Special Events
Lower Bar, Bat Mitzvah Budgets Bedevil Event Planners, But They Respond with Creative Cuts

Lower Bar, Bat Mitzvah Budgets Bedevil Event Planners, But They Respond with Creative Cuts

Even milestone events such as bar and bat mitzvahs are facing the brunt of the brutal economy.

In the latest online poll from Special Events, 38 percent of respondents say that their bar and bat mitzvah budgets are down 20 percent or more compared with last year. Eleven percent say their budgets have fallen off between 10 percent and 20 percent, while 16 percent say their budgets are down 10 percent or less. Five percent of respondents say their bar and bat mitzvah budgets are on par with last year; no respondent says that budgets this year are bigger. The remainder of respondents say they don't know or have no opinion.

CUT HERE, CREATE THERE

Not to be outdone, event planners are responding to the challenge by cutting out elements that won't be missed and adding in some extra creativity.

Angela Gala, partner in Rogers & Gala Creative Partners in Charlotte, N.C., says her bar and bat mitzvah budgets this year are on average about 30 percent below last year. She compensates by turning to more lighting, but using it on less expensive materials. At an upcoming event, for example, she will seat children on the floor on big round pillows, which will also serve as the party's giveaways. For more cheap chic, the tables will be supported by wrapped glass racks, Gala says, and the tabletops will be wrapped in colored mylar.

"We've also become a lot more creative with the food," Gala notes. "Adults love the kids' food, so we've been inviting the adults to relive their childhood, and it has been a great way to save on costs and up the fun."

Gwen Helbush, head of Newark, Calif.-based Where to Start Events, got the jump on soft mitzvah budgets this year. Her budgets are down about 20 percent, she says, but by her own design. "I have encouraged my clients to spend less, then to take the difference and put it in the child's college fund," she says. She adds, however, "Most of my clients have been saving for this party so the economy didn’t really affect them for this one event."

PUT THE CLIENT TO WORK

To save money, Helbush brings the client into the party with the "do-it-yourself" approach. For example, "We did pre-party set-up days with family and friends," she explains. "My team set up the big stuff and then the client et al. set the tables and made the decor--arts and crafts projects we designed in advance to match the theme." She cautions, "Client DYI is risky; you have to be sure your clients have the skills, and it requires a lot of the planner’s time and patience. But if you do it right, it can be great."

Los Angeles-based Paula Gild, head of Gilded Events, says her budgets are down about 20 percent this year on average, but the mitzvah celebration is still "a priority in parents' lives."

She adds that her own creativity has been key to keeping clients. "People are still hiring me as I offer more bang for the buck and creative ways to make their money go farther," she explains.

Denver-based Syd Sexton, partner in Gourmet Fine Catering, has spent much of this year producing "shoestring" mitzvahs where menus feature sure-fire favorites—mini burgers and hot dogs, chicken skewers, mac and cheese, and pizza, followed by cookies in a cup baked on-site. The menu is gently tweaked to suit the specific event theme, and beverages are limited to mini milkshakes for kids, beer and wine for the adults. "Their tummies will be full of delicious comfort food, and many of the guests will call the following week to tell my clients what a great celebration it was," Sexton says. "And the client will have done it all for under $5,000."

Sexton is getting the jump on 2010 events by roughing out a budget in her initial conversation with the client. "Before I started this process, I would meet with mitzvah clients for a couple of hours and then go back and design a fabulous menu, only to find out that we were not even close on the budget," she explains. But with clients still resisting spending in 2010, she now develops a cost spreadsheet—which may include venue rental, decor and entertainment or just catering and rentals—during the initial phone call. "By the time we finish our phone call, I have e-mailed the client the sheet so that they have time to digest and accept the budget before we move forward."

WHERE TO CUT …

Veteran mitzvah planners have plenty of ideas on what can and cannot be cut from the party's budget. Cuts that won't be too obvious:

Gala: "You can cut down on some of the printed pieces such as the menus, in-room itineraries and guest amenities. For one mitzvah we delivered a box of specialty cupcakes to each room and the itinerary was all on one card; the overall cost was $12 each."

Helbush: "Lowering the guest count is the simplest and least obvious, but rarely flies with the clients. My favorite: Eliminate alcohol for the adults; that can really save you."

Gild: Look at cutting down on "favors and games before the DJ starts during cocktails." Also try kids-only parties.

BUT MAKE SURE TO KEEP …

Gala: "Don't cut entertainment. The DJ makes these events. People remember who much fun they have, and the right entertainment/emcee is crucial."

Sexton: "A great DJ is important and the food has to be good, but not over-the-top, for two important reasons: 1. The price, and 2. The perception that their adult guests will receive. Many want the kids and the adults to enjoy the same fare"--a big departure from days when many mitzvahs featured separate menus for children and adults.

WHAT'S NEXT

When will mitzvah budgets free up again? No one is sure.

Helbush notes that the sour economy "will be an issue for some time." But she adds that planners have an opportunity if they are wise enough to capitalize on it. "People will celebrate the important things in their lives with or without us," she says, "so it's up to us to help them feel comfortable doing it with us, and that has very little to do with money and more to do with trust."

Photo by iStockphoto.com / © Sarah Salmela

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