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Meetings on a Budget: Getting the Most out of Your Meeting Dollars

For meeting and event planners, seldom, if ever, is there the luxury of putting together a program for attendees that is without limits in terms of budget, space, time or even

available resources.

There are always a wide range of challenges and considerations when planning any function, and meeting and event organizers are tasked with doing “more with less” more often than not.

When budgets become tighter, planners need to be more resourceful and judicious in how they approach the planning process. From site selection to making wise choices on everything from AV to décor to the menu and more.

Mid-Atlantic Events Magazine asked some planners to talk about their experiences when planning on a budget, what’s important to them in terms of site selection, if they have any “go to” destinations or venues that help them to save time and money, and other ways they keep costs down.

According to Lauren Curtolo, CMP, manager of meetings and events, topping her list of considerations when planning a meeting or event are budget, attendee experience and inventory.

“I’ve always stayed focused on the meeting or event budget,” explains Curtolo. “When I was with a non-profit and a program was being funded by a private donor or an awarded grant, I wanted to be sure we were being good stewards of the funding we received. What fees could this potential host city or venue present that I hadn’t had to consider before? Were there upcharges in banquet menus not included in the initial proposals?”

She also says she thinks a great deal about what the attendee experience will look like, including getting to the venue and after they arrive on-site. “Consider the process of arrivals, departures and the ease of navigating once everyone arrives in the host city.

For some meetings, it might be important to offer the attendee experiences outside the hotel. Be sure to find out what the general footprint of the location looks like and consider their viewpoint. Are we dropping them into a food or social desert where they are going to feel limited to the confines of the hotel?”

Curtolo says that it’s important to make sure that any potential host venues can adequately accommodate her group’s needs for spacing and rooms, as well. She adds that she always wants to be certain she is appropriately matching her RFP with a destination that has the proper inventory to host her function.

Again, in the case of non-profits, she says that it’s important to always be budget conscious. “Aim to stay focused on spending right from the start and base decisions off of that,” advises

Curtolo. “An exciting day is the rare opportunity to work with a larger budget. When this is the case, the first items on my ‘list to upgrade’ all focus on the attendee. How can I best enhance their experience while also aligning them to our objective? My ‘go-to’ is food! It is an area with which I am quite familiar, and I take a lot of pride in selecting a variety of offerings that are both satisfying and fun.”

When it comes to working with vendors and suppliers, there simply are no shortcuts. “The most important criteria when choosing a vendor is to determine if they have a true understanding of our needs or the ability to ask appropriate clarifying questions to get there,” observes Curtolo.

“I want every potential vendor to know that I’m working diligently on my end to provide a complete picture of our meeting’s objective,” she stresses. “If you have a suggestion that you truly think will enhance our program, then I’d love to hear it. If you’re going to suggest something, my counter would be to please make sure it’s based off of you having thought clearly about the specifics of our program. This is an area where costs can get out of hand - and quickly.”

She adds that sometimes she doesn’t always get the feeling that a new vendor fully accepts the monetary constraints she might be working under. And while Curtolo understands that upgrades can certainly enhance a meeting, it’s important to make sure those enhancements are implemented where they will have the greatest impact on attendees.

In her previous work with a non-profit, Curtolo says she kept costs down in other ways, too, like checking if they have sales tax exemption status in the state they are considering, or if their federal certificate would provide them with any benefits.

Just raising this question can go a long way, she explains. “When working with a new state, I always asked the accounting department of the venue with which I planned to work. I found this to be a great resource.”

Another way to keep costs down is to be cognizant of other meetings taking place around the same time and in the same location.

“Believe it or not,” cautions Curtolo, “a big thing that can negatively impact the budget of your meeting are other meetings. It’s important to do a little research about your destination prior to making your final selection. Contact local CVBs, third party management companies, or even national sales representative for branded properties and ask them for a little bit of background information regarding the time and dates you’re considering.”

After all, knowledge is power, as they say. Knowing in advance about any citywide, annual meetings, political functions or sporting events that could potentially limit available inventory or raise the rates a planner receives in their RFP bids can help with the decision to plan the meeting or event elsewhere or perhaps to reschedule for a more budget-friendly date on the calendar.

When it comes to site selection, event and meeting specialist Ronnie Anderson, CMP of Ronnie Anderson Events explains, “I'm looking for somewhere that has an allure or draw of its own - a place people want to go to, with something to offer beyond the event, whether that be a fabulous tourist attraction, a great hotel with many amenities, or gorgeous surroundings.”

When on a limited budget, however, she notes that these are the types of places that can fetch the highest rates. Securing these locations while working within a tighter budget requires booking during “low” or “off-peak” season, or perhaps mid-week. Otherwise, she explains, a less desirable venue may be the only option.

To save money while working with suppliers and vendors, Anderson suggests that it really comes down to due diligence when sending out RFPs. Comparing quotes, evaluating what they are offering with a fine-tooth comb, and then negotiating for the best possible rates.

