“Show me the money” is no longer the host's call, as the sour economy makes lavish events obsolete. Today, “save me the money” is the event professional's new mantra. Here are some belt-tightening tips:
THE POWER OF THE PREFERRED
With few exceptions, in-house corporate event pros are in the eye of the cost-cutting storm. To meet the corporate mandate, Claire Stroope, CMP, senior manager of global meeting services for Rocklin, Calif.-based tech giant Oracle's U.S. operations, relies on a network of preferred vendors. “We have approximately eight preferred suppliers for meetings and events in the Americas region that have been put in place over the past two years,” she explains. “We work with our internal requestors to drive their event bookings to these suppliers so that we can maximize the discounts, which have been negotiated in advance. These discounts consist of a baseline discount to Oracle and then additional savings based upon revenue thresholds being met.” By relying on its relationship network, Oracle is able to maximize the value of its event spend, track funds being spent by each line of business to judge effectiveness, and support its vendor partners during the down economy, Stroope says.
The final piece of the cost-saving puzzle, Stroope explains, is educating internal event coordinators to review “alternative ways of delivering our message,” she says. “We are utilizing our internal conference capabilities wherever possible and using our preferred supplies to support those efforts as needed.”
At the other end of the spectrum are the event pros behind social events — a segment long considered virtually recession-proof. But as bad economic news dominates the headlines, even brides and bar mitzvah parents grow skittish about their event spend.
Barbara Wallace, CSEP, head of Corona del Mar, Calif.-based Barbara Wallace Weddings, says some clients are asking their venues to reduce food prices or minimums even after the client signed the contract months earlier. “They are even bargaining with the large hotels before booking, which has the same price-war effect,” she says. “Honestly, it seems too much like buying a used car to me.” She expects many vendors to cut prices just to keep business. But, she warns, “It will take years for the industry to get back to where we were.”
For clients determined to rein in the budget, Wallace suggests focusing on the “must haves” and trimming the rest. For some clients, using the hotel linen accented with exciting overlays creates a beautiful effect at lower cost, she notes. Also, “Some will forego favors,” Wallace adds, “reasoning that no one really cares about them, so it's not money well spent.”
BAN THE BARFLIES
Karen Casey, head of Marietta, Ga.-based Karen Casey Events, is recommending that her cost-conscious brides consider the “mini destination” wedding, located roughly an hour-and-a-half outside the bride's home city. “This distance will weed out those guests who are coming just for the open bar,” Casey explains, “yet be far enough away to be worth the effort of those who are closest to the couple. Fewer guests equal less money spent.” Prices are usually more budget-friendly the farther one gets from the big city, “and your ‘city vendors’ are usually willing to travel this distance to provide service,” she adds.
Carol Rosen, CSEP, head of Los Angeles-based Party Designs by Carol, offers pragmatic solutions for budget-minded brides, including opting for venues that need little extra decor, switching from dinner to a lunch event, scheduling a Friday or Sunday event rather than a Saturday party, serving soft drinks and one signature cocktail rather than offering an open bar, and hiring a great DJ rather than springing for a full band. And of course, “Spend money on a good planner,” she advises. “In the long run, it will save [the bride] from costly mistakes.”
FUN, NOT FRUMPY
The constant client call today is “nice but watch the budget,” says Cathee Hickok, co-owner of Canoga Park, Calif.-based Renaissance Catering. To pull off that feat, she suggests menus that can be prepared easily on-site by multi-tasking staffers. Her longtime clients have also been game to change the format of their annual parties. As a result, “The '50s sock hop this year appeared to be a fun change from the black-tie sit-down last year but was actually more cost-effective,” she says. “Frugal doesn't have to be frumpy, after all.”
Although she still has some “very rich” clients unaffected by the down economy, most are opting for “all standard equipment,” notes Ann Lyons, head of South San Francisco-based Melons Catering & Event Planning. “One of our clients called it the ‘famine-year budget,’ and we had to serve the same amount of guests for half the cost.” The Melons team made it work, however, by turning to a limited menu and “substantial yet cost-effective” food, as Lyons dubs it, such as brisket and mashed potatoes instead of filet. “And we cut out seafood altogether.”
Lisa Richards, CEO of San Diego-based Festivities Catering, streamlines the meal to save clients money. For a recent sit-down dinner, her team eliminated the first course and put two vegetables, a starch and the entree on one plate, which cut down the number of plates that had to be rented. “We also suggest to our clients that they serve something we make in-house, such as pot de creme, versus buying out a dessert,” Richards says. “Overall we are able to shave costs and still have guests that were wowed.”
Although it's money out of her pocket, Tamara Goldstein, senior catering and event consultant with Chicago-based Jewell Events Catering, has suggested to some clients to purchase their own liquor, returning bottles they don't open. “Of course it pains me to do this,” she says. “But what is better for me? Fifty dollars per person or nothing per person?”
