F&B on a Budget

Five case studies in affordable F&B

Hoteliers Weigh In
Hoteliers Weigh In
When trying to find more ways to save, a hotel sales or service manager can be a planner's best friend. Following are some suggestions from the hotel side.

• Set a low minimum. Venues need to make a certain amount of F&B revenue based on the number of attendees or amount of space a meeting uses. Once this minimum is set in the contract, the hotelier can't offer discounts beyond that. "If they're up-front about what they're looking for," says Amanda Baker, conference service manager for the Hampton Inn & Suites New Orleans Convention Center, "I try to give them the absolute minimum we can offer."

• Consider the "plus-plus." Tax and service charges simply aren't negotiable, explains Linwood Campbell, CPCE, left, who serves as director of catering sales for the Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati and president-elect of the National Association for Catering and Events. "If you have a $50 budget here, you're dealing with a $38 lunch," he notes.

• Avoid complex setups. Baker often suggests that groups set up their buffet in the prefunction space, so they can use the ballroom for the meeting and the meal without needing extra space or spending money to flip the room.

• Solicit sponsors.
 Especially for large conventions, plenty of organizations, including many exhibitors at the event, will be eager to sponsor meals, coffee breaks, and even items such as linens, says Campbell. - J.V.

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.

Tactic: Simplify menus
Planner: Maureen Ryan-Fable, president and chief operating officer of First Protocol New York
Meeting type: A franchisee convention
Event: A convention for about 1,000 franchisees of a tax-preparation company, held in a different city each year

Most of Ryan-Fable's groups, financial institutions and the like, aren't necessarily worried about cutting costs. This one, however, was different. Not only was it a relatively low-budget convention, but the group required a lot of meeting space, which made it difficult to lower the F&B minimum. Ryan-Fable points out that all the cost-cutting tricks in the world are essentially useless if you're spending below what you guaranteed in your contract.

Ryan-Fable's main tactic was to negotiate savings early on in the process. From the get-go, she explained that she wanted to save as much money as possible for this client. This weeded out hotels that might balk at persistent cost-cutting requests. She signed the contract a full year in advance, being careful not to be too optimistic in her attendance predictions, as that would jack her minimum way up. She also asked that the hotel honor the menu and service prices that were in effect when she signed the contract. Thus, if the hotel raised those rates in the ensuing year, it wouldn't affect her meeting.

"Ultimately, we really wanted to keep things as lean and mean as we could," she says.

When planning the menus, Ryan-Fable opted not to give this group hot breakfasts, which can turn out to be surprisingly expensive. Instead, she offered bagels with smoked salmon, hard-boiled eggs and peanut butter. It was high in protein, attendees liked it, and it was relatively cheap.

For buffet lunches and dinners, she shrunk the selections. One protein (she stuck with a simple choice of chicken or beef), one vegetable and one grain satisfied almost everyone in her group. In cases when the menu selections didn't meet her budget, she asked the chef to suggest items that would be more affordable. Often, she says, chefs know about local ingredients that are less expensive to procure.

Ryan-Fable also asked to be charged on consumption as opposed to the per-person inclusive rate. As long as attendees don't have lumberjack appetites, she finds that she saves money this way. "Know your audience, but 90 percent of the time, ordering on consumption will be the cheaper option," she says.

For breaks, she provided a wide variety of snacks to give attendees the perception of abundance, only in smaller numbers, because she has found that people tend not to eat that much at breaks. She avoided packaged snacks, though. For the same meeting a few years previously, she saw attendees stuff bags of pretzels and candy into their pockets for later.

To soften the pain of the notoriously costly coffee line item, Ryan-Fable asked the venue not to replenish it except at breakfast and breaks. (When clients insist on continuous coffee service, she asks that it end promptly at 3 p.m.) She noticed that many attendees wound up buying from a nearby coffee shop instead, thus consuming less of the provided coffee.

Ryan-Fable asked for one lunch to be a grab-and-go sandwich that attendees paid for. "Hotels don't love it, because they expect a certain amount of revenue," she admits, "but we negotiate it in early."

