Event Planning On A Dime: Four Experts Weigh In On Spending Less

September 26, 2004



By Kevin Mitchell

The combination of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the changing economy have changed the way we do business in the meetings and events industry. In personal meetings and in focus groups, planners tell Missouri Meetings & Events that they want to know how to do meeting and event planning with a smaller budget. We sent writer Kevin Mitchell to a handful of meeting and event experts to find out how they help clients “plan on a dime.”

Prioritize! is the cry of professional planners who are charged with finding ways to plan “on a dime.”

“The event consultant is charged with finding out what the priority of the client is and then making selections and recommendations based on that,” says Kansas City-area meeting planner Sue Heley of Heley Creative.

“You ask people what is important to them,” says Bryan Young, owner of Catering Plus in St. Louis. “If they tell you the food is important, then they might not care about specialty linens. If it’s about music, they might not care about the food.”

Prioritizing aside, there are still times when clients want to make events more elegant or more elaborate than their budgets will allow.

The good news is that there are some creative ways to achieve this “sleight of hand.”

The Place

“Everything’s negotiable when you are looking to rent a hall,” says Heley, who has been an event consultant for more than 20 years and founded Heley Creative in 1996. “There are many factors that play into pricing—for example, if you’re looking at a Saturday night at a hotel ballroom, that’s going to be a premium price, especially in December or June. But if you’re looking for an off-peak time, you’ll get a much better price. If it’s strictly budget-driven, you might not even look at the top-tier properties, but instead look to smaller hotel chains.”

Sue Weber, travel manager for the international nutritional supplement company Reliv International, has been working with the company for 12 years handling everything from intimate board meetings to events with 5,000 people. For her, the obvious first questions are room dimensions, the décor of the room, the lighting, flooring, audio-visual potential, how close the restrooms are, and what the parking’s like.

“I also like to ask who is next door to our event,” she says. “If it’s a multiple-room building, who else is going to be in the building?”

Weber also prefers a location that has natural ambiance, which can be less expensive than one that needs a lot of dressing up. “The less I have to put into a room, the less expensive it is,” she says. “If I have a beautiful room, all I need are some nice linens and a few centerpieces, as opposed to a concrete box I have to dress up.”

“Specialty linens on the table really make a difference. While they are a little more expensive, a little can go a long way,” says Joan Long of Patty Long Catering, who has been doing corporate and private events in St. Louis for 18 years and whose firm was recently named “best caterer in St. Louis” by St. Louis Magazine.

She adds another novel tip: Have the waitstaff dress up. Having your caterer’s staff wear tuxes can do a great deal to make an event much more elegant than the budget might allow.

The Food

“The question is, who is your target audience and what are their expectations?” Heley says. “If you’re targeting a very affluent audience, then you’re better off inviting fewer people and doing it more top-notch. If you want it to be ‘the more the merrier,’ then plan your event so it’s less expensive—like doing a barbecue. If you can only do 10 people and do it really well on your budget as opposed to stretching it for 100, you’re better off.”

Young, whose Catering Plus is a full event planning organization handling weddings and corporate events, agrees. He’s had situations where a potential client says he wants a 400-person wedding but only has $10,000 to spend on it.

“Even a modest wedding for that many people costs $20,000,” he says. Clearly, the event professional must educate the client … in this case, the client might need to cut his guest list in half.”

For stretching a budget, many recommend a butler-passed approach for appetizers. “Rather than having a big platter of shrimp on a table, do butler-passed grilled shrimp,” Long says. This has a great effect: It makes the event more elegant, and it’s likely the guests will eat only one or two pieces as opposed to six or eight from a table with small plates.

“If you do have food on a table, consider savory cheese spreads. A little of that can go far,” she says.

And when you do sit them down for that dinner, there are ways to steer your clients into less-expensive meals. “Beef in general is expensive, but beef tenderloin specifically is the most expensive meat,” Young says. “How about a pork tenderloin instead?”

The Drink

“With a limited budget, less is more,” says Long. “Instead of a full bar, just do a specialty martini bar, or even just pitchers of sangria or margaritas. Caribbean-themed events are fun, and for those you can just do some rum punches. Or pass champagne on silver trays—those all cost a lot less than a full bar.”

But not all agree that a full bar is the budget problem.

“It’s a myth that you save money just going to beer and wine,” Heley says. “People will drink the same number of drinks regardless of what they are going to have. Just because you’re going with only beer and wine, doesn’t mean it’s going to be less expensive than cocktails.” But she adds that the trend is that fewer people are drinking hard liquor. And she stresses that it’s important to consider who your audience is. For example, she says, “If you’re doing a big event for an educational organization, you can take into consideration that teachers in general aren’t big drinkers.”

“Limit the time of a cocktail party,” Young says. “One hour instead of two—or even better, just a half hour of hors d’oeuvres and drinks and then sit them down for their meal. The less time there is to serve, the less product you’re serving.”

Another idea is turning it into a cash bar at some point.  Some wedding receptions, for instance, last from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., with the bar “closing” at 9:30 and then going to a pay-per-drink format.

Finally, consider skipping alcohol completely.  Weber says that her clientele tend to be a bottled-water crowd, and providing that and juices is one way to go.  Young says he just catered a wedding where no alcohol was served at all—although it was not for budgetary reasons, and those clients went all out on other aspects of the reception.

Other Ways to Reduce Cost

“People do ask us to do events with fewer servers, but we don’t like to, because if something doesn’t come off right, it’s our fault,” Long says. “Buffets use less labor, one server per 25-30 guests—that’s our rule of thumb.”

“To reduce my cost to the client is not my first option,” Heley says. Instead, if a budget needs to be reduced further, she works with the clients in helping them establish partnerships with other members of the industry so they can possibly trade goods and services. “Perhaps a décor company or entertainment agency can be found who wants to get their foot in the door with the same target audience my client is currently working with—then there’s a possibility of trading between the two vendors,” she says. Another idea is to go with one decorator or caterer for all the events in a year, which might lead to a discount. “Volume does lead to a discount—it at least breeds more negotiability,” she says.

But no matter what the event is, budget is always an issue. “There’s no one out there spending freely these days,” Heley laughs. MM&E

(Kevin Mitchell is a contributor from St. Louis.)


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