We went straight to the experts — Susan Friedman, author of Meeting Planning For Dummies; Bonnie Wallsh, chief solutions officer, Bonnie Wallsh Associates, and a popular industry educator; and Ruth Levine, founder of Speak Inc. — to get their secrets for saving big bucks in ways that attendees won't even notice.

Budget Basics

Here's a crash course in Budgeting 101 from the author of Meeting Planning For Dummies, Susan Friedman, aka The Tradeshow Coach (www.thetradeshow coach.com)

Meeting planners often ask me, “What on Earth do I include in the budget?”

The answer is very easy: “Everything.” If you have historical data from a similar event, you're in luck, because then you will have a good idea of previous expenses. However, if this is your first event, know that you have your work cut out for you. You'll need to identify all possible expenses: fixed (expenses that remain constant no matter what, such as room rentals or speaker fees); variable (expenses that are calculated on a per-person basis); indirect (administrative costs such as staff salaries and equipment); and hidden (unpredictable charges such as overnight shipping or rush charges for signage). I wouldn't recommend that you try to do this all in one sitting; rather, plan a few sessions so that you do a thorough job. The more meticulous you are, the more accurate the end result will be.

For starters, the following budget categories will help you to organize your revenue and expenses. Take each one and list all the expenses, fixed and variable. Again, the more thorough you are, the more accurate the final total will be.

  • Programming

  • Marketing and promotion

  • Food and beverage

  • Speakers

  • Entertainment

  • Travel, transportation, and shuttle bus

  • Accommodations

  • Meeting facility

  • Audiovisual

  • Labor charges

  • Administrative

  • Personnel

  • Exhibition

  • Shipping/freight charges

  • Postage

  • Insurance

  • Flowers and decorations

  • Special function expenses

  • Miscellaneous services (such as translation and interpretation)

  • Revenue details

Your Next Step: Save!

Since you probably have a limited budget, keeping costs under control is a skill you need to learn — fast! Seven important rules to remember are:

  1. Get everything in writing.

    Make sure that all the agreements you make with suppliers are in writing. Don't make any verbal agreements because, in a court of law, they're worthless.

  2. Limit authorization.

    Only a select few people should have the authority to charge items to your master account at the hotel. Make sure that the hotel has a list of these people, and instruct hotel staff that under no circumstances can anyone else make charges. Refuse to pay for charges signed by unauthorized personnel.

  3. Segregate accounts.

    Work with the hotel to create a variety of master accounts so that it's easier to separate your bills and review the accounts. Arrange that, along with the master account, you get copies of the invoices, checks, and banquet event orders.

  4. Review accounts daily.

    Consider going over your accounts with the facility on a daily basis. That makes it easier to spot errors or make necessary changes if costs are escalating in certain areas. For example, if you are using the hotel's business center facilities for photocopying and find that they are charging 25 cents per page, you might want to make alternate arrangements if you have a significant amount of copying.

  5. Check all invoices.

    As soon as you receive an invoice, check it against the written quotation. Question anything and everything that doesn't seem to compute. Make sure that you scrutinize your hotel and F&B invoices while you are on-site. It's so much easier to iron out discrepancies in person than to do it over the phone. This is particularly true for overseas events. Don't sign off on any bills until you are totally satisfied.

  6. Be flexible

    Remember to allow a certain amount of flexibility with your financial figures, because you will probably experience some unexpected expenses or emergencies. Be prepared, and build in a contingency of 10 percent of your total budget to take care of unforeseen costs, such as overtime, speaker substitutions, overnight mailings, phone and computer hookups, and things that you just didn't think of.

  7. Consolidate

    One of the best gifts that you can give yourself for future events is a post-event consolidation report. Take all the budgetary data, notes, and your tidbits of pertinent information and summarize them in a computer spreadsheet. Instead of having file folders stuffed with scraps of paper, you'll have one wonderful, information-rich document.

Choosing Your Site

Meeting Planning For Dummies author Susan Friedman's top 10 site-selection tips:

  1. Schedule your meetings during low-usage times, either during low seasons or days of the week when the facility is less busy. Booking near holidays (Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and so on) can be advantageous to your bottom line.

  2. Ask for the best rates. Do your research. Check out the rack, corporate rates, AAA discounts, etc., and compare them to the group rates that you're being offered. Call the toll-free reservation desk as well.

