Meetings in the Post-Pandemic Era
Money Smarts

Tips for Budget-Conscious Meeting Planners

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A host of economic forces threatens to break association conference budgets. There are no easy solutions, but a close look at contracts and history can help identify some savings.

The past year has created a perfect storm of challenges for meeting planners. Associations eager to return to in-person meetings have less leverage with hotels and venues, especially after activating cancellation clauses at the onset of COVID-19. Supply-chain disruptions have made it harder to secure many conference essentials, particularly food. High inflation has made attendees and exhibitors hesitant to travel. And COVID hasn’t gone away, further suppressing attendance.

In response, venues have sometimes added new fees and conditions that complicate meeting planners’ lives. “In my entire 50 years in this industry, I have never, ever faced what I’m facing now in terms of helping negotiate contracts,” said Joan Eisenstodt, a veteran meetings consultant.

It’s no surprise, then, that association meeting planners are looking for ways to cut costs. But Eisenstodt cautions that there’s no silver bullet to be found. Cut the coffee service? Now you’re sending attendees outside the venue, wrecking the community vibe and potentially infuriating exhibitors. Sign up for a more affordable onsite AV or internet access plan? The potential for glitches and slowdowns risks spoiling the meeting experience.

Scrutiny on Contracts

But association meeting planners aren’t entirely without options. Part of the solution involves a closer eye for contract details and a willingness to engage in some straight talk with venues. Barry Schieferstein, director of learning and events at the American Society for Nondestructive Testing, says associations still have some negotiating power with venues, especially if there’s been a past relationship.

“Everything’s negotiable, and that still holds true,” he said. Although venues “want to recoup two years of lost revenue as quickly as they can,” a long-term relationship with a association may be more important to the venue than collecting every possible fee.

To that end, take a close look at your contracts, which may prescribe some eye-popping fees: charges for attendee use of power outlets, inflation offsets, and attrition penalties. Pre-COVID, venues often were willing to waive some of those costs as a goodwill gesture. Now, they’re back on the table, and the meeting planner may not necessarily be informed that they’ve been applied.

Don’t be afraid to take cost concerns up the chain of command, Schieferstein says. “The event manager might be very strict in conversations, telling you what the attrition ramifications are,” he said. “But as soon as you go to the director of sales, the conversation changes immediately.”

Service fees that venues waived in the past are back on the table, and the meeting planner may not necessarily be informed that they’ve been applied.

What’s on the Table?

With food, the calculus can be trickier. The urge to satisfy long-term attendees with familiar favorites is strong, but market realities mean many such options are now prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable.

One step that planners can take is to recall what meals attendees did and didn’t enjoy at past meetings. “Check your F&B history to see what was and wasn’t consumed,” Eisenstodt said. “Order accordingly to eliminate food waste and control costs.”

Tracy Stuckrath, a conference dining consultant and host of a podcast called “Eating at a Meeting,” says that with the current uncertainty about both food costs and meeting attendance, associations should be querying their attendees as much as possible about their onsite dining plans, especially around dedicated food-and-wine events.

“You need to know your numbers,” she said. “Ask your attendees: Are you coming?”

And while simpler menu options might be more sensible for event planners both in terms of cost and efficiency, Stuckrath notes that they’re often more appealing to venues too, which are hustling to find food workers in a tight labor market.

Venues “don’t want complicated menus either, because some of the serving staff are coming in the day of [the event] and they’ve never served before in their life,” she said.

Another tip: Rather than create customized meals for attendees who are vegan or who have food allergies, celiac disease, and similar food-related concerns, build a menu that works for everybody.

“In some cases, if it’s something simple, you can make the entire event dairy-free or gluten-free and eliminate the need for personalized plates,” Stuckrath said. “If you plan for the minority, you can feed the majority.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

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