It comes as no surprise to most planners that meetings will be tougher to keep within budget. According to Meeting Professional International’s “Meetings Outlook” report, which surveyed planner and supplier members globally, strong property demand this year will result in an average increase of at least 4 percent for guest room rates, food and beverage costs and air travel costs; audiovisual costs should rise 3 percent as well. The average increase in meetings budgets? Just 1.7 percent.

In this seller’s market, planners must be both strategic and creative as they negotiate every element of a meeting. Here are several ways to do that:

Leverage any date and pattern flexibility you might have.

If meeting dates can be shifted one week—or in some cases by just one day—a property might offer much better rates and concessions. Carolyn Paradowski, CMP, senior corporate meeting and event planner for Chicago-based commercial insurance firm CNA, checks the convention calendars of cities she is considering so she can place her meetings in lower-demand time slots, and gets reasonable rates even for meetings that are just eight weeks out.

Stretch the itinerary on arrival and departure days.

Schedule a slate of breakouts for 3 p.m. on day one, followed by the opening reception. Then schedule sessions to end at noon on the day of departure. The result: The same amount of session time, but one less night of accommodations. In fact, doing this could also enable the meeting to slip into a set of dates that help the property fill a need period, bringing lower rates.

Coordinate sessions so some rooms can handle extra duty.

While Paradowski’s groups are not “space hogs” requiring lots of meeting space relative to guest rooms occupied, she makes her guest-rooms-to-space ratio even more attractive by scheduling meal events in rooms that can keep the same set-up for a subsequent session. “A property’s staff can turn a typical room in 30 minutes,” she says. “But when they just have to clean off tabletops and set up a podium,” the turnaround can be quicker, and that’s one less room you’ll need each day.

Develop an audiovisual strategy for each meeting.

“If only some of our breakouts use A/V, we try to do those sessions in the same rooms,” Paradowski says. “This reduces rental and setup charges.” Also, some sessions needing technology could make use of attendees’ personal devices;a presentation sent out ahead of time can be viewed by attendees on their laptops or tablets, while the presenter leads the session from his or her own device. What’s more, a session can use a more socially conducive seating arrangement when attendees aren’t facing a single screen.

Identify informal and unusual spaces on the property that could work for small discussion groups, breaks or receptions.

“On our site visits, we take note of whether there are small nooks or foyers near the meetings wing,” Paradowski says. “And any time we can use an outdoor patio, deck, gazebo, tent or lawn for breaks or receptions, we do it. You rarely need decor for that,” plus it might reduce the amount of formal meeting space you require. Also remember that potted plants and soft furniture can be moved around the property, allowing you to customize unused restaurant space and other areas for your purposes.

Use the property’s in-house props and decor for receptions or dinners.

“Many larger properties tend to have themed items and decor that a group can use at very little cost, because they do a wider variety of events and have the storage space for all of it,” Paradowski notes.

Rethink food and beverage.

“Really get to know the audience for each meeting,” she says. For instance, when planning receptions, Paradowski knows that her groups won’t go up to a cheese display or other tabled items and fill a plate, because they are networking; but if the waitstaff passes those items on trays, they will eat. With the evening meal, highly social groups might be more satisfied if you simply serve heavy hors d’oeuvres and skip the sit-down dinner.

Provide the property with history or estimates of ancillary spending.

Show the property that it will get the RevPAR it needs during your meeting dates, even if the property agrees to favorable rates and clauses for your various meeting elements.

Ask for “soft-dollar” concessions that don’t cost the property out-of-pocket and therefore won’t reduce RevPAR.

This is especially true if the property holds firm on guest room rates or other elements. These include suite upgrades; a private check-in area; exclusive use of a hotel bar or lounge; free use of the business center including computers and copiers; complimentary Internet in meeting space or guest rooms; free storage for advance deliveries; and waived resort fees or parking fees. They also include an extension of conference rates pre- and post-event; and credits to the master account as a percentage of the group’s overall financial performance on property, and redeemable during the present meeting or at a future meeting.

Negotiate Better Rates With These Cost-Saving Tips

  • Be flexible on dates and show your group’s spending history
  • Set up some rooms for both meeting and eating.
  • Develop an A/V strategy ahead of time.
  • Use the property’s informal/unique gathering spaces.
  • Rethink F&B—does your group really want a sit-down?
  • Ask for “soft-dollar” concessions.