Staying on budget while not compromising on quality and creativity is increasingly challenging with today’s ever-changing trends in meetings design and attendees’ ever-changing tastes.

Meetings Today asked several industry experts to provide their ideas for the best and most creative ways to maximize affordability while not compromising a meeting’s overall quality.

Following is some valuable advice to save dollars in six categories, including meeting space, F&B and nightlife.

ACCOMMODATIONS

Sekeno Aldred
Director of Events and Sponsorships,
Goodwill Industries International Inc., Washington, D.C.

Flexibility is king! Timing is everything, and now it’s a seller’s market, so you may find yourself in a pickle finding a hotel that meets all of your needs at a desired rate.

For both short- and long-term bookings, I provide hotels with multiple sets of dates and arrival/departure patterns. I love when my meeting is able to fill a hole, making the demand for my guests that much higher.

Terri Woodin
Vice President, Marketing & Global Meeting Services, Meeting Sites Resource, Irvine, Calif.

Be flexible on your arrival/departure pattern. A hotel’s demand nights vary based on destination demand and if it’s a resort versus a city hotel. For example, a hotel in a top-tier city’s downtown will turn down a lower-rated group business request on a Tuesday arrival for the much higher business traveler room rate. So be flexible, arrive on Sunday or Monday, and the hotel will accept your RFP and reward you with a lower rate.

If considering a resort where peak demand is Wednesday/Thursday-Sunday, consider moving to a midweek pattern to maximize best rates and concessions. Also, going to an in-demand destination in shoulder or low season will maximize the best room rates and concessions.

Nancy Trosclair
President, Destination New Orleans

Today’s hotel industry is so diverse, There are many choices that are more affordable than the traditional big-name chain hotels. Plus, attendees want unique and memorable experiences, so hosting a meeting in an unexpected smaller property can provide just that.

So explore those little gems that are off the beaten path—charming boutique properties and limited-service properties that will work with you to bring in any additional services needed to run a first-rate meeting.  

MEETING SPACE

Tracy Stuckrath
President & Chief Connecting Officer,
Thrive! Meetings & Events, Atlanta

To help maximize space, we host breakfasts and lunches in the exhibit hall and flip the general session room into the award reception. It costs far less to change the lighting pattern and add some specialty linens and centerpieces than to book extra space for meal functions.

Woodin:
Evaluate your rooms-to-space ratio, as the hotel will yield to maximize revenues by selling guest rooms with x square footage of meeting space per occupied room.

For example, if you have a general session, meals, breakout rooms and office/storage space without the required guest room block, the hotel will turn down your RFP. They refer to this as a “space hog” because one group is taking all the meeting space while leaving too many guest rooms left to sell without any accompanying meeting space.

So get creative for a “yes” on your RFP. Consider reusing general session space for breakouts or changing the setup styles to take up less space (classroom vs. theater), or use the general session space for meals with the buffet set in the foyer, etc.

Also evaluate your load-in and load-out times and be flexible so the group in front of yours can load out. Communicate with the hotel and other group to see if you can share production to save money and time.

Mike Burns
Senior Vice President Convention Sales & Services,
Destination Cleveland

Planners need to be realistic when looking at space needs, as asking for more than what’s necessary will impact the value of business and result in higher food and beverage minimums or facility rentals.

If you don’t need specific space for 24 hours, release it back to the hotel/facility for additional business needs and revenue opportunities.

Planners can also consolidate audiovisual resources and align educational tracks so they don’t over-purchase. For example, if five speakers require the same audiovisual needs, coordinate the schedule so that they can all use the same room to save on costs.

FOOD & BEVERAGE

Patti J. Shock
Academic Consultant, The International
School of Hospitality, Professor Emeritus, UNLV, Las Vegas

Ask to meet with the chef, as many welcome the opportunity to meet clients and come up with creative ideas for them. Chefs are not salespeople, and they know which products are plentiful, in season and less expensive, and which are out of season and cost-prohibitive.

Chefs appreciate advance notice on special meals. Last-minute requests can be more costly, so ask on the registration form if attendees have special dietary needs.  

Stuckrath: To maximize your budget when ordering food and beverage, know your headcounts for each food function. Compare past attendance for each meal to how many were registered. Base new food and beverage orders upon that percentage, plus monitor arrivals and departures for all hotels to see who is getting in later or checking out early. If your meals are not mandatory, ask attendees when they register which food functions they plan to attend.

Also ask about ganging menus with other groups that are in-house at the same time. Having the same menu as another group allows for bulk ordering and reduces food waste across the board.

