Meeting and event planners are always eager for ways to make their budgets go further. Who, after all, wouldn’t like to get more bang out of a buck these days? To get some ideas on how to do just that when it comes to hotel-based meetings, we spoke to a planner and an in-house event director, parties who typically sit on opposite sides of the table during negotiations but go on to work closely together to create memorable gatherings that squeeze value and wow from every dollar spent.
Here are their cost-saving tips, from planning through execution.
Site and Date Selection
The first step in the process is, of course, selecting the meeting dates and the hotel.
Nachman suggests keeping brief meetings to one and a half days instead of a full two days. The gathering would start in the late afternoon, including one evening event, then a full day that ends with a happy hour. That means significant savings in both room and food and beverage costs. Flexibility on dates can also shave costs. “Consider arriving on a Sunday instead of a weekday,” Nachman suggests. “Hotels are typically quieter on Sunday nights so they can offer better group rates for a Sunday arrival.”
Chirinos-Izquierdo agrees. His hotel offers better deals— up to 20 percent off starting group rates—for those Sunday arrivals (based on availability). Airlines might also offer savings for Sunday travel. You’ll increase travel costs if you choose a hotel that provides no-cost airport transport. Hotel Irvine, for example, offers a complimentary shuttle to and from nearby John Wayne Airport.
Once the host hotel has been selected, it’s time for contract negotiations. Nachman suggests going in with a wish list of the concessions you’re seeking from the hotel and pushing for them until you hear “no more.” “It’s amazing how much money this little tactic will save you,” she says.
Chirinos-Izquierdo seconds this advice: “Ask hotels about any special offers. We regularly offer group meeting incentives, including complimentary self-parking for attendees, a credit to our Marketplace for each guest, a group welcome reception and other perks.”
Remember to include perks for the onsite meeting planner. “Generally, hotels will agree to give the meeting planner staying overnight with the group a discounted ‘staff’ rate,” says Nachman, who further advises asking if a suite (also at the staff rate) is available. “You have papers, files, gifts and probably nothing short of a mini virtual office, so it’s great to have the extra space to spread out.” She also recommends making sure the room is located as close as possible to the meeting space and/or elevators to save time on trips back and forth.
Food & Beverage
As every planner knows, or quickly learns, food and beverage are among the highest costs for an event. Nachman has some ideas to help the lower the tab.
“Don’t waste money on a breakfast that few eat,” she advises. “Make the morning break a brunch and forego lunch. Then offer a happy hour right after the meeting concludes with light appetizers, beer and wine, and give guests the night off.” Although multiday meetings will most likely have at least one group dinner, offering a free evening to explore the city, network separately with colleagues, or catch up on work and rest is almost always welcomed by attendees.
On the hotel side, Chirinos-Izquierdo suggests looking for hotels that offer grab ’n’ go style eateries. “At Hotel Irvine, we have a user-friendly Marketplace open 24/7 for meeting attendees to grab their own snacks and meals at street pricing,” says Chirinos-Izquierdo. “It’s a value that both attendees and planners appreciate.”
He also suggests that instead of spending money on bottled water, look for alternatives. “We provide FRED water containers,” ChirinosIzquierdo says. “These flask-shaped bottles are designed to be refillable with FRED water faucets throughout public spaces and are recyclable.”
Another suggestion is to ask about flexible meal planning and fun treats the hotel can offer. “Our executive chef, Michael Beck, offers diverse menu options that can be customized based on budget,” said Chirinos-Izquierdo. For example, the hotel offers 10 different lunch buffet menus ranging from a rustic farmhouse menu to street tacos, all can be scaled based on budget. For affordable wow, “We even have a Treat Trike that will deliver sweet specials such as ice cream and snow cones to attendees,” he says.
A/V & Keynote Speakers
Audio-visual is often a contentious item in the budget so, unsurprisingly, this is where Nachman and ChirinosIzquierdo disagree on where the best savings might lie. Nachman suggests planners will find better deals outsourcing the A/V, while Chirinos-Izquierdo argues his in-house team offers competitive prices. The moral of the story: do your homework to make sure you’re getting the best price before committing.
When looking for keynote speakers, Nachman recommends using organization executives instead of spending money on outsiders. “After all, they have the best insight into the company cultures,” says Nachman. “What’s more, having the top echelon speak gives attendees a feeling of inclusion and worth.” Examples might include the CEO speaking on company growth or the vice president of sales discussing trends, competitors and new models for increased revenue.
Make sure to tap into the hotel's connections to get better pricing for off-site activities. “We have access to championship golf, spa, beach-and-water activities and shopping—all owned by our parent company,” says Chirinos-Izquierdo. While only a few hotels are owned by companies that also own golf resorts and shopping centers like the Irvine Company, many have sister properties with the same ownership or management company that might offer a variety of activities at a discount.
