Seven tips for doing more with less

Budget cuts for meetings and events

Is it really possible to cut costs without peeling the pizzazz from your next event?

More than 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greeks gathered in the Agora to discuss matters of public policy, enact legislation, and debate the issues of the day. Some 30,000 adult male citizens of Athens were eligible to vote in this direct democracy, and up to 6,000 of them could convene at a single meeting. That’s a city-wide by any definition!

Since the men were all engaged in the business at hand, it must have fallen to the women to ensure that everyone found their seat in the assembly, that there was appropriate food and drink at hand, and that each member of the gathering had a name badge.

At the conclusion of each assembly, the accounts were reconciled and reported to the president, who undoubtedly said, “Next time, can we do it for less?” It seems not much has changed in 2,500 years.

Managing budgets – developing, tracking, and sticking to them – is a fundamental skill for planners and suppliers alike. They don’t seem that hard to develop;  after all, most of us have a template or checklist that includes a line item for each of the disparate elements of a meeting. After that, it’s pretty much arithmetic: 100 breakfasts at $22 equals $2,200 plus plus plus. Where’s the challenge in that?

It’s the client who inevitably brings the challenge.

The business of meetings

As a planner, it’s the business of meetings – not the execution of them – you must bring to those conversations. Understand what component parts go into pricing a hotel breakfast. Sure, there’s the cost of the muffins and eggs, but what about the chefs that prepare them? The servers that ensure they’re replenished on the buffet? The dishwashers that clean up afterwards? The linens that grace the tables? Your client may not see the component parts, but you should.

What aspect of the hotel’s business is most profitable? How far out from your event date does the venue buy groceries, or schedule staff? If you know the answers to those questions, you begin to understand where you can negotiate, and how you can trim for your client, without making it obvious to your participants.

Combine that information with knowledge of your audience. If your people are self-sufficient, hands-on, fast-paced types, dispense with the carving station – thereby decreasing the staff cost – and offer a boxed lunch, so they can grab and go. (Boxed lunches can be a lot fancier than a cello-wrapped sandwich and a bag of chips!)

Focus on objectives

Need I say it? Focus on the meeting objectives. If the reason for meeting is a straight information transfer, minimize your décor and food and beverage costs, and spend your money on AV. You’ve invited staff to an expensive residential training course – do they really need a new iPad to take home, as well?

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, be sure you understand the distinction between cost and value. Don’t skimp on the essentials; trim where no one will notice. Or at least, no one will mind. Invest in meeting your objectives, and worry less about the peripherals.

There’s nothing a client dislikes more than surprises. Be thorough when you develop the budget’s first draft. Are all the possible expenditures represented? Will the speaker charge you for her airfare – business class or economy? What about that charging station the committee wants you to provide? And the room-service orders or in-suite host bars for your Chairman and CEO? Forget those details on the front end, and you’ll be over budget before you know what’s happened. It’s all about managing expectations.

Controlling the budget

Part of successfully managing a budget is controlling scope creep. If another division wants to collocate their meeting with the one you’re planning, be clear about who’ll pick up the additional tab. Either your existing budget must be recast to reflect the changes (and likely go through another round of approvals), or the newbies have to pony up the additional funds from their part of the organization. The same goes for clever ideas like, “let’s add an awards ceremony to the closing lunch,” or “maybe we should have a guest program.” They seem like good ideas at the time – particularly to the person who suggested them – but does your budget have the wiggle room to include them?

Don’t be tempted to cut the contingency. To your client, it looks like ‘slush’, or money they could put to good use on existing line items. But you only need to hear the president say “more shrimp trees!” once at a welcome reception to know just what those funds are there for. That line may be the difference between coming in on budget and not; protect it during planning, so you can use it onsite.

The ancient Greeks are long gone, of course. And their modern counterparts are in tough, these days. There might not be 6,000 people at most of their meetings, anymore, but I’m guessing the new president still says: “Next time, can we do it for less?”

Seven tips for doing more with less

Forget about ancient history – just tell me how to save a buck!

  • Share and share alike. Got an event with a hefty move-in? If there’s a similar event moving out, as you move in, see if you can use the same suppliers (AV, show services, décor, etc.) with the other planner and avoid paying labour costs on both ends of your show.
  • They’ve done this before. Your venue and other suppliers have real-world experience with thousands of events. They know where you can trim to save. If you can be a little flexible, you’ll be amazed at what they can do for you.
  • Let the experts do the work. F&B is a big chunk of your event spend, but don’t assume that cuts here will result in a drive-through lunch. Even chefs get bored with Hot Lunch 2A from the banquet menus. Meet with the chef and ask for innovation. What will be in season during your event? Are there house-prepared specialties that cost less? The ‘eat local’ trend should generate cost savings, too (beef’s cheaper than lobster in Saskatchewan). Tell the chef what your budget is and ask him or her to work within it.
  • Ban the bottles at breaks. Purchase cold beverages by the gallon (e.g. iced tea, lemonade), rather than by the bottle. Or fancy up your ice water jugs the way spas do: add lemon or cucumber slices, or mint sprigs. It looks fancy and costs nothing.
  • Ditch the Doritos. Packaged foods (chips, candy, pop, granola bars) are great when participants are running between sessions, but they’re easy to drop in a bag on the way to the hotel or airport. Other break options (whole fruit, date squares, mixed nuts) with less/no packaging are more sustainable, and harder to ‘shoplift.’
  • Use another printer. Offer program materials on your registration site, and encourage your participants to download and bring them to the meeting. Even if you still print a few, your printing and shipping costs will go way, way down.
  • Streamline the agenda. For multi-day meetings, make sessions 50 minutes, rather than 60;  receptions 45, rather than 60 minutes. By fitting more into a day, you might just eliminate one night in a hotel and get your people back home sooner.

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