Savvy Savings

A few simple ways to keep the budget within reach—and events as excellent as ever

With rising costs a growing concern for planners, cost-saving measures can go a long way. || Photo by Siam, courtesy of Adobe

Within the ever-evolving landscape of event planning, combating sky-rocketing meeting costs has become a paramount concern for meeting planners. As the demand
for memorable experiences grows and economic factors fluctuate, planners must adapt and innovate to align budgets with expectations.

As the meetings industry continues to rebound, one key element is unlikely to reset: rising costs. Multiple studies—from Maritz Global Events, American Express, and Knowland—suggest that, although some forecast a return to lower travel prices by the end of this year, the unique blend of line items needed to produce meetings and events is unlikely
to return to previous price points.

The most recent industry survey from Maritz notes that the reported increase of hospitality wages is 20%, and food and beverage costs are up 25%, even as inflation across the economy has fallen to less than 4%, just over one-third of its 2022 peak. All the while, hotel, airfare, and catering costs continue to rise. Knowland reports that the largest area of dissatisfaction, reported by 47% of planners, concerns rising costs. And American Express notes that 65% of industry professionals report higher costs due to food and beverage, labor, and transportation increases.

Save money by booking one-stop shops, venues with on-site amenities such as catering. || Photo by wavebreak3, courtesy of Adobe

Selecting City & Venue
Choosing the right destination and venue might significantly impact the overall budget. While airport hotels might seem like a cost-effective option, it’s essential to weigh the associated expenses, such as transportation for attendees if meals and activities take place outside the hotel. Localized meetings within a smaller radius can sometimes yield better cost savings.

Lindsay Krause, chief operating officer at Special D Events in Detroit, Michigan, points out that venues have a multitude of lesser-known cost-saving options. “Negotiate the ability to work with your own vendors at a venue,” she says. “Current vendor relationships may result in lower costs due to deeper discounts. And be flexible with your event dates. Have a conversation with the venue about options. Sometimes just changing the pattern of the event by one day can give you savings on rentals and minimums.”

Lynsey Norton, director of convention sales and regional services for Travel Tacoma and Greater Tacoma Convention Center in Washington, concurs on scheduling. “Booking off-peak dates at a convention center is the savvy event planner’s secret weapon, unlocking cost savings, flexibility, and enhanced attendee experiences,” she notes. Krause also recommends hunting for turnkey venues rather than outwardly impressive locations with fewer existing amenities. “Use venues where everything is built-in versus a blank space that needs everything brought in,” she says.

Lean On the Locals
The No. 1 tip shared by almost every planner spoken to for this article was the importance of collaboration with local experts, most notably convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) and destination marketing organizations (DMOs). Norton notes the invaluable role that local institutions play in the planning stages. “Working with a destination marketing organization can transform event planning from a daunting task into a streamlined and cost-effective experience, saving both time and money while ensuring success,” she says. DMOs and CVBs offer services ranging from itinerary development and site sourcing to marketing and promotional assistance.

Food trucks save money, increase food variety, and engage local partners. || Photo by Atstock Productions, courtesy of Adobe

Meg Goldberg, senior creative marketing manager for RMC (a destination management and special event company) in Denver, Colorado, concurs. “The Denver CVB, otherwise known as Visit Denver, is an incredible resource for RMC. With respect to providing free and local activities for our groups, we use them often when encouraging businesses to book in The Mile High City. Our local CVB even designs custom microsites for events at no charge.”

Speakers can be selected from the community as well, and some planners mention that many of their best speakers are local volunteers. Many of the bigger conventions and marquee events even rely on volunteers for staffing, with attendance and swag as payment in kind.

Sharing Is Caring
Cost-cutting collaboration also extends to other groups using the same venue. Many planners mention that top organizers and venues will reach out to the temporary co-tenants about splitting costs for equipment, labor, and kitchens.

Kris La Fata, director of destination and convention services at Visit Seattle in Washington, notes that costs easily can be shared with successful planning. “For example, split the cost of rigging,” she offers. “Rather than pay to tear down rigging, one sets up and the other tears down.” Organizing this is seamless if strong leadership is in place.

