Smart Money: Budget Fixers

Meeting Planning

The pressure is on. Never before have meeting planners been expected to put together events with great results and do it on a fraction of past budgets. Fortunately, there’s help. The following are eight tips put together by the Ontario (Calif.) Convention Center to save on event costs, part of their recently released white paper titled “15 Money-Saving Tips for Meeting Planning.” For the full list, go to

1. Create and manage a budget

Identifying costs long before you’re actually on-site can go a long way toward ensuring that everything is covered before it becomes a last-minute, “gotta have it at any cost” budget-buster. The larger the event, the more important it is to have a detailed budget. There are always those last-minute, unexpected items, so it’s a good idea to have a small percentage built in to handle any unforeseen contingencies, especially with large, difficult-to-quantify costs.

2. (Almost) everything is negotiable

Negotiating with hotels is never easy, but today there are opportunities to leverage everything a meeting planner has to offer a property. Know what the rates are at competing hotels before you start negotiating. The number of rooms and nights your group will require can be leveraged for discounts, since guest rooms provide a greater profit margin for the hotel than other services.

3. Champagne event on a beer budget

The majority of convention centers outsource their food and beverage service, and that can make it difficult to negotiate costs. Venues with in-house food and beverage operations can often be more flexible in customizing menus to fit an event’s budget. Reconsider your mandates. Instead of a sit-down dinner for 600 people, make it a lunch. Or hold a reception with savory appetizers. Flexibility here can also save you time and staffing costs. Desserts served with a meal often go uneaten, so try scheduling dessert and coffee service during a break between sessions. Setting up food and beverage tables along the walls instead of in center aisles will reduce consumption, experts say.

4. Getting A/V costs in focus

Audiovisual equipment is an area where costs can mount quickly, and renting gear such as LCD projectors can be expensive. Don’t arbitrarily place projectors in every room. First, ask speakers whether they’ll be needed. Should you buy your own gear? Compare the cost of a projector with the cost of renting one by the day or the hour—you’ll save money on buying if you use the equipment a lot. But don’t forget to factor in the costs and potential damage with shipping sensitive equipment around the country. If you choose to buy, you’ll need a good shipping case, which can add a significant chunk to the overall cost. Remember, too, that it’s your gear; don’t expect to call the venue’s A/V department when something goes wrong, unless it’s to rent a replacement. Finally, can you tear down rented A/V equipment yourself after your event? Many equipment rental firms charge as much for tear-down as they do for set-up, even though tear-down typically takes only half as long, experts advise. Also be sure you understand applicable union and venue rules before tackling this one.

5. Barter: can you trade for it?

Consider trading for all or part of a speaker’s fee, advises the National Speakers Association’s Laura Stack. Sometimes a few extra days at a resort at or near the venue will work. “Speakers have traded portions of their fee for a PalmPilot, a weekend in Napa, baby formula, boating equipment and farm tractors! One speaker at a Mary  Kay conference received half of her fee in products,” Stack wrote. Be creative. Consider what a vendor or sponsor might provide as barter for exhibit space or a program ad, for example.

6. Use electronic handouts

Presentation abstracts, speaker profiles and more can be offered online, with the added benefits of links back to the sponsoring organization’s website, those of speakers or presenting organizations, and links to additional information and resources. This is an especially cost-effective way to deal with the lengthy papers or presentations. It takes advance planning, and often more than a little prodding to get presenters’ materials in early enough to have everything posted in time for your event. A supplemental publication—offered electronically via e-mail—offers another opportunity to stay in contact with attendees and boost the value of your organization among its members and stakeholders.

7. Can you absolutely, positively get it there for less?

Shipping everything you’ll need early will let you use less expensive forms of shipping, especially with airlines charging more for extra checked baggage these days. That, of course, means planning far enough in advance so that collateral and any must-have prints will be ready early enough to ship. For those with big, complex exhibits, an even better plan might be to ship from site-to-site, even storing the booth if necessary, rather than incurring the costs of back-and-forth shipping to your home office.

8. Set-up and installation costs

Consider what you can reuse—a good idea to save on costs in many areas, but especially where large set-up and tear-down costs may be involved. Can you make an installation do double duty, or hold multiple events scheduled at different times in a tent or staging area that has already been set up? Limiting the time allowed for set-up and tear-down can also save on labor costs, experts advise. And find out whether something you’ve set up can be used by the event that will follow yours, potentially saving on the costs of tearing it down only to have it set back up again in the same place a day or two later.


Amita Patel has over 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry. She is currently the director of marketing for the Ontario Convention and Visitors Bureau/Ontario Convention Center, in Ontario, Calif.