 A full bar can be expensive, so at receptions, Ryan-Fable passed preselected beverages to guests -- the house red and white wines, for example -- instead of allowing attendees to order their own drinks. Since no one saw the bottles, they didn't realize they were drinking a budget option. (She recommends hosting blind tastings if clients are prejudiced against the house wine; when they don't see the bottle, they often like the inexpensive vintages best.)

Some receptions for this group used a cash bar with drink tickets -- one ticket for an alcoholic beverage and another for a soft drink.

But when asking the hotel for discounts and other concessions, Ryan-Fable knew when to stop. "It's important not to come off like a cheapskate," she says. "Basically, you don't want to ruin relationships."

Tactic: BYO F&B
Planner: Tecumseh Deloney, CMP, CGMP, project manager of conferences and meetings for the Early Head Start National Resource Center, based in Washington, D.C.
Meeting type: Government-funded training
Events: A variety of on-site working groups and departmental meetings with up to 30 employees or outside experts

Because Early Head Start is funded by the government, Deloney has a busy meetings calendar and a bare-bones food budget. For a recent two-day meeting with 30 people, she was allotted just $20 per person, per day.

Out of necessity, she bought most of the food from Costco: two cases of water; muffins, large enough to cut in half; grapes, strawberries and bananas for a fruit salad; and vegetables for a lunch salad. All of that cost $5 per person, so she spent the remaining $15 on a hot nacho bar from a nearby Mexican joint.

The next day, she put out a similar breakfast and ordered bag lunches from Whole Foods for $10 apiece.

For a webcast series presented at her organization, Deloney again bought in bulk: a case of popcorn and several cases of bottled water. For about $20 total, she had enough snacks for all five webcasts.

"Not everybody's going to want to go to Costco," Deloney admits. "Not everybody's going to want to be the in-house caterer. But this is how we are able to have food at our events."

Tactic: Unbundle the package
Planner: Linda Hurtley, conference director for Linwood Group Meetings LLC, based in Minneapolis
Meeting type: A software education conference
Event: A twice-yearly educational summit, lasting a day, for about 350 people who were trained on medical software

When Hurtley first took on this group in 2009, the client had been paying for an all-inclusive package that included morning and afternoon breaks, plus lunch. She broke down the costs of the package and discovered that they were significantly overpaying.

Hurtley ordered specific quantities for morning and afternoon breaks and asked to pay on consumption. She made sure to give attendees a bountiful morning break, but she cut out most of the items from the afternoon break, leaving just one sweet and one salty snack, plus a bowl of bananas and apples. Attendees didn't notice the difference, and she saved $5 per person.

"The afternoon break is just to get them out of their seats to wake them up," she says. "Sometimes it's just too much food in the afternoon. Then you're spoiling dinner."

Another budget villain is bottled water. Years ago, when Hurtley provided it, she remembers, "People would take one for the 3 o'clock break and then one or two more for the drive home."

After each break, she or someone from her staff counted how many sodas remained, to ensure accurate billing. She saved the client $10,000 in the first year -- and when she explained her calculations to the venue, it reduced its package pricing.

Hurtley always checks the pricing of meeting packages. "Over the years, I've seen it go both ways," she says.


 Tactic: Accept safe donations

Planner: Paige Buck, principal, Kennedy Events LLC, based near San Francisco
Meeting type: An informal gathering
Event: A one-day community event for 1,500 leaders of nonprofit organizations, held on the University of California, Berkeley, campus

When Buck began managing this event in 2009, she learned that not every money-saving idea is a good one. The group was accepting any and all food donations, even things it couldn't use, like heads of lettuce from a local farm. Another farm offered strawberries, but only if a volunteer drove some 200 miles to pick them up. Volunteers also were being asked to do food preparation, which was frustrating both to event staff and volunteers.

"They had no knowledge of how to handle food," Buck says. "We're just lucky nobody got sick."