Norton says when it comes to saving on food, teaming up is key. “Ganging menus” is the practice of sharing the same menu choices for catered functions happening at the same venue at the same time. Planners can work with the on-site caterer to coordinate between the sharing events.

“Ganging menus at one venue isn’t just about saving money,” says Norton. “It’s also a smart move toward sustainability. By consolidating culinary efforts, event planners can cut costs, reduce waste, and ensure a consistent dining experience for guests. It’s a win-win for both budgets and the planet.”

Creative Food Choices
Food and beverage costs constitute a significant portion of event budgets. Opting for alternatives like food trucks can help cut costs while offering attendees a memorable culinary experience. Partnering with local vendors and venues also can lead to cost-saving opportunities.

Kevin Kane has been planning group fairway outings for 25 years with his company Golf Events, also in Seattle. He suggests that hiring food trucks for events goes beyond mere cost-cutting to creating mutually beneficial relationships with local entrepreneurs. “Small-business owners are always good partners; they hustle and appreciate the business,” he says. “The food is fresh and made-to-order. And food trucks are self-sufficient—rain or shine—and do not need a lot of extra support besides directions and timing. Pricing with a mobile business is also more efficient and more cost-effective than a normal catering kitchen.”

Providing three square meals per day has gone the way of the dinosaur in the events space, according to planners. Some begin the first day’s events after breakfast, while holding the final session before that day’s dinner, as an easy way to trim costs. Others empower their attendees to walk to a local restaurant for breakfast or lunch, often with a special event discount, to also support the local culinary businesses.

Building relationships is still the key to delivering more for less. As Krause notes succinctly, “Meet with the chef. They will work with you on budget.”

Getting Around
Transportation and its associated skyrocketing costs are the bane of planners’ existences. It’s irreplaceable and yet only noticeable when it isn’t working. Fortunately, there are a few tricks for getting from point A to point B on a budget.

Megan Clark, owner of Clutch Events in Seattle, says multimodal transport is the way to go. “Parking rates for prime areas in the city can be exorbitant for a buyout, as well as shuttle services that require a three-hour minimum of service,” she says. “Offering a mix of Uber/Lyft vouchers and scooter and e-bike rental codes gives guests a mix of options to get to and from your event from anywhere, and can save you hundreds on unused parking spaces and shuttle services. You only pay for what you use, and it acts as a great metric for future events.”

Wallet-friendly activities such as e-bike tours can be built into the schedule or offered as a free-time alternative. || Photo by Erop Kyrnhny, courtesy of Adobe

La Fata and the Seattle Convention Center made a bold move for an off-site meeting at the nearby Seattle Center, buying out the city’s Seattle Center Monorail system to transport guests. Attendees also were alerted that ride-sharing would not be reimbursed, adding incentive to the initiative.

Optimizing Activities
When planning team-building and other activities, it’s crucial to strike a balance between engagement and cost-effectiveness. Incorporating intriguing and budget-friendly activities like walking tours, brewery visits, or local excursions can enhance the attendee experience without straining the budget. Similarly, scheduling free time between sessions can reduce the need for extensive catering and entertainment, further lowering costs.

Hennings suggests that relying on locals to suggest wallet-friendly activities is a key strategy. As she points out, many venues come with activities baked in, referencing a recent visit to a location with an apiary that also offered a honey-tasting experience to attendees. Simple, user-friendly offerings like e-bike tours; beer, wine, or whiskey tastings; or visits to local art galleries or shops, strengthen the bond between attendees and the local community while also offering enriched and interesting team experiences.

Planning Ahead
Introducing cost-saving practices into event planning can have long-lasting impacts. Many cost-cutting strategies are both good for the wallet and for the long-term health of the planet. Reusable event badges, compostable food and tableware, and eco-friendly decor and signage not only minimize environmental impact but also contribute to a more budget-conscious approach to event planning. Relationships with the community and community health also can be impacted by implementing some of these strategies.

As Goldberg says, “Much of our position on lowering our venue costs has everything to do with our deep relationships in the community. Often when we are selling the same space multiple times a year, we not only have developed a reliable and trustworthy relationship with our venue partners, but we also have provided them with much revenue throughout the year. When we need to call in a favor for a special client, this is exactly the type of relationship that we rely on to provide a wow experience.”