People are tightening their belts, and companies are tightening their budgets amid the economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. And that means everyone will be more frugal about attending conferences, even once it’s safe to meet again after the health crisis has passed.
“In some ways, it’s like 10 years ago during the recession,” said Jan Aument, founder of Good Plan Jan. “Organizations still wanted to have their annual events, but companies couldn’t afford to send the same number of people they used to. The key was to figure out how to get those folks there.”
Planners have a number of options to cut costs and pass along those savings to make it more affordable for people to attend meetings and conferences.
Know the Group, Know the Goals
As with most meetings, planners should start by knowing the organization’s goals and the attendees’ needs.
“If you have the data, you should be analyzing it; and if you don’t have it, get it,” said Nikole Fridenmaker, owner of Fridenmaker Consulting.
Planners can survey their groups to understand what’s important or valuable to attendees; that, in turn, gives planners a better idea of what they can cut to save money. If the main reason people attend is for the awards gala or the networking opportunities, then the planner has a better idea of what to keep.
“Having the data and knowing why the organization is holding the event and why attendees are coming — that helps,” Fridenmaker said. “It gives you ideas of where you can trim.”
Tough times and tight budgets make relationships with national sales teams and CVBs even more imperative; so if you have those, use them, Fridenmaker said. CVBs should always be involved in your RFP process, because “they have a vested interest in bringing your business to their cities,” she said.
The CVB is your biggest friend and ally, said Linda Nelson, founder of To Plan Ahead. The CVB may have its own rebate or incentive program and can steer planners to properties and partners that can work with their budgets.
It’s also good to be transparent about your budget, both Fridenmaker and Nelson said. Put your cards on the table, don’t play games, and don’t be greedy. Planners often ask for things they don’t need. It’s better to know what’s important to your attendees, like free Wi-Fi or suite upgrades for VIPs, and ask only for concessions that matter.
Part of knowing your group is knowing where attendees will be coming from. If most attendees are flying in, planners may do better to choose a larger destination with a major airport to ensure flights are plentiful and affordable.
Choosing a second- or third-tier city likely means lower hotel costs and free parking, but airfares may be pricier, Nelson said.
Regional meetings could become more popular for the next few years for a couple of reasons. Choosing a place where attendees can drive in not only saves money on airfare, but also works better for people who are worried about the health implications of flying, Aument said.
Another option is to hold two smaller events versus one large event, Fridenmaker said. If a conference has large contingents from the West Coast and the East Coast, an organization could hold bicoastal events.
“The restrictions on travel and the fear of flying may last a little longer than preferred,” she said. “Even if their company is willing to pay for it, they’re not going” if they don’t feel comfortable flying for four hours. “They’ll find something to drive to.”
Hotels and Venues
Hotels and venues in smaller cities may be more likely to negotiate rates, offer free parking and provide concessions. Unconventional venues may be another way to keep costs down. Fridenmaker speculated that planners could use the glut of large, vacant buildings that will become available in the wake of the pandemic as more companies downsize or allow employees to work from home indefinitely.
Groups could consider meeting on a college campus during the summer when students are away, Nelson said.
Planners should also ask what the best meeting pattern is for the hotel or venue to get the best rates: Is it better to meet over the weekend or during the week?
Finding out what the hotel needs and what works best for them and then being flexible can provide planners quite a bit of leverage.
“What can they give us that really doesn’t take away from them, and what can we give them that doesn’t really matter to us?” Nelson said.
Food and Beverage
Food and beverage is one of the quickest ways to trim the budget, Fridenmaker said. Many attendees would gladly take fewer included meals if it meant lower registration fees, but cutting F&B has to work with the organization’s overall goals. If the awards banquet or networking luncheons are the main reason people attend, it would be detrimental to take away those opportunities.
However, as organizations look at future conferences, “do we make meals optional now rather than just automatically including them?” Aument said. People may prefer to grab a takeout salad rather than have a sit-down lunch, “and that helps lower the registration costs.”
However, planners can still get creative, maybe offer tiered menus that give registrants more price flexibility or work with the CVB to bring in food trucks during a lunch break. Many experienced planners do an a la carte breakfast rather than a big, hot meal.
“So long as you provide an area that they can all network and still eat together, that I think is important,” Nelson said. “That’s really why we have live meetings.”
But no matter what, “if you’re making a big change from having a lot of food available to not, you do have to make sure people understand that; you need to communicate those changes,” Fridenmaker said.
Incentives, Sponsorships and Contests
Planners should look for ways to sweeten the pot. Consider offering discounts for early-bird registration or discounts for registering friends. Planners could run a contest and award some of their free nights to the person who brings in the most referrals, Fridenmaker said.
Contests can also work well for sponsorships, which are “more important than ever,” Aument said. “How do you engage those sponsors when fewer people are going to be there?”
Planners should understand what sponsors need to achieve and then get creative about how to help them achieve their goals via the conference. When Aument was a planner for a large corporation, her company sponsored a contest and paid for the winners to attend the trade show where the corporation was a major exhibitor.
“In the end, it ended up being an exclusive sponsorship for my company, and we were truly promoting heartfelt goodwill,” she said.