In the battle of the meeting budget, forewarned is forearmed. If you know what to ask up front--about taxes, labor, and gratuities--there won't be any surprises. Here are a few of the more common unexpected costs that can crop up.

* Taxes--Because they vary from city to city, taxes often can trip you up. For example, in some jurisdictions, there may be county, city, and state taxes attached to the lodging bill. Taxes also can apply to a group's food and beverage gratuities in some areas, and can be a factor in your audiovisual (AV) bill. You need to find out if labor or AV equipment rental (or both) are taxable in your meeting's location. Some states include tax in the rates and some charge the tax separately.

* Labor--Labor for setup and tear-down at convention centers and hotels is often controlled by a union. So it's important to determine when the rates will be billed as regular time and when overtime kicks in. This is particularly critical for meetings that have their setup times over the weekend, which usually counts as double-time for labor.

In today's seller's market, hotels don't often feel the need to provide cost-free labor for unusual setups, so be prepared to pay for anything beyond the norm. Also, there may unanticipated labor charges in addition to the cost of renting a projector or other piece of AV equipment.

* Speakers and entertainment--Speakers and presenters can be another potential budget-buster. Find out if their fee includes such things as out-of-pocket expenses and hotel rooms. Read contracts for labor and other costs associated with entertainment carefully. If the entertainers aren't local, will they need first-class travel and accommodations? What will the staging and lighting costs be? A musical group may need the concert area for a rehearsal and sound-check prior to the performance, which might carry some additional costs.

* Audiovisual equipment--Hotels often provide AV as a package deal. Talk with the supplier to itemize what you're paying for, and then negotiate a package rate. Some hotels will break out AV and meal charges for you so you know exactly what you're paying for, while others have to be asked. Most will comply willingly and will do their best to specify exactly what each charge is and what it means.

Look for surprise charges such as a half-day charge for setup before a meeting begins, or a charge for a dress kit (drapery and backdrops used to decorate the area around the screen). And beware of the cost of PowerPoint presentations, which can mean renting a $650 to $1,000 data projector that your speaker will only use for 15 minutes.

* Shipping and handling--Hotels often will charge a handling fee for packages shipped to a hotel. You usually can get this fee waived if you arrange it ahead of time. In addition, ship five days out instead of overnight or two-day.

* Ground transportation--Pay close attention to the minimum number of hours your bus company requires. If you need to add another bus at the last minute, try to schedule it so you can stay within your minimum.

* Communication--Ensure that everyone involved in planning the meeting, both your company staff members and your suppliers, is giving the pertinent information to those who need it. This is perhaps the most important step you can take to control your budget and keep hidden costs to a minimum.