Aldred: Know your budget and the food and beverage spend. Based on this information, determine the cost you require to stay within your budget and request a discount off the menu as part of a contractual concession.

OFF-SITE VENUE RENTAL

Burns: Meeting planners should find facilities that have a built-in atmosphere and experiences for attendees to enjoy, as opposed to spending money to create that environment.

In Cleveland, for example, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame provides a one-of-a-kind experience for attendees to look at unique exhibits, and Punch Bowl Social offers bowling, arcade games and karaoke.

Sites that are within walking distance of hotels or a convention center also give planners the opportunity to save on transportation costs.

Aldred: To get the most bang for your buck, seek out venues such as an eclectic store, an art studio, a community center or a building lobby that hadn’t considered renting their space. Give the venue a reason to accommodate your group. If it’s a store, provide attendees the opportunity to purchase from the store at a discounted rate.

Lauren Colman
Operations Manager + Creative Development,
Bixel & Company, Los Angeles

Selecting venues with an “existing draw,” such as The Universal Studios Hollywood Backlot, will save money on entertainment. Museums, gaming facilities and many others illustrate the “existing draw” traits.

Southern California, like other destinations in the country, is home to many beautiful national and state parks, which almost always offer affordable venue fees. We frequently produce events at these locations, and our clients are shocked at the fantastic quality accompanied by the low price.  

Other nonprofit venues such as local museums, which provide majestic event settings, offer tax benefits for many corporations. Therefore, regardless of the venue fee, the client will get a great deal in the long run.

NIGHTLIFE

Trosclair: Utilizing a well-known restaurant and providing quality local entertainment can be a budget-buster. If your meeting is in a destination known for its nightlife, such as New Orleans, give your attendees a night to themselves. Most meetings don’t provide enough free time so attendees can explore on their own to find a restaurant that appeals to them or a club featuring music they enjoy.

Also consider renting out just a portion of a music club as a semi-private function so your guests can experience live music without the expense of a buyout and paying for entertainment.

Other creative budget-friendly nightlife activities include renting a movie theater for a private showing of a new film, exploring local sporting events, bringing in a local craft cocktail mixologist for a lesson in local cocktail history, or hiring a community theater troop to orchestrate a murder mystery dinner at the hotel.

Colman: Make sure the dinner choice is within walking distance of an area that offers diverse nightlife options. This gives attendees the choice to go out on their own, and will leave the cost of drinks, etc., to attendees vs. the client.    

Woodin: Stay at the hotel and use existing space so F&B spend counts toward your minimum, which also reduces other costs and increases concessions because you are guaranteeing a higher F&B spend at the property.

Use an existing unique venue on property—bar, restaurant, bowling lanes, beach, pool—and do a buyout for your group. This eliminates off-site ground transportation and saves on decor/design.

Also, perhaps a sponsor would like the exposure of hosting your event/activity, and multiple sponsors may cover different aspects of the event: F&B, entertainment, decor, etc.

MISC. ACTIVITIES

Sharon Fisher
CEO/Chief IdeaSparker, IdeaSparker, Orlando

If your goal is to provide better learning and networking experiences—which is why 99 percent of people attend meetings—stop spending more money on centerpieces than on engaging activities.

Ask yourself the following about every line item: If I call an attendee two weeks from now, will they remember this item? (What the signs looked like? How glitzy the stage was? What they had for lunch?) Choose to spend your money where it will be memorable.

Also, when you blend a teambuilding program with a CSR program, you are essentially combining two expenses—the cost of teambuilding and the cost of the donation. To save money, determine what your true priority is and only do one of them.

Extend your budget by making one expense serve two purposes. For instance, turn your centerpiece into a networking game. Or use a culinary teambuilding program to make appetizers or desserts, saving on food costs. Or facilitate a team game show for your after-dinner entertainment.  

Trosclair: I stress again that free time is a great option. If your meeting is in a destination that has many museums and historic sites, a variety of tour options and great shopping, then trust your attendees enough to spend their free time doing something they really want to do.  

You may even accommodate this by hiring a local tour guide to come in during a breakfast meeting to give a virtual tour of the city, and then provide time for guests to meet with the tour guide afterward with any questions, like a private concierge.

Other budget-friendly teambuilding activities like softball, dance classes, treasure hunts, charades and Amazing Race-type challenges are engaging and won’t break your budget.

Finally, if your meeting destination is heavy in daytime activities, consider reversing your day for an unconventional meeting format.

Forego the morning/lunch meeting to give attendees free time to explore the city when attractions are open, and have your content-driven meeting in the evening or during dinner in the hotel. How unexpected would that be? Because it’s a meeting, you can get away without serving alcohol, thus stretching that budget even further.