Last month, I led a session called “Making Cents: Cost-Saving Measures to Improve Your Meeting’s Bottom Line” at MPI’s Cascadia Educational Conference (MPI-CEC) in Tulalip, Wash. During the course of the session, we tackled many challenges the meeting professionals in attendance were facing. Here are their questions along with some of the solutions we found.
Meeting planning challenges
How can you find venues that welcome small groups that don’t need hotel rooms, especially when it’s less than 30 days out?
- Look at special facilities, tourist attractions and college campuses. They’re not tied to selling rooms the way hotels are, so they tend to be friendlier to small groups.
- Sometimes neighborhood restaurants will give you free meeting space if you’re buying food and beverage.
- Many hospitals and non-profit organizations also have unusual (and high-tech) meeting rooms that won’t cost an arm and a leg.
My association needs to find a database for registering our event. Also, 25 percent of our attendees register on-site. How can we find one that will work?
- Talk to the local CVB – some can help with setting up and hosting online housing and registration systems as well as providing on-site volunteers who can help register attendees at no additional cost to you.
- There are several online providers, too, so you may want to ask your peers on social networks/industry associations for referrals/testimonials. Depending on your needs, you may want a flat-rate solution rather than a per-registrant fee, or an annual contract vs. lifetime arrangement, so shop your bid around and read what customers have said about the companies you’re considering. You may do a Google search and discover that the group you thought was a great choice has thousands of pages of customer complaints and a horrible service reputation.
I put out a lot of pre-conference communication to my attendees, but they don’t seem to read their e-mails. I keep getting bombarded with phone calls, with them asking me questions. How do I make them stop and read what I’m sending?
First of all, create a barrier so they can’t call you directly, whether that’s a digitized “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) hotline (push 1 for directions, push 2 for registration, etc.) or a voicemail that goes over commonly asked questions or directs them to an online page with common questions and answers. Let them contact you only if their question isn’t answered there first. If they’re really not very tech-savvy, you may want to fax or mail hard copies of your FAQs to each attendee.
What do I do when the hotel rate I negotiated years ago is now much higher than what my attendees can find online? I can prove that several people who bought rooms at the discount rate are with my group, but the hotel will not count them towards my block, and I’m facing steep attrition as a result.
- Any hotel that cares about your business and having a relationship with you would realize the economic realities of the situation and let you do an audit and count all your attendees against your block. Many of the hotel representatives that PYM has spoken to over the past 18 months have allowed planners to renegotiate their contracted hotel rate so that this kind of situation could be avoided. But, of course, you have to remember that before the contract is signed, you’re asking; after the contract is signed, you’re begging and at the mercy of the property. It sounds like the hotel you’re dealing with probably is having some major cash flow issues and they’re going to hold out for whatever cash or fees they can rake in, which is unfortunate, because it’s a little short-sighted and it’s going to guarantee that this is the last time you’ll ever want to work with them again. In that case, really the only thing you can do is have an honest conversation about what their needs are, what your needs are and try to work out some kind of compromise.
- If, after all that, they’re still trying to stick you with paying full attrition for rooms that you can document your people have paid for, the only recourse you have is to make your grievances very public, using social media and spreading the word among your peers about how you were treated unfairly.
- Next time, before the contract is signed, insert a clause that guarantees your group the lowest market rate for the rooms. And you may want to insert a clause that defines what kind of documentation you need to present to the hotel to prove that people who bought “outside the block” are actually with your group and when/how they should be counted towards your totals. You also can stipulate that you will only pay attrition on lost revenue on the room, not on the full agreed upon rate, because if they are able to resell the room, they’re actually making money if you’re paying full attrition.
I’m with a non-profit association and last-minute registration is a big problem. I have a little bit of history to go by, but I can never guarantee that the room will be big enough or that I’ll have enough food. How can I make my attendees register in advance?
- If early bird discounts and other incentives haven’t worked, try being honest about the negative impact last-minute registrations have on the association. One planner printed up a sheet that showed members how much money they were losing because of the fees she was having to pay and how much benefit there was to early registration. Every month, she sent an update to the membership, educating her audience about the dangers of attrition, and it worked.
- In your contract, you can write in the right to have review dates at 90, 60 and 30 days, after which you can choose to release rooms from your block without penalty. The drawback is that you could get stuck short. But it’s better to have to scramble and enlist the aid of the hotel and the local CVB to help you find additional rooms than to get stuck with huge attrition.
