Budgeting Basics: Trimming the Fat for a Full-Flavored Event

June 1, 2007


Trimming the Fat for a Full-Flavored Event

By Mary Bufe

So you want to throw a champagne-and-caviar event on a chips-and-salsa budget?

Never fear! We’ve picked the brains of some of Missouri’s top meeting and event experts for ideas on how to plan fabulous events your guests will long remember – while still staying true to your limited budget.

The goal, they all agree, is to think creatively and look for opportunities to cut back where your guests will notice it least. Their ideas:

What’s for dinner?

Don’t sit.

Plated, sit-down meals are almost always more expensive than a buffet, says independent corporate planner Beth Ann Thomas of Platte City, Mo. “If your event will accommodate a buffet, you’ll save a great deal on your catering budget.”

A buffet can offer other benefits as well, says Thomas. “I planned several marriage retreats on a limited budget. The focus was on couple interaction, and a buffet helped encourage it. It was an easy way to reduce costs and not diminish the value or quality of the event,” she says.

Think local.

Homegrown produce or products indigenous to the area can look and taste great – and cost less, too, says Pat Schaumann, president of MAC Meetings & Events of St. Louis. Schaumann suggests you “think local” in other ways as well. “If it’s an option, consider using local college students to help staff the event,” she says.

Little things count.  Sometimes, you can shave dollars by paying attention to the little things. “Some caterers charge extra for formed butter, that is, small butter shapes,” advises Thomas. “Ask about using pats of butter or small cups of whipped butter instead.” The same theory goes for most other condiments and other “small” items. “Dry snacks presented creatively can have good eye appeal and keep costs down,” says Schaumann. “Popcorn, pretzels and nuts can be filling as well.”

I’ll drink to that

Keep it short.

There are many ways to keep your beverage budget in check, experts say, beginning with keeping the cocktail reception time short. But that’s not the only way. Schaumann also says you can limit the number of drinks served by having beer and wine passed, rather than served at a bar.  If you can’t afford a full open bar, consider providing each attendee with one or two free drink tokens. “That way they’ll know that when the tokens are gone, it will be cash bar,” says Schaumann.

Timing is everything.

“Attendees tend to drink less if the dinner starts immediately after the reception,” notes Schaumann. To minimize the bar tab, she also recommends closing the bar during dinner – and serving house brands rather than premium products.

Leave out the alcohol.

“Juice spritzers are an easy way to make non-alcoholic beverages more fun and colorful,” says Thomas. Spritzers can be made by pouring equal parts fruit juice (or juices) and Sprite into punch bowls, adding fruit slices and ice.

Enlist sponsors.

“I was working with an association that didn’t have the budget to host an hour-long reception, and then serve wine with dinner,” recalls Schaumann. To help cover the costs, the association offered sponsorship opportunities to its exhibitors and other suppliers. It created a win-win for everyone involved!

Great décor is in the details

Find a low-cost/no-cost venue.

With a little creativity, you can find a memorable location for your event – and save money, too. Schaumann suggests looking at everything from newspaper plants and airport hangars, to department stores and toy companies. “These types of venues offer very creative space and usually are inexpensive to rent.”

In your own back yard.

Local event planners are more likely to own props that represent recurring themes in their area, says Schaumann. In St. Louis, for example, some of the most popular event themes involve the World’s Fair, riverboats and sports. “Creating original themes is more expensive,” says Schaumann. “Always ask your venue what props and décor they have in-house, and negotiate to use them at no cost.”

Rent rather than buy.

Often, your florist or rental company has planters, ferns, trees or other live greenery that can be rented rather than purchased, says Misty Clark of All Occasions Rental in Hollister, Mo. “Rental stores also now rent fabric, crystals and many other items they never did before,” she says.

Mix and match.

Not every budget includes the funds to rent colored or specialty table linens, notes Jim Dwyer, events division manager for AGENDA: Kansas City, Inc. in Mission, KS. “Consider using the venue’s linens for the tabletop and rent only the colored napkins and matching chair ties,” he says. “Or rent the table linens and use the venue’s napkins. White hotel napkins on a rented red lamour table cloth create a festive holiday look.”

Forgo fresh floral.

