One of the most confusing and potentially painful aspects of AV is dealing with the charges to deliver, set up, and/or operate your equipment. What is reasonable? What is not? When should there be a service charge? Should it be taxed?

Labor Charges vs. Service Charges

Equipment setup used to be included in the rental fee. However, most hotels now charge either a setup fee or a service fee. You should get charged one or the other, but not both. Whatever it's called, the fee is for the time it takes to set up your equipment and tear it down when you are done. (Equipment normally comes down in about a third of the time it took to set up.)

Set Fee vs. Hourly Charges

Often AV companies have a set fee based on an estimate of setup time — say $80 based on one staffer taking two hours at $40 per hour. I prefer to have labor charged by the hour.

In the above example, if it takes the staff person only one hour, I am billed for only that. It might take three hours to set up four workshops, so I will be charged for the three hours ($120) — rather than a $40 setup fee for each workshop ($160). This is easy to negotiate, but it should be done before the contract is signed.

Straight Time vs. Overtime

Labor is a big part of AV costs, especially if you haven't blocked enough advance time to set up properly. I book the hotel ballroom at least 48 hours ahead of my first general session. This allows the crew adequate time to work, primarily during the day, to get everything set up and tested. They may log 12-hour days, but they're not pulling all-nighters, which cost extra. (And a tired crew can make mistakes.) Typical labor might run $40 per hour for regular work hours; $60 per hour for evenings, early mornings, or weekends; and $80 for holidays.

Union vs. Nonunion

Will you be required to use union labor?

This affects your hourly rate, how long the crew can work without a break, and whether there is a minimum number of hours per job.

Should you be taxed?

In some states, service charges can be taxed. Often you can negotiate to have the service charge labeled a “voluntary gratuity,” and this may not be taxable in some states.

Ken Pickle, CPCU, CMP, is manager, incentives and conferences, for Safeco Insurance Cos., Seattle.

AV Budget Trimmers

  • Schedule workshops that use the same equipment back-to-back in the same room.

  • Use the in-house AV company for breakouts and an outside firm for general sessions.

  • Ask your general session vendor for a “producer's discount” (15 percent to 20 percent) if you have a producer on your staff.

  • Sometimes a hotel wants to charge a percentage (often 20 percent) if you use an outside AV vendor. They claim that because their AV techs are called on in emergencies to assist your presenters anyway, the charge is justified. I have never had this happen to me, but I would not agree to it.

Your AV Site Inspection

  • Know your AV needs. I bring the list of equipment from my previous conference to share with the hotel.

  • Plan a brief meeting with the in-house AV manager, but also try to pay a surprise visit to the office. How neatly they keep their gear is an indication of their level of professionalism.

  • Ask what outside AV company they call when they need additional gear. I usually get one of my bids from this outside company.

  • Observe how well they are servicing groups in house.

  • Find out what electrical power is going to cost before signing the contract.

  • Get the names and phone numbers of the last two meeting planners with AV needs similar to yours — and call them.