Any list of hotel connections should also include the local tourism bureau and attractions. “We regularly work with our tourism partner, Destination Irvine, to add more to meetings,” says Chirinos-Izquierdo, “and we also have relationships with Disneyland, the Los Angeles Angels, the Anaheim Ducks and other local entertainment organizations.” Your hotel contact’s inside knowhow and ability to directly connect you with the appropriate contact at these organizations may allow for extra perks, based on availability and demand.
While pre-event meetings are the norm, Nachman advises planners to schedule another meeting with their hotel partners immediately following the event. “A follow-up meeting is essential to go over any service situations warranting a discount,” says Nachman. That might include food-service issues (such as food not reaching the table in a timely manner or those with food allergies being served food they couldn’t eat), A/V (for instance, the tech nowhere to be found or the sound system crackling) or meeting rooms not refreshed in a timely manner.
These types of issues should be shared with conference services before leaving the hotel, especially if the planner is seeking a rebate or reduction in pricing for services that were not rendered acceptable. “Wrap-up or post-conference meetings,” Nachman says, “are as crucial as pre-planning or preconference meetings.”
Reigning in Costs, But Not Spectacle, for the Big Event
Going off-site doesn’t have to mean going off budget.
Whether a stand-alne event or part of a larger meeting, a reception or sit-down dinner at an off-site venue is often seen as a must-do showcase element. It can also be a budget buster.
Britta Wichers is the founder of MBF Productions, which produces events and manages three venues in the Los Angeles area—Brouwerij West, a craft brewery, and Crafted, a 50,000-square-foot warehouse, both in San Pedro, and the Palos Verdes Art Center. Wichers has been producing events for 25 years, and offers these tips for managing the costs of an off-site event while still offering attendees a spectacular experience.
1 Outsource Labor
For cleaning, lifting, moving heavy items, catering assistance, parking, event site maintenance and other related tasks, think about using alternative labor sources such as long-term drug or alcohol recovery houses. These programs provide a labor force that is clean, sober, hardworking and considers no job too small or too large. The cost is at minimum 25 percent lower than regular staffing companies, and they are fully insured.
2 Cultivate Catering
Options Seek out venues that are flexible about catering. Working with a multitude of trusted caterers, street food vendors and food trucks can keep costs down and provide a unique experience for attendees. Food trucks are among the most fun and flexible options available with a wide range of menus and price points to fit any budget.
3 Rethink Audio-Visual Needs
These days, having a traditional sound system tied to a space may not be what a client needs. Millennials, in particular, want outside-the-box experiences. To save costs, look for a venue that has a volume deal with a reputable A/V company that can provide LED walls, flexible staging, sound and lighting systems, and a well-trained, tech-savvy staff that can make everything goes off without a hitch.
4 Seek Out Free Parking and Ride Share Pick-Up Locations
If there’s one thing that’s a universal crowd-pleaser, it’s free parking. The venues I manage have ample parking for up to 1,000 cars and, while I could tack on fees, I have found not doing so helps keep the budget for the planner down and makes the venue more attractive. If the venue does not offer free parking, ask for a volume discount and you’ll likely be able to negotiate a more competitive rate. With ride sharing becoming more popular, make sure to provide a safe, easy “ride share” experience by setting up pick-up locations and offering discount codes through Lyft and Uber (groups can often negotiate 10 percent off or $5/ride) so it’s uneventful for attendees to get to and from your event.
5 Utilize Preferred Vendor Lists and DIY
For things such as flowers, décor, specialty rentals, desserts, and DJs, I offer a preferred list of companies that give my clients a built-in discount. And because do-it-yourself has become popular, I will allow some items to be brought in. Ask the venue you’re considering if they can offer the same.
6 Consider an Alcohol Buyout
Because alcohol can be such a big expense, ask if you can bring in your own liquor with a licensed bartending company so you can control the cost and avoid the venue’s markup.
7 Scrutinize Hidden Fees
Before you sign on the dotted line with any venue, caterer or rental company, ask about the fees you may not see up front, such as staffing, gratuity, curfew penalties and load-in and load-out day fees. This is one area where a budget can swell quickly.
8 Get Permits in Place
Ask the venue if it has all the permits you’ll need to execute your event within the laws of the city/county you are working in. This is especially key if your event is taking place at a nontraditional space such as an airplane hangar, industrial warehouse, park, beach, brewery, winery, etc. Acquiring permits for pyrotechnics, open flame, live animals, ABC licenses and the like can be time-consuming and expensive. Ask what permits are included with the cost of the venue and, for additional permits, make sure you research costs. When there’s lots of red tape involved, it’s often more efficient to hire someone who deals with permitting on a daily basis than to try and navigate the regulations and bureaucracy yourself