Here are some tips for saving money on food and beverage.

  • Know your history. Will everyone who registers for the meeting eat every meal? By looking at historical patterns of how many people actually attend food functions, and how much they consume at breaks and at cocktail parties, you won’t pay for meals and drinks that aren’t being consumed.
  • Control what’s served. On breaks, food-service workers will often refill empty coffee urns to the top, even if there’s only five minutes left in the break period. That’s a lot of coffee—and cash—going to waste. Ask them to check with planning staff before refilling, particularly in the last few minutes of the break. Instead of filling up a full 10 gallons, maybe you authorize another gallon or two instead. Same thing with wine. Tell food service personnel to open one bottle of red and white per table and fill glasses only on request because many people don’t even drink wine. If a table requests more wine, have the servers check with the planner before opening another bottle. There may be half empty bottles unused at other tables.
  • Bulk breakfasts. For continental breakfasts, order in bulk, not per-person packages. The packages often include two bagels, three cups of coffee, two juices—in other words, more food than is necessary. By ordering in bulk, you can cut it in half, figuring people will eat one bagel, two cups of coffee, one juice, etc. And if it’s a full breakfast, offer buffet meals, not plated.
  • Use house brand cocktails and wine instead of premium brands.
  • Negotiate bartender fees. If you agree to a beverage minimum, negotiate to eliminate the bartender fees if you meet the minimum.
  • For cocktail receptions, use stand-up tables instead of sit-down tables. People are more likely to network, which is good, but also, they are less likely to hang around and drink and eat all night—saving you money.
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  • Lines are OK, to a point. At cocktail receptions, don’t be afraid of medium-sized lines at the bar. Long lines are a no-no, but lines that are 5 or 6 deep encourage networking and discourage over-indulging on cocktails.
  • Meet with the chef or catering personnel before the meeting to see if you can use the same menu as another group that was meeting in the facility. Asking the chef to preparing more of the same food in advance can result in cost savings. Also, check with the chef for seasonal or regional specialties, which may be less expensive.
  • Don’t pay more for drinks. Whether it’s a cash bar or hosted bar, don’t pay more for drinks than you pay in the hotel outlets (bars and restaurants).
  • Lock in the menu prices. If the hotel will not provide a specific menu in advance, at least agree that the menu prices will not increase more than a fixed percentage per year.
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  • Eliminate alcohol altogether. Or eliminate the hard liquor and mixed drinks. Serve only soft drinks, water, juices, beer, and wine.
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  • Order as much as possible "by consumption." Uneaten food and drink can be returned and not charged. This works well with soda and packaged foods like potato chips, but can also be done with perishables.
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  • Re-use food if possible. Wrap uneaten danishes and doughnuts from the coffee break and provide them at lunch with the dessert options.
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  • Instead of a hot breakfast, serve an extended continental breakfast by adding fresh fruit, yogurt, and cereal to the regular offerings.
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  • Use sit-down meals, which can cut food preparation labor costs as much as 20 percent.
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  • Skip the dessert, salad, or soup. Dessert can be served at breaks.
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  • Distribute box lunches instead of holding a formal sit-down lunch.
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  • Place expensive food items in harder-to-reach places on the banquet table.
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  • Try staffed food stations, such as stir-fry stations and pasta tables.
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  • Avoid shrimp, oysters, and other expensive delicacies.
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  • Find a local winery or microbrewery to sponsor your liquor costs.
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  • Use a controlled-pour system. Make sure the bartenders measure what they pour: If you are being charged by the drink served, you may find a "liberal ice" policy and weaker drinks in general. If you are charged by the bottle, the mixed drinks may be too strong.
  • Ask the hotelier if a discontinued wine label is available that can be consumed at a reduced rate.
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  • Offer pitchers of water rather than bottled water.
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  • Use opened bottles of liquor and wine for hospitality or VIP suite.
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  • Use smaller plates—people will eat less.
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  • Reuse centerpieces, or ask attendees to bring something related to the meeting’s theme that can be used as centerpieces. The items later can be donated to an appropriate charity.
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  • If your hotel is near a lot of restaurants and shopping, provide an early evening reception with heavy finger foods and a little entertainment and let them go for dinner on their own. This is cheaper than providing dinner and some will fill up enough they won't feel like they missed a meal.

Sources: Jason Eggleston, operations manager, meeting logistics, American Society of Microbiology, Washington, D.C.; Barbara Dunlavey, CMP, CAE, executive director, Biomedical Engineering Society, Landover, Md., Vicky Betzig, CMP, founder, Meetings Industry Consulting, Brookfield, Wisc.; Christine Simpson, CMP, meeting planner, Gas Processors Association, Tulsa, Okla.; Gary Rosenberg, CMP, partner, Rosenberg and Risinger, Culver City, Calif.; Sandy Biback, CMP CMM Imagination+ Meeting Planners Inc.