- Surveys can also help you with your estimates: Survey the people who didn’t come about why they didn’t; survey the people who register late about why they don’t register earlier and what might compel them to do so; and ask why people want to come to your event. Do a post-event survey asking when people registered for the event. List a number of incentives and ask which of the incentives would encourage attendees to register sooner — let them tell you what’s important to them and what would motivate them to register earlier.
- Also think about the event as being a year-long conversation where you’re constantly engaging your audience through social networks. Contract with the speakers to create mini-webinars in the months prior to the event so attendees can get excited about what will be offered and who they can network with at the event. Do video profiles of people who will be in attendance and post those on social networks, reminding people to register early (so they can be spotlighted, too). Identify what your members need and have gotten out of past conferences and create ways for them to tell that story in a compelling way. Create ways for attendees to start conversations in advance through networks like Pathable.com and Crowdvine.com, so networking can begin for early registrants well before the event happens.
- Don’t allow last-minute registration, or charge attendees a penalty fee for registering late.
Generating revenue from events
How can my organization bring in more revenue? Traditionally, we rely on registration fees to offset costs, but our attendance has been down.
- Consider putting on a hybrid event where you can offer remote access to people who aren’t necessarily in the room; charge a reduced admission fee.
- Archive educational sessions online and charge an access fee to view them.
- If half your audience is virtual and half are live, that will save you F&B costs.
- Most speakers will reduce their fee if they are speaking virtually and don’t have to travel to your event. Beaming in presenters also can save you money on their transportation, meals and miscellaneous expenses.
- Sell sponsorships to reach your live and virtual attendees (and subsidize production costs to offer the virtual event free of charge, if you want). Check out these cheap and easy ways to livestream/broadcast content (including technologies used at EventCamp 2010, Twebevent, etc.).
- Hybrid events help expand your audience by allowing you to include people who can’t afford the attendance fee, get away from work or leave their families to travel. These technologies allow you to engage people who can’t attend in person, and it also makes them hungry for the social interactions they are missing at the face-to-face meeting, which makes it more likely that they will attend in person next year.
- Cadmium CD can livestream and archive your educational content and employ a revenue-sharing model so that the planners don’t have to invest money up-front. They can sell sponsorships or DVDs to attendees to cover the production costs, and then anything after the costs are covered are shared as profits between Cadmium CD and the event organizer. From this content, they can help you create webinars and CEU modules that you can password protect and repurpose/sell access to in order to keep members engaged year-round.
I’m considered a non-revenue producing department; my events are considered line item costs. How can I generate/save money that can contribute to my company’s bottom line?
This is a pretty common misperception about our industry. The truth is that meetings and events help organizations achieve their goals, they help drive sales, they educate employees in ways that save the company time and money, and they do contribute to the bottom line in ways that are both tangible and intangible. But in order to communicate that, you have to look at what you do a little differently and integrate metrics into your planning process that keep track of how your events generate return on investment, return on objective and measure how much business impact they’ve had in terms of benefits and costs. You can watch this short (43-minute) presentation on how to prove your worth as a meeting planner. And here’s an article I’ve also written on the topic. They will explain a step-by-step method of proving the worth of your work. You’ll never look at what you do as a non-revenue producing line item again.
I wrote the zero budget for our association a year ago, but revenues from our membership dues are not as strong as we wanted. Attendance at our events is pretty strong, but our sponsorships are down. How can I keep our budget balanced with events by the end of my fiscal year?
- Try inviting non-members to events, at a slightly higher registration fee.
- Also think about creative ways you can sell sponsors that will get them in front of your audience: Instead of just being on a bag or making a five-minute speech, think about letting them give pre- or post-event tours, sending your audience an e-blast with one of their videos embedded, or letting them sponsor an educational webcast previewing who will be speaking at your next event.
- Co-locating events also can help defray costs. Look for a group in your city that has some overlap in membership, for example PCMA and MPI or HSMAI, and approach them about sharing the costs to consolidate a few monthly membership events this year.
- Talk to your venues’ sales staff to find out what other groups are going to be using the space directly before and/or after you. Talk with that event’s organizer to see if you can cut costs by “piggybacking” and sharing the cost on what they are going to be using for A/V, room sets, décor and even menus, speakers and entertainment. If a room doesn’t have to be flipped, that will save both the venue and you money in labor fees, and if the venue can order food in bulk, they can pass on those cost-savings to you.
