This is a guest post by Marin Bright, the founder and CEO of Smart Meetings, a community of event professionals obsessed with inspiring brilliant experiences.

Event professionals have a lot on their plate already, so budgeting for meetings is no easy feat. More often than not, these meetings come with high price tags — and even higher expectations. To help you plan smart, these veteran change-makers participated in a Smart Meetings survey for event professionals to share their tricks for making every dollar count.

Keep your tech up to date — or risk losing respect

Kristian Gavin, founder of IGC Experience Consulting, has embraced a “pay now or pay more later” ethos when it comes to technology. “You’re either ahead of the technology game and embracing it, or you’re behind,” he said. “Trying to catch up late is more costly and time-consuming than being an early adapter.” He has found that being willing to take risks on new or advanced tech sets you apart. “If your AV isn’t on point, your attendees will focus on the audio feedback or blurry screen rather than the presentation,” he warns. Respondents agreed that skimping on meeting technology is not an option. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need

Across the board, the No. 1 piece of advice was the importance of negotiating. Marisol Hernandez, executive assistant at Kellogg Company in Queretaro, Mexico, stressed that asking for what you need doesn’t have to be adversarial. “Letting vendors know my necessities allows us to find win-win solutions,” she said. Negotiate everything from lower food and beverage minimums to the number of comped rooms and audiovisual costs (including fees for outside vendors and Wi-Fi charges). Every meeting is a partnership between planner and venue, so being up front with your goals can help you prioritize where dollars are spent. Jennifer D. Collins, CEO of JDC Events, suggested, “work with the vendor on the best way to make it happen. After all, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

Prioritize a “wow” factor for first impressions 

The place to splurge, our respondents said, is on first impressions. In particular, the entrance and bar area. Angela McMillan, Director of Events at Greater Kalamazoo Association of Realtors, suggested planners don’t have to sacrifice experiences to save the bottom line. “No matter your budget, you can always create a memorable experience by focusing on great service, clear organization, and event flow,” McMillan said. She suggested concentrating on a few key areas that attendees will remember and ditching the rest. To make decor even easier, McMillan advised booking venues that have natural character and charm that don’t need to be embellished.

Let people bond over meals 

“Bad food is remembered more than good content,” cautioned one respondent. While healthy options and dietary restrictions may seem like minor considerations, ignoring them is simply not worth the potential for disappointed participants. 

Kathleen Kaun, Trade Show and Meetings Manager at Glanbia Nutritionals, suggests keeping meals casual to help with networking and cost control. “People wear jeans and automatically relax more,” she said. “I try to find a venue that also has games or some sort of activity that is part of the restaurant. It creates team building and a bonding experience for the cost of one meal.”

Danielle Furnari, Events Coordinator at Geisinger Health Foundation in Danville, Pennsylvania, found that rolling over items from breakfast to a morning break keeps people nourished and reduces waste (not to mention the check) at the end of the day. Lean on expertise from the hotel catering departments to help you crop budgets.

You can also think outside the conference room. Ashly Baugh, Event Services Manager at Berkshire Hathaway Energy, takes advantage of the party scene happening at a local bar. She leads her group to where the action is rather than trying to recreate a hip vibe at the hotel, sharing, “It costs less and leverages the energy already there”.

Save the earth — and save your budget

Many respondents found an opportunity to save money by implementing environmentally conscious practices like encouraging attendees to use water coolers and refillable bottles rather than plastic bottles.

The confluence of sustainability, affordability, and technology is also helpful to stretch the budget. Sharon Boyle, Vice President of Foodservice Sales & Marketing Association, eliminated printed materials in exchange for mobile app content. “We call it a green initiative and also a move into the future,” she said. Other cost-saving green steps include using live plant decor and creating event materials with longevity that allow you to reduce, reuse and recycle. Name badge holders, table drapes, signage, and props with staying power can be purchased once and used year after year. 

Be location savvy to save big

Networking to take advantage of resources already in the destinations will add value and local flavor at low or no cost. For instance, local marketing agencies will share information about the area and potentially offer raffle prizes and swag bag items. Taking advantage of student volunteers to assist onsite will also allow for better rates and cost savings. 

Sharon Fisher, CEO and idea sparker at Play with a Purpose in Orlando, suggests blending activities — combining a CSR event with a cocktail party by building a golf course out of canned goods, then playing the course during cocktails, for instance. “Cost cutting is not a one-size fits all,” she said. Prioritizing starts with understanding the meeting goals and putting the most resources there.”

To ensure that there are no surprise charges, Mary Ann Turner, Principal at Projects Unlimited has a simple rule: “One chief.” If anyone asks for anything, she is the only person who can say yes. It doesn’t matter if it is the president or an exhibitor — if it is given without her approval, the vendor pays for it. 

Measure the right things

Respondents consistently returned to the goals of the meeting to determine whether they were getting a return on investment. But how that value was measured varied. The largest group — two out of five — relied on post-event surveys, while one out of five measured revenue generated. Some looked at registration for the following year, key performance indicators, net promoter score, or return on objectives. Other anecdotal methods included online buzz.

Plan smarter — not harder

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