Work with your florist to find a dramatic table effect at a reasonable price, says Dwyer. “Consider using large exotic leaves, feathers, plumes or willow branches in lieu of fresh floral for your centerpieces,” he says. “It only takes a couple of big palm leaves in a vase to make a huge impact.”

Think light.

Lighting is one of the greatest and (least expensive) ways to enhance an event, says Schaumann. “Many moods and environments can be created with light.”

“I had a client who wanted to create a nightclub effect on a small budget,” says Dwyer. “Using black linens from the hotel, my florist rented tall clear vases and added large palm leaves and clear lucite rods,” he says. “Then we sprinkled silver glitter stars on the linens and placed many votives on each table. The light from the votives illuminated everything – the glitter stars, the water in the vases and the lucite rods – and added an exciting ambience to the room. It was an affordable effect with huge impact.”

Don’t forget lighting when you add a prop or backdrop to a stage or room, adds Dwyer. “Nothing looks worse than a great prop in a dark corner; a couple of can lights from the in-house A/V department can be rented for a reasonable rate.”

Now That’s (Affordable) Entertainment!

Switch things up.

“Many events are structured with a cocktail reception, dinner and program with a band hired for dancing afterwards,” says Lou Dare of Dare to Be Creative in Kansas City. “By this time, many guests are ready to move around or leave,” he says. “Many late-evening bands play to less than half the guests and end up finishing earlier than what they were contracted for.”

For some events, Dare believes it makes better sense to schedule the live entertainment earlier in the evening. “Consider using live entertainment to make an early impression, or add ambience,” Dare says. Interactive solo entertainers such as roving magicians, caricature artists and psychics are audience favorites during a cocktail reception.

“You can then transition to canned music during dinner, and consider forgoing after-dinner entertainment,” Dare says.

Think small.

You can also save money by hiring local musicians and smaller ensembles, says Dare. “Most local acts come self-contained with their own sound, lights and musical equipment, which cuts down on production expense.” Small background jazz or classical ensembles are aesthetically pleasing and generally low maintenance.

Do-it-yourself.  In some instances, the best solution is to ask guests or friends to bring CDs to your event. Then ask your most outgoing friend to be your DJ, says Thomas. “Your venue will often rent its sound system for a fraction of what a DJ or band might cost,” she says.

Make it fun. To hold down entertainment expenses, consider picking a theme that lends itself to lower-cost entertainment, says Schaumann. Choose a carnival theme, and you can entertain your guests with pitching and batting cages, basketball pop-a-shots and other carnival games. Singing booths and (imitation) tattoo parlors are also popular among guests, she says.

Be flexible. If your entertainment budget is fixed, tell your agent or planner, says Dare. “It’ll be much easier for them to provide suggestions that work within those parameters,” he says. “Most entertainers are flexible with their fees – if the parameters are flexible. Let them tell you what they can do for the money you have available.”

“For a recent conference, I had a client who wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger to speak,” says Schaumann. “Neither the budget nor his re-election campaign would support his appearance. We looked at several local popular authors and found a fabulous replacement.”

If you are looking for an athlete, Schaumann suggests recruiting retired athletes, rather than active, current players.

Other budget-savers:

• Plan early. It will give you more leverage in negotiations and ample time to put a first option hold on a venue or facility.

• Think off-season. Booking your event in the off-season or shoulder season may save money.

• Get “Proofs of Insurance” from all suppliers. This may save you a great deal of money, especially if something goes wrong.

• Get it in writing. Solid contracts are essential with all vendors, venues, entertainers and caterers.

• Don’t apologize. There’s no shame in having a limited budget. The shame is in not getting the most for your money – and showing your guests a fabulous time!

(Mary Bufe is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.)


Beth Ann Thomas

Independent Corporate Planner


MAC Meetings & Events – St. Louis, MO


All Occasions Rental – Hollister, MO


AGENDA: Kansas City, Inc. – Mission, KS




About the author

The MEET® Family of Publications

The MEET® Family of Publications produces regional and national publications that keep corporate, association, medical, education, independent, and religious meeting and event planners informed about relevant industry suppliers, news, tech innovations, and resources that impact and influence how and where they plan their upcoming company function(s).