How to Save on Food and Beverage Costs at Your Next Meeting

Planning, flexibility, and seasonality are your buzzwords for saving money on conference food and beverage.

Most associations walk a fine line with their meeting food and beverage plans. They want to give attendees a good spread, because full bellies go with happy attendees, but they are cognizant that this is one of the biggest meeting expenses.

PCMA’s Convene 26th Annual Meetings Market Survey found that “Despite the continued improving economy, most meeting organizers are still being asked to cut back on meeting expenses, and the majority (63 percent) have been asked to focus on reducing F&B expenses.”

At this point, you already know the cost-cutting basics: Plan the menu well in advance, control portion sizes (e.g., staff a buffet), and focus on seasonal ingredients.

So if you are looking to further pare food and beverage costs, it might be time to get creative—and flexible. Tracy Cammack, executive director of catering at SAVOR…Chicago at McCormick Place Convention Center, offered four tips for keeping your attendees satiated without busting the budget.

**Get total executive buy-in on menu and set-up. **

Cammack has seen a good lunch plan go up in flames more than once, which leaves a trail of unanticipated costs. Here’s the general situation: The meeting planner dutifully sets the menu and room set-up well in advance. Everything’s on or below budget. But as the meeting is underway, another staff member decides to switch up the protein or futz with the room set-up.

“It’s not even just making changes with the menu,” Cammack said. “Changing the set-up and location of a meal is also an issue because those changes require additional labor, and that’s a major cost.”

So, once you work out a plan with your caterer, get executive sign-off on it—or at least a promise that everyone will squelch their urges to play meeting planner for a day.

Piggyback on another meeting’s order.

In a large conference venue, like McCormick Place, you might be sharing the building with another meeting. If so, you might be able to lower your food costs by piggybacking on that other group’s order.

“We can make suggestions on your menu based on what’s already being purchased for another event at the same time,” Cammack said. You can still design your own menu, but certain ingredient or meal choices will make better financial sense.

Go with chef’s choice or the house special.

For particularly budget-conscious and flexible groups, consider putting your full faith in the chef. You can still designate the basic meal makeup—a protein, starch, veggie, and dessert, say—so you aren’t ceding total control.

“That’s always very helpful,” Cammack said. “We look at what else we are doing and purchasing at that time, and we plan accordingly. It gives us the ability to purchase two times the amount in the same delivery but for two different events.”

In addition, SAVOR…Chicago is currently creating a menu of daily house lunch specials (for example, Mondays would be pot roast, Tuesdays would be chicken, etc.). This will be lowest-cost lunch option.

Provide PR for a supplier.

Ask your caterer if there’s a possible discount for providing some event PR for a local supplier. This will be a win-win situation if your members are particularly particular about having local or organic cuisine and you are sourcing from such vendors.

“If groups are interested in highlighting a product, say a farm that we are sourcing the protein from, then sometimes the suppliers are willing to give a better price,” Cammack said. “A lot of beverage providers do that, but some farms would also love the recognition.”

For real savings on food and beverage flexibility is the name of the game. But you can still have your custom cake and eat it too by simply asking your caterer a few additional questions when you start planning your meeting menu.

Chicago is at the top of its game when it comes to hosting meetings. The city can accommodate any size group, offering a range of options for each meeting facet. Each article in this eight-part, how-to series tackles a specific piece of the meeting planning puzzle as part of the ultimate meeting playbook. Learn more at

(Handout photo)