Nip and Tuck 8-1-2005

30 discreet ways to save money

Even in financially strong organizations, a heightened emphasis on the bottom line remains the basic framework upon which today’s events are crafted. There are still plenty of ways for budget-minded planners to save on costs without sacrificing quality or value. Here is the best advice from experts in every major aspect of event realization.

1. Have it your way.
“Some hotels try to strong-arm you into using in-house A/V services whose prices tend to be way, way higher than street prices,” notes Pete Pandit, co-owner of AV Guys in National City, Calif. Other properties might add a surcharge for the use of outside A/V suppliers. Pandit suggests planners make sure they have A/V freedom before committing to a venue or at least understand what the consequences will be.
     2. Use what’s there. A number of experts recommend getting the most out of a venue by using the built-in audio system instead of renting an external setup. Similarly, if the conference room has a perfectly serviceable basic screen, do you really need to rent a fast-fold or other technically advanced counterpart? 
    3. Bless the darkness. Beware of natural lighting, says Steve Sokolowski, production manager of Design Audio Visual in Farmingdale, N.Y. Avoid spaces with skylights or large windows that would have to be blacked out during presentations or would require super-bright projectors or special screens. “Those could easily run $5,000 per day,” Sokolowski warns.
    4. Reserve the space. If a meeting will require A/V equipment over multiple days, see if a venue will allow exclusive use of conference rooms, so technicians need only to set up the equipment once, and clients will save on labor bills. 
    5. Mind the labor. Jeff Wilson, director of sales at Houston-based J&S Audio Visual Inc., says labor charges can surprise planners. He suggests negotiating a day rate instead of an hourly rate for jobs that will require more than eight hours of work. If a day rate isn’t available, be careful not to run into mealtime penalties with union workers, and try to keep setup and take-down during regular work hours to avoid paying overtime. Planners also should review labor charges at the end of each day to note any discrepancies with the original quote, Wilson advises.
    6. Do it yourself. Sokolowski says corporate clients can save a lot by putting their own energy and resources into A/V offerings. For example, he suggests self-producing PowerPoint presentations, slide shows or video clips, if possible, instead of outsourcing the job. Pandit adds, perhaps a bit ruefully, that he sees a number of clients cutting costs by providing their own laptops or projectors. Planners also can provide staff to man computers and run the presentations to reduce the number of hired technicians needed on site.
    7. Simplify. Sometimes the “wow” factor can be overrated. Is it necessary to have multiple presentations at once? Try to organize the event so one projector can satisfy your A/V needs. And how vital is the velvet draped around the projection screen?  Using floor-supported lights instead of hanging lights is simpler. Don’t necessarily accept recommended packages from A/V providers; see if less expensive, less showy and more streamlined items can be substituted. Good rule of thumb: If it doesn’t add significantly to the décor, lose it.
    8. Don’t wait. Wilson advocates getting proposals signed and back to an A/V supplier 30 days prior to the event. “Most A/V companies will allow better discounts by doing this and you should ask for a better discount,” he says.

9. Go with the available flow. “Why waste money on expensive décor to create a theme when the venue speaks for itself?” asks Chuck Salem, CMP, president of Johnstown, Pa.-based Unique Venues. “When you meet in a unique space, like a museum or aquarium, the atmosphere is already created for you,” he notes. “There is no need to waste money decorating.”
    10. Head toward the light. Lighting is an easy way to add depth and substance to any room, and it can be done for pennies. For example, “If you highlight a floral centerpiece, it makes it that much more eye-catching, and it appears more elaborate and stunning to the eye,” says Richard Nebel, project manager for Marietta, Ga.-based Infinite Designs. He adds, “Just adding lighting to a decorated room gives it that much more punch, so you don’t have to waste money on lavish props.”
    11. Cultivate hang-ups. “If you hang lots of bright, colorful fabric from the ceiling and drape the walls with it, then add back lighting, it creates a very dramatic effect,” says Adrienne Wagenheim, owner of Houston-based Ideal Party Decorators, who likes to purchase yards of discounted and closeout fabrics at craft stores for decoration. “The more fabric you use, the greater the effect,” she notes.
    12. Think big. Decorating with large props is a good way to get more “wow” on a tight budget, advises Steve Weiner, vice president of The Prop Shop, based in Pittsburgh. “If you were doing a New York-themed event and had only $300 to spend on décor, I would advise you to spend it all on one very large Statue of Liberty rather than several small ones,” he says. “One over-the-top piece creates a strong visual effect and becomes the focal point of the room. Smaller items just get lost in the overall décor, because they don’t make a statement.”