- Apply for grant funding, if available.
- Use Facebook and other free online platforms as a marketing/communication channel.
- Partner with local colleges with fields of study/social groups that have a similar interest or specialty as your core audience and offer discounted student rates to your event. It’s not unusual for professors who like what professional associations are programming to bring 20+ students to events that offer excellent educational and networking opportunities for the students. That’s also a great way to create a pipeline for young members to join your organization.
Contract negotiations & communication strategies
What can you/can you not ask for during contract negotiations?
It’s about communication. Ask for everything you need, and that will help you start the discussion with your sales contact about what they can offer and what concessions may need to be made, based on your priorities.
Why do suppliers always ask me what my budget is? Why can’t they just tell me what their pricing is first?
Many planners think that if they share their budget, the supplier will then try and spend every penny of it. That’s not what their intention is. They want you to say, “I only have $X per person and that has to include a, b and c,” because then they know what direction to take you in and how they can help you make the most of the budget you have. It also can help them know if they need to refer you to another supplier who may be a better fit for your program. Details provided by the planner on the front end are so important and so appreciated by the suppliers, because it helps them understand what your vision for the event is. If you sincerely don’t know what your budget is, then sharing what is important to you can help suppliers help you make the decisions you need to make to get the biggest bang for your buck and find creative cost-saving solutions.
Do you have tips on communicating expenses to your clients?
- Communicate with the client to discover what the real vision for their programming is; where they want to spend money and where they don’t.
- Compare and share with them pricing quotes.
- Look at how they measure ROI and use that to relate the value of the program you’ve negotiated.
Do you have any F&B negotiation tips for new planners?
- Know your budget and attendance history at meal functions.
- Ask for menus during your site visit and negotiate them and any fees before the hotel contract is signed.
- Don’t go by menu prices; share what your budget is and see what is available to you within that framework. You can work directly with the chef to create meals.
- Include budget parameters for F&B in your RFPs.
- Ask peers your questions and seek their advice in learning the ins and outs of the proposal process and negotiations.
- Above all, be honest with your supplier.
- Check out other tips in the Plan Your Meetings whitepaper Making Cents: 152+ Ways to Save.
How can you break back into the market as an independent meeting planner?
Consider getting involved in MPI or other industry associations, becoming a third-party planner through something like Conference Direct and/or volunteering for industry association committees to make new contacts.
What advice do you have for people currently looking for a job?
- Know what value you offer to potential employers.
- Be able to tell him/her why they should hire you in one or two sentences.
- Ditch the “objective” statement on your resume and focus on what you achieved at your prior jobs.
- Be realistic.
- Add a job title headline.
- Avoid overkill/repetition. You want people to get a sense of who you are and what you can bring to the company, not every single little task you may have managed.
Questions from suppliers
How can you communicate with planners that space limitations are really limitations they need to abide by?
Explain that if they try to fit 300 people in a room that’s meant for 200, it’s going to make the attendees unhappy and everyone look bad. Just because they think it looks like it could hold that many people, they may not be accounting for the space a stage or set-ups would need.
I just opened a brand new four-star hotel and I know it’s impossible to get our high-rate, but how do we discover who our niche audience is and maintain rate integrity?
With the dollar being what it is, you may want to focus on trying to attract international business, because the U.S. is currently a value destination. Also, you may want to offset corporate business with leisure trade and social/emotional events like weddings and bar mitzvahs. Incentive business has started to pick up a little, too. And take a look at PYM’s Town Hall reports, because a lot of other properties have been dealing with the same issues, and you can read about all the solutions they’ve discovered since July 2008 on that site.
How can I correct misperceptions about my destination?
- Educate your audience through social networks and other marketing/branding efforts.
- Bring in qualified planners with tangible pieces of business for FAM trips to see what you offer in person.
Other helpful links:
- Download “Making Cents: 152+ Ways to Save Money at Your Next Event.”
- Read the findings from the “Making Cents” session at PCMA’s Convening Leaders Conference.
- Learn industry best practices, find the latest news, trends, tips and destination information at PlanYourMeetings.com.
- Join our network of planners and get “The Practical Guide to Meeting Planning,” invitations to our educational events and “The Big Book of Answers” free of charge.
- Check out some of my other presentations on SlideShare.net.
- Free presentation tools include online presentation creator Prezi.com and broadcast tool Skype.com, which in the Mac version allows you to share your desktop with the audience.