  3. Consider on-site versus off-site meeting space, especially for your smaller business meetings.

  4. Confirm and reconfirm your dates and event details. Overlooking a detail could cost you big bucks.

  5. Insist on a site visit before making any final decisions. Have the convention and visitors bureau do all the preliminary work to set it up for you.

  6. Consider using local destinations or smaller cities that offer you more bang for your buck.

  7. Request a discount for on-site payment of your bill.

  8. Be conservative with your room blocks, because you'll have to pay for unused rooms.

  9. Book your meeting with the same chain hotels or properties to give you greater rate negotiating power. You want them to value you and your business.

  10. Negotiate comp rooms for speakers, discounted rates for your staff, and/or upgrades for VIPs.

F&B Planning

Here's an area ripe for innovative thinking, says Bonnie Wallsh, CMP, of Bonnie Wallsh Associates LLC, Charlotte, N.C. (bwacmp@carolina.rr.com). Follow her 12 easy money-savers and you'll make out.

  1. Use centerpieces such as a Lazy Susan with buffet lunch.

  2. Theme events using ethnic foods that are less costly.

  3. Serve light lunches such as salads rather than heavy entrees.

  4. Cut down on portions.

  5. Use boxed lunches, if appropriate.

  6. Reduce the number of courses served at dinner.

  7. Serve continental breakfast.

  8. Piggyback off other groups' events.

  9. Organize optional group dinners at which attendees can dine while making contacts with colleagues.

  10. Negotiate complimentary receptions.

  11. Shorten the length of receptions.

  12. Use butler service instead of buffets.

Behind the Scenes

The best places to cut costs are often the least visible: AV, signage, printing, postage. 12 tips from Bonnie Wallsh, CMP:

  1. Work with one AV company as the preferred supplier for volume discounts.

  2. Assign meetings with the same AV and setup arrangements to the same rooms.

  3. Bring your own flip charts, markers, and blank overhead transparencies.

  4. Rent equipment such as a fax machine or copier if you anticipate heavy usage.

  5. Create permanent generic reusable signs with updated information on hook and loop tape.

  6. Prepare room signs listing all meetings to be held in that room throughout the event.

  7. Use hotel sign boards rather than buying your own.

  8. Use a printing outlet in the meeting city to reduce shipping charges. Always request a proof before printing.

  9. Do layout and design on your own software.

  10. Prepare a timeline with deadlines that take advantage of the least expensive shipping rates.

  11. Check post office regulations before creating mailings.

  12. Barter with shipping companies to send your shipments at no charge.

Speaker Savvy

We went right to the source, Ruth Levine, founder of Speak Inc., San Diego (www.speakinc.com), to learn the best ways to cut costs when you choose a speaker.

  1. Hire a speaker who can multitask.

    Suppose you need a keynote, a moderator, an emcee, and an awards host for your meeting, and you have a budget for each. Why not hire a talented speaker who can do two or even all of the jobs? Booking a professional will help you to save on expenses, and many speakers' full-day fees are not much more than their standard keynote fees.

  2. Share your bookings.

    Contact your convention services manager to get the names of other groups that will be at your hotel on overlapping dates, and call to see what speakers they've booked. The cost of a well-known speaker can often double after adding expenses such as airfare, hotel, ground transportation, and meals. Other than booking a speaker who lives in the same city as your meeting, another way to avoid paying travel expenses is to do a “piggyback booking” and book a speaker whose expenses are already contractually covered by another organization.

  3. Sell your speakers' products.

    Allow your speaker to sell books and training materials on-site after his or her program.

    The majority of a speaker's income often comes from product sales. Your speaker may have a new book or comprehensive training programs to sell on CD-ROM or tape.

    Speakers are often willing to reduce their fee in exchange for a contractual promise to sell their products. This is frequently a double win because meeting attendees often jump at the chance to purchase books or tapes that are written by a speaker who has just inspired them and motivated them to learn more.

  4. Book tomorrow's speakers at today's prices.

    Speakers who are in high demand typically raise their fees annually. Many fee increases occur on January 1 of each year.

If a speaker has not raised fees in a number of years, it may be an indication of his or her popularity, but it also can indicate that the speaker will not bring your attendees to their feet. One way to save money on a popular speaker is to book a year in advance of your meeting, thereby contractually securing the current fee.