Little changes can add up big. Lyons notes that to avoid the $300 fire permit some venues require if the caterer brings in canned heat, “We'll design a room-temperature menu and forgo candles and hot food,” she says.
Clients are taking cost-cutting measures into their own hands at times, Lyons adds. Rather than hire a band or DJ, some play their own iPod's repertoire over the venue's sound system. Another client skipped pricey floral centerpieces, instead filling inexpensive vases with colorful clementines and lemons.
Indeed, floral is often the first item cut, a fact faced squarely by florist Alice-Lynne Olson of the Late Bloomer in St. Louis Park, Minn. She has seen her projects fall from “50 centerpieces at $100 each to 25 at $25,” she says.
To stay in the game, Olson no longer rents out pricey items from her inventory for centerpieces, instead crafting low-cost look-alike containers that clients can take home. “By allowing my designs to be taken, the client saves on my retrieval fee,” she explains. Olson also discovered that brides are turning to Ebay to buy vessels from earlier weddings, bringing the “used” containers to Olson to fill with flowers for their own receptions. Olson has purchased some of these containers from the brides, thus building up her own inventory “at a fraction of what the wholesalers are charging me,” she notes.
Independent planners are also leaning on their own creative skills to make the most of each budget dollar.
Stacey Paul Barabe, CSEP, head of Orlando, Fla.-based Exhilarate Events, had a liquor client who wanted a lounge for an upcoming event and a supplier who was looking for a liquor sponsor for its own grand opening. “I negotiated a win-win trade-out,” she says. For another client, “We made sure we met a deadline in contract negotiations so they could take advantage of the free shipping incentive provided by [decor company] Pink Inc.,” she adds.
Kristjan Gavin, head of San Ramon, Calif.-based In Good Company, says that making entertainment do double duty as decor is a must. “One of the first questions I ask a venue or food and beverage provider is if their staff is flexible in donning costumes to complement the entertainment and decor,” he says. “It is amazing how quickly each individual transforms and adds a special touch to every event.”
As master planners who put all event elements together, independent planners often take a consulting role with clients, helping clients determine what their true goals are for the event.
Gai Klass, head of Los Angeles-based Gai Klass Event Production, sometimes has to dig deep to bring clients' real goals for their social events to light. “The motivation for the cutbacks is often a desire to not offend their friends or seem inappropriate,” she notes. “I try to explore just exactly what the client is feeling and then determine how best to give them what they want. Sometimes it is just cutting back on the frills — eliminating the vintage car for a theme party or having fewer layers of entertainment.”
Ryan Hanson, creative director with Minneapolis-based BeEvents, finds a similar fear of appearing extravagant among his corporate clientele. Even with talk about cutting budgets, “Clients don't really want ‘cheaper’ options,” he says. “On prices that aren't obvious — think venue or food — they, so far, aren't batting an eyelash. They worry what the centerpieces look like so that they don't look too expensive, but they can't be cheap either. After all, the entire event experience is a reflection of the company at the end of the day, and smart clients recognize that. They realize that attendees who come year after year and have been conditioned to expect a big bash and — more importantly — are paying to attend the annual conference party can't show up to cheap appetizers and a cash bar with no decor. But someone in the crowd will balk at any extravagance. It is a funny double-edged sword.”
BIG IMPACT, SMALL BUDGET
Sales incentives, product launches and recognition events are among the most powerful tools in a corporation's arsenal. “Those face-to-face meetings are the best way to change or strongly reinforce behavior,” notes Barry Wegener, senior director of marketing and communications for Minneapolis-based Carlson Marketing. But major corporate events don't have to cost major bucks. Wegener's top five tips to cut costs:
- With higher airlift costs, look for destinations that can offset the increases with lower costs for services; this might mean second-tier cities or venues willing to fight for your business.
- Know the venues and understand how to leverage your total event expenses at the hotel or resort.
- Reduce the length of the event; cut back from five nights to four nights.
- Reduce the number of participants; make it the top 1,000 instead of everyone who meets the goal.
- Reduce the planned activities; guests actually appreciate getting a prepaid card for them to spend on their own for dinner with their own selected group.
But above all, Wegener says, don't compromise the overall impact of the event. “You have to be more innovative,” he says. “And be sure to measure the results.”
Economy Dominates 2009 Event Forecast
Part II of this article, which will offer cost-saving tips from event rental experts, will appear in our next issue.
Barbara Wallace Weddings
Gai Klass Event Production
In Good Company
Jewell Events Catering
Karen Casey Event Production
The Late Bloomer Floral Design Studio
Melons Catering & Event Planning
Party Designs by Carol