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Meeting Planning Budgets: Staying on Track

How to manage fluctuations in event costs

By Kathy Gibbons

Adam Tanner/CREDIT AHC Hospitality

Between soaring costs, supply chain blips, and tighter purse strings, meeting planning budgets are being tested. Planners are having to get creative to pull off events within the financial parameters they’ve been given to work with.

Adam Tanner, assistant vice president of food and beverage for AHC Hospitality who is based at the Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids, offers tips for ways to better control expenses for meeting planning budgets.

“The way inflation is going and with the cost of goods really rising, there are ways from an operational standpoint and meeting planners’ standpoint that can help mitigate these things,” Tanner says.

Wow participants with a standout element while cutting back elsewhere, according to Adam Tanner. CREDIT AHC Hospitality

To start with, he says, reexamining the “old-school ways” of doing meetings—breakfast, breaks, lunch, another break, and then dinner is a good place to start. “That’s an awful lot of food at some point, right?” Tanner observes, suggesting that planners change up the routine based on the habits of their attendees. For example, for an annual event where many skip breakfast, maybe it’s time to do a lighter offering with coffee in lieu of a morning meal and channel more of the budget into possibly a themed break “or something else more wow,” he says.

“We just had a student group in where breakfast was a big deal for them, whereas in the evening, the kids kind of disappear,” he says, suggesting in that type of scenario dinner could be scaled back. “But it could be different when there’s an insurance group in house or law group.”

Tanner describes one organization whose members weren’t big on having a full breakfast. Instead, the planner opted for an upgraded mid-morning break that featured a wall of handmade artisan donuts.

“Just about every single flavor you could think of was up there,” he says. “We were also filling eclairs to order with different fillings, and we rolled out a custom coffee bar as well … so we cut [breakfast] down to continental but had everybody’s attention for the a.m. break.”

Buffets can end up costing more money, yielding too much food waste for large groups, according to Adam Tanner. CREDIT Adobe Stock

Tanner also recommends going from buffet-style to plated dinners to help shore up meeting planning budgets. “With plated you portion out what exactly everybody is going to get,” he says. “Whereas with a buffet, you … can have a lot of waste if guests aren’t showing up. Typically buffets run a higher food cost than a plated menu—especially when you have very large groups. We do groups up to 4,000 here, and even when the chef plans as well as he could, for 4,000 people we set up 20 buffet lines. Now imagine all of those pans and each of those lines has food left over. Buffets, especially with large groups, can be very challenging on the food waste. There’s no way around it.”

There may also be opportunities for smaller groups to piggyback on bigger events held by others and opt for a menu that utilizes some of the same key items like beef, for example. “We can save some labor, save some on food. It  does help us out cost-wise and we can hopefully pass a little of that savings on to meeting planners. That’s an old-school trick, but it works.”

Locking in events for multiple years at a time can also help planners save money, as can booking at times that aren’t in demand like January and February. “Being flexible with your meeting agenda and dates can be advantageous,” he says.

These and other topics should be part of the talks that meeting planners have with vendors.

“You need to know your group, you need to know what is going to be most impactful for them,” he says. “And work with the catering manager at the hotel and ask to get things personalized for you. Don’t be afraid to ask. If you don’t ask, you don’t know.”