13. Keep the total fee in mind. Be realistic when choosing entertainment. A live band might seem more appealing than a deejay or a magician, but when totaled up, the added costs of the band’s performing requirements can derail a budget. “Sometimes planners will say they want a certain band, but when they look at the rider for the group the lighting, sound system and engineer required they find the costs can be higher than the fee for the band itself,” says Diane Goodman, owner and president of Windsor, Conn.-based Goodman Speakers Bureau.
    14. Catch the show on property. Many resorts provide on-site entertainment showcasing local talent. Building such a show into the agenda provides great value, because no off-site transportation is required. “Twice a week, we do concerts under the stars, with fireworks and a traditional luau,” says Revell Newton, director of sales and marketing for the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa in Hawaii. “Groups can buy into these shows at a greatly discounted rate, instead of spending to create their own.”
    15. Maximize speaker potential. Very often a speaker can fill more than one role at a meeting. “If you look to use a speaker in multiple capacities, such as a keynoter and then for a breakout session, it’s more cost effective than paying for two people,” says Goodman. Be sure to pick a person who can handle the varied assignments.
    16. Control travel costs. Choosing a speaker who is within driving distance of the venue will help the budget. If that’s not possible, says Brian Palmer, president of the Libertyville, Ill.-based National Speakers Bureau, there are other ways to control a speaker’s travel costs. “Travel can be a big variable. Instead of offering a speaking fee plus travel expenses, plus a hotel room,” says Palmer, “offer a lump fee plus the hotel. That puts the onus on the speaker to control his travel costs.”

IllustrationFood and Beverage
17. Pick a number. The best way to get the most out of your money is to name the figure you want to spend on food and beverage up front, and leave the creative problem-solving to the caterer. “Then we can go back and figure out where we can spend the money,” says Allison Beck, sales manager for the Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport. Asking “what’s the best you can do?” tends not to elicit the lowest estimates, Beck notes.
    18. Do more with less. There are simple ways to avoid paying top dollar on F&B. Go with two or three courses instead of four. Stretch the staff-to-guest ratio. Offer only beer and wine, or only one specialty drink perhaps a festive (and inexpensive) sangria, instead of a full bar. Slice shrimp in half so arrangements can be made to look twice as large. Offer chips and various dips rather than fancy hors d’oeuvres. “Dips go further than little beef Wellingtons,” says Beck.
    19. Institute portion control. One popular money-saving trick is to serve heavy hors d’oeuvres instead of a plated dinner, because they will eliminate the need for multiple courses and a large waitstaff, points out Katrina Ferman of Beets Catering in Livermore, Calif. However, Allison Beck warns planners the technique isn’t foolproof. She says buffets can be more expensive because planners tend to order too much food, and if hors d’oeuvres are served by the staff, labor costs still can be high. Beck says portions can be controlled easily for plated dinners, which, as long as they consist of relatively inexpensive items such as chicken or pasta, might end up being more cost effective.
    20. Spice it up. Adding spices to an inexpensive chicken dish can lend a special flair or give a theme to the meal without driving up costs.
    21. Make it a double. If a hotel is catering other events on a given night, find out what’s being served. If the cuisine is appropriate for your meeting, sign your group up, too. The hotel already will have the ingredients on hand and can keep the labor and preparation costs low.
    22. Opt for tried-and-true. Choosing a well-established off-site catering company for an event can be advantageous. Michele Stump, partner and manager of Boston-based East Meets West Catering, says her 40-year-old company lists prices on its menu and doesn’t make a regular practice of negotiating. “But because we run a profitable business, we have a little wiggle room,” she says. For large events, Stump says her company can lower prices, thanks to the favorable economics of buying in bulk.
    23. Lose the extras. John Rossetti, owner of The Catering Mill in Miami, says food prices generally are fixed, but  planners should rethink the equipment and décor they require, the serving items they’re ordering and how many people they need to staff the event.
    Planners can opt for basic spoons instead of trendy Asian spoons for soup, for example, or simple stoneware instead of decorated china. Tables can appear just as elegant topped with plain cotton linens perhaps even in a vibrant color to add some style as with something fancier. “You can have things look just as lovely as if you had spent top dollar,” says Michele Stump.
    24. Ask the question. Heather Easterling, director of meetings at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station, says it’s always worth inquiring to see if any additional F&B discounts can be negotiated. “Just asking can help,” she says. “A lot of people don’t, and if you don’t ask, you won’t ever get it.”

