With a still-sluggish economy casting its shadow over the meetings landscape, staying within a limited budget can be the first priority for any planner, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of saving a few dollars at the “expense” of leaving attendees underwhelmed.

“Budget restrictions have always been part of the meetings landscape,” says Ann Godi, CMP, president and CEO of Benchmarc360°, a meeting management solutions provider in Atlanta. “No time in our history has been more significant than 2009-2011, but now budgets are inching up and we are finally seeing more spend in areas that were hardest hit–speakers, decor and entertainment.”

Even if you’re not witnessing a budget boost there is still hope to craft a truly memorable experience—as witnessed by several professionals who offer their advice on food and beverage, decor, team building, audiovisual presentation and entertainment.

Fiscal but Fun F&B
During the course of the last 15 years, Kristi Martin worked as an event planner at two bed and breakfasts and was catering manager at the Westin Charlotte Hotel in North Carolina. In February of 2012, she started up Feast Food Tours & Culinary Events, which plans themed food and team-building activities for smaller groups in Charlotte, N.C.

“Right now I host four different walking tours of Charlotte that are choreographed in such a way that we stop at about six different locations, meet the chefs, maybe get behind the scenes, get cooking demonstrations or education, and of course eat and drink along the way as well,” Martin says.

Food tours are springing up in a number of major (and smaller) meetings destinations, and while the per-person cost may be higher than just planning a regular meal, these events often combine eating and team building, which provides two activities in one and saves money along the way.

Using local food trucks at an event is another option that can spice up the dining for attendees, but Martin recommends planners make sure to look into venue rules to verify they allow using outside vendors in combination with (or in lieu of) the on-site provider.

Outside of food tours, Martin says planners should keep an open dialogue with catering managers and chefs and make them fully aware of the available budget, as they are generally more than willing to make accommodations for those who take the time to ask.

“I think a lot of chefs in hotels or restaurants get bored of doing the same thing over and over again, so the minute they’ve got someone willing to think outside of the box, even if it’s on a budget, they’re more likely to be excited about it and do nice things,” she says.