Budget Boosters: 33 Ways to Save Money on Meetings
by Harvey Chipkin /

Meeting planners who save money for their companies, associations or clients are not only doing a good job. They’re proving their worth, and that provides a measure of job security.

There are many ways – big and small – for planners to save money and improve their employers’ bottom lines, said meeting professional Kristi Casey Sanders during a recent webinar she presented for Meeting Professionals International of Greater New York.

Kristi Casey Sanders

Sanders is vice president creative and chief storyteller for Atlanta Metropolitan Publishing, which produces www.planyourmeetings.com. Travel Market Report asked Sanders to share her favorite money-saving tips.

Collective muscle
One key to maximizing savings is for individuals who plan meetings for a single association or company to work together to leverage their collective bargaining power.

Not only will this give planners clout with suppliers, it will give them clout with management. “If planners can show the value of booking a meeting further out, they might convince management to look further ahead,” Sanders said, noting today’s shortened booking windows.
 
Longer booking windows help save money too. “If you have limited time to plan, you can’t do the proper due diligence that results in superior negotiations.”

Themes and goals first
The effort to save money should be rooted in a meeting’s themes and goals. “It’s crucial to start with determining the purpose of the meeting and the needs of the group. Then you work back from there,” Sanders said.

“I recently spoke at a meeting at a five diamond resort, and they literally used no audiovisual, because they had realized the meeting was all about networking and listening to one another. They saved thousands of dollars on AV.”

Little things – and not so little
When it does come to the minutia of budgeting, the first step is to go through the budget line by line.

The low-hanging fruit in cost-savings usually involves reducing, reusing and recycling – don’t spend on what you don’t need; reuse or recycle what you can from your last meeting.

A corporate travel policy is essential in keeping costs down, for everything from airline luggage fees to cab fares to how much can be spent on a cup of coffee. “There must be clear definition of what can be expensed,” said Sanders.

Planners can get creative in the details too. For instance, lining a hallway with weather balloons at $40 each – a dramatic effect for little money; creating revenue streams through sponsorships, such as naming of golf holes, and using social media to boost attendance at association meetings for little or no cost.

Of course, food and beverage, audiovisual, transportation and hotels are planners’ four top concerns when it comes to spending. Following are Sanders’ tips for each.

F&B: trim the fat
1.    Ask for all-inclusive rates. Present a price to the chef and see what he or she can do at that price.

2.    Review the banquet event order (BEO) daily to identify red flags in consumption. Count bottle caps, labels, etc., to see what has already been consumed and to insure it is being counted properly. Don’t let anything be “refreshed” without your consent.

3.    Plan receptions with heavy hors d’oeuvres, rather than big sit-down dinners.

4.    Offer an appetizer table where attendees assemble dishes themselves; it’s an ice-breaker and a money saver.

5.    Replace a sit-down lunch with a box lunch.

6.    Instead of a buffet, set up “action stations” – they provide more control over pricing.

7.    When serving alcohol, distribute tickets to limit the number of drinks per person. When possible, figure out a way to bring your own.

8.    Control consumption. Use smaller cups for coffee and smaller plates. Reduce portion size, for instance by using smaller cuts of meat.

9.    Meet in a restaurant, so there is no setup fee for chairs, tables and other fixtures.  Many restaurants now have A/V capacity.

10.    Eliminate the formal lunch and give out vouchers for the hotel restaurant. Keep the meal time short so people stay in the hotel. This can also be used as leverage in negotiations with the hotel.

11.    Look into sponsorship possibilities, such as hospitality suites.

12.    Piggyback off the menus of other groups.

Audiovisual: power it down

13.    Use the same AV company year-round to gain leverage on price and the benefit of its expertise. Talk to them about your goals; they may be able to substitute equipment that provides the effect you want for lower cost.

14.    During hotel negotiations, find out if working with an outside AV company is allowed. Otherwise you may be penalized if you do so.

15.    Supply your own equipment – projectors, screens, etc. – so you only have to pay for setup costs.

16.    Research free and low-cost technology solutions. For instance: QR (Quick Response) codes, which make it easy to arrange events like scavenger hunts at trade shows; Issuu.com, which transforms a PDF into a digital show for free, and slideshare.net, which allows sharing of videos, presentations and documents.

17.    Piggyback on room setups with groups coming before and after you.

18.    Look into booking 24-hour blocks rather than shorter blocks that might require overtime. Be aware that tear-down time should be shorter than setup times.

19.    Hire temporary staffers for technology and other jobs at a fraction of the usual cost. Free and low-cost resources for temporary staffing include: elance.com and vworker.com.

Transportation: fuel economy
The “800-pound gorilla” in transportation are air fares because they are impossible to predict, Sanders said.

20.    To gain leverage with air transportation, meet in a city where the CVB has a good relationship with the airlines, since a creative CVB may be able to negotiate lower fares, obtain free tickets or obtain inside information about future airlift.

21.    Use the search engine Bing to get help predicting fares. When you search for fares on Bing, it predicts what will probably happen to fares on that route.

22.    Only bring necessary staff to a meeting. Ask the local CVB for volunteers or hire local temps.

23.    Use venues within walking distance and give out maps of the area. Ask the CVB about unusual and cost-effective transportation, such as free trolleys and hop-on/hop-off sightseeing buses.

Lodging: Room to save

24.    Use multi-year contracts as leverage and apply attrition to future meetings.

25.    If you have a long booking window, put review dates in the contract, so you can review and revise the room block periodically.

26.    Spell out for the sales manager the incremental revenue your group will bring, based on history, in spending in gift shops, etc.

27.    Deal with an onsite sales rep. The only time to deal with a national sales rep is for multi-city deals. National reps tend not to understand the value of your business.

28.    Check out independent hotels – they can be more flexible in negotiating.

29.    If rooms you don’t use are resold, make sure you pay the price difference, not the full rate.

30.    See if you can resell the rooms on sites available for that purpose, such as www.meetingscommunity.com. Make sure the contract stipulates that this is allowable.

31.    Keep an eye out for unbundled fees. As revenue management becomes more important, hotels looking at ways to emulate the airlines’ use of ancillary charges for services.

32.    Minimize attrition by surveying non-attendees about potential attendance at virtual meetings, then create virtual meetings accordingly.

33.    Consider a mini-conference with day rates so no overnight stays are unnecessary.

When to spend more
Keep in mind that there are occasions when it is appropriate to spend more money, Sanders advised planners.

“If you have a group heading to Las Vegas from the east coast for a meeting that’s at 9 o’clock the next morning, it might be worth it to fly them first class so they’re fresh the next morning. That might not happen often but it’s worth thinking about,” Sanders said.

“If you go so cheap that service is not up to par and the meeting rooms are not pleasant, that will not serve you well. Every planner has a story about the lessons they learned when they went too cheap.”

The low-hanging fruit in cost-savings usually involves reducing, reusing and recycling – don’t spend on what you don’t need; reuse or recycle what you can from your last meeting.