25. Pursue off-peak values. Planners who are willing to try a destination in its off-season stand to reap tremendous value in room rates. “There are customers who think, ‘Oh, our group could never afford to stay at the Pines Lodge in Beaver Creek [Colo.]. But in the off months of May through October, we offer good value rates, because it is our off-season,” says Debbie McCarthy, director of sales for Denver-based RockResorts. “The planner who has flexibility can take advantage of that.”
    Indeed, pricey digs are surprisingly affordable in the months they consider off-season, even if the destination is still humming with activity. “The summer months might be Disney World’s heaviest, but it is our off-season,” notes Michael Duve, director of sales at the Grande Lakes Resort in Orlando, which comprises a JW Marriott and a Ritz-Carlton. “The planner who is willing to book ahead and commit, and not wait until the last-minute, can get exceptional value for their room dollar.”
    26. Go where the rooms are. A strong business climate and a slow pipeline of new full-service hotel inventory has created a buildup in demand in key primary markets, such as New York City and Boston. But there still is plenty of room availability in other markets that have enjoyed strong hotel growth in recent years. And the more room inventory a destination has, the greater the room-rate competition.
    “If you can’t get into New York City, be willing to adjust,” says Kevin Kowalski, vice president of brand marketing for Atlanta-based Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts. “There is still plenty of supply out there, particularly in secondary markets, with competitive room rates.”
    According to a February 2005 report released by Portsmouth, N.H.-based Lodging Econometrics, cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Houston are forecasted to take longer to recover in terms of room rate and profitability, compared to Anaheim, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which are market leaders in driving today’s industry performance. (For more on bargain cities, see “Valueville.”)
    27. Fill those fillers. All hotels have dates pegged as fillers. Not to be confused with off-peak seasons, these are specific days, perhaps right after a major holiday, when business is historically slow and the hotel is willing to offer considerably more attractive rates to groups in exchange for a firm commitment.
    “When a client has a tight budget, they can’t be competitive during a hotel’s top dates,” says Dave Olender, vice president of sales and administration for Nashville-based Gaylord Hotels. “But if they are willing to be flexible, we can marry their meeting to a slot where we can meet at a rate that works for them.” 

28. Avoid peak season. Shuttling attendees around during a destination’s peak travel times costs more. The reason? Equipment is in greater demand, so companies charge higher rates. Schedule transportation to take advantage of slow periods. “Summer is peak season for Los Angeles, and Saturdays and Sundays are prime time,” says Anthony Guion, president of Los Angeles-based Special Event Services, a company specializing in ground transportation. “Planners should try to schedule their shuttle needs during a softer period.”
    29. Consider the basics. Be up front with the transportation company about event needs, says Guion. If the event is a citywide for a nonprofit group, and bare-bones shuttling between the convention center and hotels is all that is required, don’t assume you need a coach bus.
    “We have actually gotten into situations where we have used school bus equipment. It is an extremely cost-effective method, but not right for every event,” says Guion. “It totally depends on the profile of the event.”
    Another option, says Karri Zuvela, sales manager of Seattle-based Gray Line of Seattle, is to trade down. “Most coach companies have older model coaches in their fleet that are completely safe and in great condition, and that are cheaper to rent,” she notes. “If you don’t need all the bells and whistles of the newer, fancier models, they are a great money-saver.”
    30. Shuttle in loops. Doubling up on shuttle loops between the convention center and hotels is more cost-effective than transporting everyone in one fell swoop. For example, if 10 buses are needed to transport 500 people, ask for five buses and do two loops. “Coaches typically are rented at a three-hour minimum,” says Zuvela. “And since most hotels are relatively close to the convention center, you can make that three-hour window stretch to your advantage by running several loops.”