-even number or a maximum dollar loss the company is willing to accept.
   Always keep detailed notes of your planning meetings and decisions. Maintain records of conversations and keep them in your program binder. Share industry reports that show national and international trends to ensure realistic expectations. Begin and end preliminary conversations with the event’s stakeholders with upbeat strategic plans and contingencies that will keep liability to a minimum.
    Be sure decision-makers know the maximum dollar amount they might lose. There is no such thing as a liability-free event.
Your room blocks should be based on your lowest projections you can beg for rooms and space later if you need to, a problem you can rejoice in should it occur. Your vendors (and maybe even your management committee) will thank you.
   If you will be charged for meeting rooms, always include the highest room rental costs in your budget to cover surprises.

Ideally, if you projected a worst-case scenario, you should have a relatively low food and beverage attrition risk or, better yet, no F&B attrition at all. 
   If you do not have a flexible F&B clause and cannot negotiate out of it get your money’s worth if numbers fall short. Upgrade your menus and increase the level of service. Lobster can replace chicken. Caviar replaces brie. Use Russian-style service (where meals are plated tableside from large platters) or French service (prepared on credenzas rolled out to the tableside). Both are impressive and rarely an option due to high cost and space needs.
   When dealing with suppliers, such as florists and A/V companies, inform them as soon as you can of what the real numbers are, and get them to make adjustments.

Will your 50 guests drown in the ballroom originally set for 300? Move them to a more appropriate room. Can’t relocate? Create a room within a room perhaps a themed labyrinth with attractive door separators or creative pipe and drape. Add drama, mystery, purpose. Most important: Attendees should never know you are compensating for a shortage of guests.

Planners often are held responsible for slippage the shortfall of attendance numbers even if is it due to a hurricane. Do not despair: Dire times inspire innovation. Embrace and cultivate the core competencies and talent that led you to event management in the first place. This scaled-down event could represent the best work you have ever done.