Other ways to save include watching for excess expenditures on everything, from money spent on paper and pens to budget allocated to food.

Jenna Elizabeth Even, CMP, meeting manager for American Express Global Business Travel, explains that air lift and cost are the most important considerations she faces when planning a meeting, and that is directly impacted by the budget. “If we can get a really good venue and/or hotel rate, then we are able to spend a little more on airfare.”

And while she doesn’t have any “go-to” destinations for hosting her meetings or events, she said that in the past she has tried to look to off-peak locations in order to secure some deals. Even also adds that casino resort properties are usually a good choice for her functions, as they are often able to come in on budget.

When working with other vendors outside of the host site, she recommends sending out RFPs to multiple vendors and negotiating with the one that’s desired or preferred. Even also advises that planners ask the vendor to offer suggestions that can work within the set budget.

Other ways to save in planning for meetings or events, Even says, include working with the venue or destination to secure off-peak dates. In addition, “discuss a give-and-take method with the hotel to see how you can help them and, in turn, they help you. For example, review your agenda to see if you can give space back. Review your room block early and rely on suggestions for F&B cost savings.”

For Sharon DeFelices, CMP, owner of Mosaic Meetings and Events, LLC, one very important consideration for her when sourcing a location is the cost of attendee travel and availability of direct flights. She explains, “If air travel is necessary, I typically source destinations where direct flights are available. Companies are more thoughtful about their employees’ time away from family and work, and we want to reduce that occurrence when we can.”

Creative food and beverage is something else that DeFelices seeks out whenever possible for an event or meeting. “I love when a venue will work with me to create interesting options that check all the boxes for the way folks want to eat now. While this is sometimes more expensive than a typical buffet offering, the creativity is appreciated by clients and attendees. By playing with the menu, we can have buffets that actually help to keep folks focused on the learning and having more productive sessions.”

When it comes to choosing a destination for the meeting, the “walkability” of a city, town or resort area is an important consideration. “If employees are attending a multi-day meeting, having access to things to do in the area during free time is important,” explains DeFelices. “I also look for opportunities to break up the day and set up time for them to do something outside of the meeting room. Being able to explore a destination and create opportunities for camaraderie is important, too.”

DeFelices notes that she looks for affordable options for her clients, so most often her choices are within range of their budget. But if a client has a particularly tight budget and travel is needed, she might select a hotel near an airport.

She explains this is always a good option “so that we’re not having to figure out how to get attendees to the hotel upon arrival. That can save significant money.”

When it comes to food and beverage options, a limited budget will often dictate how creative DeFelices can be with regard to menu planning. “I have found that people really care about the food that they are offered during meetings. It is one of the more common survey feedback items that we see.”

When it comes to “go-to” destinations, DeFelices cites Normandy Farm Hotel and Conference Center in Blue Bell, PA as being at the top of her list for group functions. “The food is amazing, healthy and creative. The meeting package rates and guestroom rates are incredibly budget-friendly. The location is easy for commuters as well as attendees flying into Philadelphia. I’ve never had a dissatisfied group who hosted a meeting there. The sales and events teams are first-rate.”

She adds that she also is a fan of the Westin in Jersey City, NJ. “It is a wonderful hotel with amazing staff and great food. The location is very easy to reach from Newark and La Guardia with options for public transportation from NYC. There is a lot to do in the area and The Westin is very accommodating for group needs.”

Several Philadelphia hotels rank high on her list of places to consider for meetings, as well. “The Loews Hotel, Ritz-Carlton and Westin Philadelphia are great locations with easy airport

access, good walkability and great service,” DeFelices asserts.

When it comes to working with vendors, cost is likely the number one factor DeFelices considers.

“And AV production is, in my opinion, one of the best opportunities to find savings,” she explains. “A lot of hotels are in partnerships with audio-visual companies, and their rates are high. I always bring in quotes for outside vendors for AV and can say that I often save the client up 40 to 50 percent on audio-visual resources.”

It’s not all about the cost, however. “The service piece is important to me, as well,” notes DeFelices. “I want my vendor partners to know that I’m as vested in their success as I am in mine. When they look good, Mosaic Meetings and Events looks good, and vice versa.”

She says she likes to work with companies who will “dig deep” to find creative - and sometimes necessary - solutions for an event. “I have forged some wonderful relationships with vendors, and I know that when I call them, I am going to get responsive and wonderful service.”

Depending on the type of event, another way to save when putting together a function comes through finding sponsorships, DeFelices states. “Having a sponsor for a meal, transportation or a reception can help the bottom line.”

The bottom line, after all, is what meeting on a budget is all about. Through research, negotiation, choosing the right dates and times, building relationships with venue reps and vendors, and choosing facilities and destinations that provide ease of access, convenience and affordability, planners will have little trouble staying within budget and getting the most out of every meeting or event dollar spent.

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