Conference budgets take complexity to a new level. Minute details, endless line items, unorganized expenses. Oh, and in last quarter’s planning process, 25% of your budget was reallocated.  

It’s time to get into number-crunching mode. By being both critical and creative, you can take your conference budget from overwhelming to ruthlessly prioritized.

1. Review your conference budget for accuracy

If you ran a similar event last year, you can simply edit your existing conference budget from that event. But you have to critique it with a shrewd eye.

Having two columns in your spreadsheet for cost will help keep you honest: one for “estimated cost,” another for “actual cost.” By comparing these columns, you’ll see how accurate your estimates were last year. Did you make any mistakes you should rectify before moving forward?

If this is your first attempt at budgeting, create one from scratch or find a template online. This type of budgeting, called zero-based budgeting, starts with an essentially empty spreadsheet. Regardless of your experience, zero-based budgeting can a great tactic for prioritizing your budget, because it avoids assumptions and focuses on what’s currently relevant.

Once you’re confident your budget is accurate, start to scrutinize its contents.

2. Create a conference budget priority list

Take a cold, hard look at each item on your list. Are some things more important than others? Create a column in your spreadsheet to notate the priority status of each item:

  • Critical
  • Important
  • Nice to have

There are critical expenses you absolutely cannot lose. Others might be “nice to have,” like a social photo booth. With priority status assigned, you can easily reorder your spreadsheet to see what falls to the bottom of the list.

But before you nix anything, take a closer look at the prices you’ve assigned. Just because something falls in the “critical” category doesn’t mean you’re married to that price. Similarly, don’t ignore all the “nice to have” items, or your attendee experience will be at risk.

3. Pay particular attention to big-ticket items

For most conference organizers, the high-priority items are similar:

  • Venue
  • Furniture
  • Catering
  • Speaker fees, including travel and lodging
  • Staff, including security
  • Marketing, advertising, and promotional costs
  • Dedicated internet and other secure technology tools
  • Event ticketing software

Where can you consolidate? Can you find a venue that offers furniture, catering, and internet built into one price? Can bring a hotel on board as a sponsor for cheaper speaker lodging? Can you replace more of your staff with volunteers?

That said, never skimp on the things that are really important. Putting your speakers up at a half-rate airport hotel doesn’t send the right message. Just because a vendor is cheaper doesn’t mean it’s better — or even good enough.

4. Analyze your costs

Always get a minimum of three quotes from vendors — especially for big-ticket items. You might feel loyal to a vendor, but you have to weigh the financial costs. If you’ve always used the same catering company, and they know exactly how to work with you, that’s certainly valuable. But don’t be afraid to switch it up if you find someone less expensive who is equally reliable.

Having multiple quotes gives you negotiating leverage. Your current vendor — or the one you really have your eye on — might be willing to come down in price if you have a better deal elsewhere.

5. Automate what you can

One of the best ways to trim the fat from your conference budget is to automate processes that a computer can do just as well as a human. This helps decrease your staffing costs and increase your efficiency.

For instance, you might:

  • Use MailChimp, Emma, or Vertical Response to automate the sending and tracking of your email announcements
  • Use Sched to automatically display your event schedule on a mobile device or WordPress site, and enable participants to take charge of their own conference scheduling
  • Use Hootsuite to consolidate the tasks associated with social media management
  • Use Zapier to automate countless tedious tasks you do every day with “Zaps” that link existing tools together

Some technology tools are free; others require an upfront investment. Paying more might seem counterintuitive when you’re trying to spend less, but look at the end game. The tool might pay for itself in a few years, or even this year, if it enables your staff to work more efficiently.

6. Don’t forget to give yourself a buffer

Unfortunately, the buffer you built into your budget for unpredictable expenditures is not one of the items you can lose. Conferences are complicated machines with many moving parts. Experts usually recommend that you add an additional 5-10% onto your conference budget as a “contingency expense.”

The fine print of your venue or equipment contract might have “damage fees” built in that you’ll end up being responsible for when a guest accidentally breaks a window. Or you forget to arrange for coffee and end up bringing in a coffee cart last minute. Your budget needs room to breathe.

7. Revisit your revenue

Don’t get so focused on expenses that you forget your revenue. If you can increase this number, you can increase your budget as well.   

Revenue can come from multiple sources, so consider how you can use:

The more creative you can be about bringing in additional revenue, the less you’ll need to streamline your conference budget. It’s a balance.

Interested in learning more? Take a deeper dive into budgeting and pricing strategies with Your Value-Based Pricing Strategy: How to Price Your Event.

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