Small Meetings Mean Big Opportunity

June 1, 2008


By Julia M. Johnson

Smaller meetings aren’t just a lighter draw on your time and budget – they’re also a chance to get creative and explore unique venues, say meeting planners.

Small meetings can open the door to a fascinating range of meeting locations, says Marcus Strauther, a meeting planner and owner of the St. Louis-based Brainstorm Advertising marketing and promotions firm. When you’re hosting a smaller group, your choices aren’t limited to hotel ballrooms and convention-center reception spaces. You can take a closer look at eclectic restaurants, lounges, music clubs, wineries, breweries, art galleries, local colleges and other facilities that might have trouble accommodating large groups of people.

Many of these venues are realizing the value of cultivating meeting clients as a way to boost business, especially during down times on their calendars. As a result, many are building and promoting private spaces for the express purpose of accommodating small groups. And they’re likely to have more varied and interesting food and beverage choices than a hotel ballroom might offer.

“I prefer planning smaller events,” Strauther says. “You can really focus on whom you want to target. And if you pull off a great small event and really get it right, where everybody is very happy, you can mirror that and apply what you’ve learned to your next large event.”

Intimate Spaces

Especially in high-traffic areas of Kansas City and St. Louis, Strauther says, smaller venues such as restaurants and galleries may feel the pinch of competition because there are so many of them to choose from. That can work in your favor when it comes to negotiating room prices and food/beverage deals.

“But it can be harder to do that with large groups at the bigger venues,” Strauther says. “Some of them have revenue minimums, and they will say it’ll cost you $6,000 or $8,000 just to turn the lights on, no matter what size the group is. Or they might charge you $1,000 per hour with a minimum of four hours, and there’s no negotiating on that.”

Smaller venues also may be more flexible about the décor you can set up – and that opens new avenues in creating a look or theme for your gathering, according to Strauther.

Turn on a Dime

Since smaller meetings take less planning and orchestration, they may also require less lead time in working with a desired venue. If your organization has a last-minute issue to discuss with a limited group of shareholders or board members, you may find meeting facilities more willing to accept your group on short notice than they would be if your group were sizeable.

Smaller groups are also safer to orchestrate, Strauther says. There are fewer security risks than with a large crowd, and there’s less wear and tear on the venue, so event insurance may be less of a concern. “Bigger groups have higher revenue returns, but smaller groups present lower risks,” he says.

Limited-size group meetings also can actually increase the power and value of networking, according to Strauther. They allow more intimate contact between attendees, making guests more at home and more likely to open up. “In large groups, people tend to have their cliques and groups of friends from work that they’ll sit with,” he says. “In a smaller setting, it’s easier to encourage people to mix and talk with people they don’t know. And when it’s a small meeting, you can maintain tighter standards of who you want to attend.”

With smaller groups, it may be easier to accommodate the special dietary or physical accessibility needs of attendees, says Cheryl Dozier, a meeting planner and chief executive of Dozier & Associates, a Jefferson City marketing consultancy. “Say you’re an entity like the state department of health, and you’re having a large meeting where many of the attendees have disabilities,” she says. “A hotel usually only has a certain number of disabled-accessible rooms set aside,” so that may be a barrier to your holding a meeting there. And if you’re hosting a large religious group where certain food restrictions must be observed, that may present obstacles as well. These issues are less likely to occur when you’re planning for a smaller meeting, Dozier says, and they’re certainly easier to remedy on a small scale if they do arise.

One of the main things that makes small-meeting planning more pleasant and rewarding is the number of hands stirring the pot, Dozier says. “With a smaller meeting, there are fewer people involved in the planning; there may only be two or three people at the client organization whom the planner needs to consult. But with a larger conference, you may have 30 people on a planning committee. They all have different ideas, and different things they want achieved. It’s harder for the planner to please a larger group of people.”

Filling a Need

Large-group meetings are where hotels and conference venues make their biggest dollars, but those facilities also need to court the small-meeting planner in order to keep their spaces earning money. Especially during times when there are few large conventions in town, or when economic conditions are challenging and budgets are tight, small meetings can fill crucial gaps for these venues. That, can mean increased negotiating power for the planner. Small groups may also be able to take advantage of lower hotel room rental rates at less popular times of the week or year.

“A smaller meeting is just easier to pull off,” says Dozier. “But it’s still subject to some of the same conditions that would affect a larger meeting. For example, if the St. Louis Cardinals have a baseball game the day you want to schedule a meeting at a nearby restaurant or hotel, it’ll be harder to get space there. Or if there’s a big convention of 60,000 people in town, it doesn’t matter what size meeting you have – you probably won’t be able to get much in the way of space.”

Bigger is Sometimes Better

While smaller meetings can mean less stress and more creativity for the planner, there are some relative downsides to arranging intimate gatherings versus larger meetings, according to Dozier.

“With larger groups, you can get a better overall deal on hotel room rates, and hotels may throw in extra free meeting space based on the large number of guest rooms you’re booking,” she says. You may also be able to get volume discounts on food and beverages, and upgrades to guest suites, that would likely be unavailable to a smaller group.

“In any case, most hotels and venues usually try to be attentive, regardless of the size of your group,” Dozier says. “They realize big meetings attract a lot of people, but smaller meetings may consist of high-level CEOs and VIPs who really decide the budget. Word of mouth is everything, and these people talk among themselves. They’ll go back and tell the Coca-Colas and the Anheuser-Busches which are the good hotels and restaurants, and what the food was like.” MM&E

(Julia M. Johnson is the Assistant Editor from St. Louis, Mo.)

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