She limited donations to portable, individually portioned food, like bottled drinks, granola bars, yogurt and hand fruits, and all donations had to be delivered by the donor.

Then Buck found a lot of other ways to save. For example, she found a caterer who wanted exposure to the campus and attendees, and got box lunches for less than half of what she normally pays. The caterer also was willing to shoulder some costs that typically get passed on to the meeting planner, such as fees for bartenders and trucking. The event went without linens.

For this gathering of nonprofit leaders, Buck's attendees were conscious of their footprint on the earth and were therefore thoughtful about how much they ate. That meant she didn't have to serve as much food as she otherwise might for a more traditional group. In general, she finds that top executives eat far less at events than lower-level attendees; this group was somewhere in the middle.

Because she ordered a modest amount of food, Buck asked the 100-plus volunteers to wait until all the paying guests had eaten before they helped themselves to anything. If she ran out of box lunches for guests, she could always order pizza for the volunteers.

Many planners serve carb-heavy breakfasts and breaks because they assume it will be cheaper, but Buck has found that healthier foods, such as yogurt, granola, almonds, hard-boiled eggs and individually wrapped string cheese can be less costly than pastries for breakfast or candy bars at breaks. As a bonus, attendees likely will feel more energized throughout the day. This nonprofit group found granola bars and yogurt quite acceptable for breakfast.

After the first time Buck managed this event, she figured out how much food was left over and ordered less the next year. "Did we have 50 containers of yogurt left over? Next year we wouldn't need that much yogurt."


Consider these 10 additional money-saving tips from our expert sources

1. Serve fewer courses. The standard lunch is three courses: salad, entrée, dessert. Paige Buck, principal of San Francisco-based Kennedy Events LLC, often pre-plates an entrée salad, such as salmon niçoise, and makes a centerpiece out of petits fours that attendees will know to reach for once their plates are cleared. Not only does this save on food, service and décor, it also keeps servers out of the room during the lunch talk.

2. Serve less. "Sometimes there's too much on the plate," says Maureen Ryan-Fable, president and chief operating officer of First Protocol New York. For many groups, Ryan-Fable trims a few dollars per attendee by requesting smaller portions.

3. Serve lunch at dinner. Another way to get less meat is to ask for lunch portions for dinner. Linda Hurtley, conference director for Minneapolis-based Linwood Group Meetings LLC, finds that lunch proteins are 2 or 3 ounces smaller and $2 to $5 less. (Some hotels won't allow this, though.)

4. Piggyback on the other meeting. If a larger group is meeting in the hotel over the same dates, Hurtley asks if her guests could be served the same meal that the other group is getting -- assuming the meal isn't too extravagant. This often nets Hurtley a reduced price, saving her $2 to $8 per person.

5. Limit pours. Bartenders often pour four glasses per bottle. When Buck is being charged on consumption, she asks that they pour five to a bottle (or five-ounce servings of wine). "People will drink what you put in front of them," she says. "This way, they'll drink less."

6. Lay down the rules. Even if a reception is wine and beer only, bartenders often will pour a martini if someone asks for one. Buck briefs the waitstaff about the event's restrictions and prints up drink menus to be placed on the bar so guests know the parameters.

7. Include "slow" foods. Some items at receptions, such as sliders, get eaten in a flash. For a long reception, Ryan-Fable includes cost-effective foods that are eaten more slowly, such as crudite, to create the perception of continuous F&B service.

8. Include a few large items. When planning receptions, Ryan-Fable asks how many bites each hors d'oeuvre takes. An attendee who can eat dozens of wispy little snacks might only eat one lobster roll. Large items are more expensive, but she can order fewer of them.

9. Start dessert early. Another cost-cutting tactic Ryan-Fable uses at receptions is to begin passed desserts early. Desserts are less expensive than savory hors d'oeuvres, so this can save 5 to 10 percent on the food budget.

10. Don't be afraid to ask. "It's easy to look at a venue's menu and think, 'This is all they can do for me,' " Buck notes. "We've had a lot of luck in trimming costs just by asking questions." - J.V.