Five Ways to Make Smart Spending Choices, No Matter Your Event Budget
Every event budget has a limit—even if it’s high! Here’s a few creative ways to spend it wisely
We know that even a million dollar event budget has limits. When hosting an event, you’re faced with limitless options for every facet of the event. One of our major roles in planning? Helping you make the most strategic use of your budget; no matter the size.
Today, we’ve pulled together “spend and splurge” options for some of the most common elements of an event; like the food, decor, and entertainment.
How do you decide what areas you want to splurge on? This is the million dollar question (quite literally). Ask yourself:
What is your definition of a great event?
What matters most to your attendees?
What do you want them to remember?
PRO TIP: When in doubt, always think about basic human needs first. Make sure that people are well fed, warm, dry, and entertained. If you’re hosting an outdoor event in February, you better have heating. A hungry event attendee is an attendee who leaves, so be sure that the food is delicious—and that there’s enough of it for the last person in the buffet line.
The cardinal rule? Always take care of the guests firsts. When people have a good time, they tell their colleagues, post about it on social media, and most importantly, stay for the whole event, and come back for the next one.
When to Spend and When to Save
So let’s say you want the decor to be delightful, but don’t want to blow your whole budget on the aesthetics. You can still have an Instagram-worthy event without allocating a major portion of your budget to decor.
SPEND: You might have visions of elegant lounge seating in cozy pockets for your gala’s reception, but keep in mind that sofas tend to rent for $400+ a piece and may only seat three people. This option might be appropriate for the VIP lounge, but not for the general reception of 1,000.
SAVE: For increased seating, instead of lounge sets, use 4-5 person cocktail tables and bar stools set at high top tables. Give people a place to connect; whether they want to stay for just a few minutes or sit and chat. Remember that you don’t have to provide a seat for everyone at your reception. You can opt for 25-50% of seats per total guest count.
Consider making the the central focus point on the bar. It’s where everyone will cluster anyway, so make it as alluring as possible with lighting, different elevations of products, and florals.
Oh, all the wonderful food options! This is everyone’s favorite part at the beginning, but it can quickly become the most difficult vendor to manage because catering costs can balloon—fast.
Here’s the good news: Catering can be your most malleable cost of the entire event as long as you’re starting with a reasonable budget and are willing to make some compromises. Don’t be afraid to ask your caterer for suggestions on where you can save. Depending on your goals, scale, and needs, you can choose to spend or save accordingly.
SPEND: If ensuring that your attendees really enjoy their event going experience then putting your money towards catering is an easy win. Nearly everyone loves good food and service. If the catering team knocks it out of the park, this could be a reason why people want to attend your event next year.
You’ll notice on your catering contract that it’s different from restaurants in that you’re paying for labor. It’s imperative that you have a strong catering staff on-site to execute your event. Catering is a lot of work and requires a lot of logistics to feed large groups. You might be tempted to want to slash and burn the on-site staff and think that you can’t possibly need that many cater waiters. Trust us. You really do need that many waiters.
PRO TIP: Even if you want to allocate a large portion of your budget to catering, be aware of your venue’s requirements. Some venues require that you use their catering team, which could leave you locked into a limited—quite likely HIGH—menu cost. Before you sign that venue contract, be sure to ask your event planner about these hidden costs. For example, a regular box lunch will likely cost $15, but a venue’s in-house catering might charge $40 and up for the same lunch. Always double check.
SAVE: Not every event needs an elegant plated dinner to be great. If you’re looking to save in this area, consider buffets, salad bars, boxed lunches, and continental breakfasts. Ask your caterer if there are other service styles or menu options that might be able to bring the labor costs down. For instance, having a seated served dinner will require more chefs and servers than a buffet dinner so your labor costs should be reduced if you opt for buffet.
You might consider saving by offering a simple breakfast and lunch at your conference, but host an evening reception that’s more lavish. This way, your guests’ last impression is that they had some delicious appetizers and craft cocktails and they may very well forget about that lack luster breakfast.
If you have allotted for a decent budget for catering, remember that caterers will want your business and should be willing to accommodate your requests. Any good caterer should hear your feedback and be able to revise the menu and contract to meet your needs.
Everybody wants to be entertained, right? Even the business conference attendees want to have some FUN! We certainly love a good performance, and we’ve learned a lot along the way about how to be wise about the hiring process. We’ve also learned how to save while keeping spirits high in the entertainment department.
SPEND: If you decide to hire a band, your guests are certainly going to have a great time, but pay careful attention to the performer’s rider. It can be a hidden minefield that could cost you dearly if you don’t pay attention in advance. We have seen riders that cost over $50,000. Don’t know what a band rider is? Call us and we'll explain why some bands ask for only green M&Ms.
SAVE: A DJ is a great option if you want a professional who can read your audience and play the perfect song to keep the energy flowing. There are all levels of DJs at all different price points, so you can shop around, but don’t hire a mediocre DJ just to have one. Instead, the thriftiest option is to create a playlists that you play over the audio system, and, depending on your event type, this might be completely appropriate. Your only cost with this option is speakers, and you can plug into your set-up at the conference. (Some venues even have these already built in.)
Swag is great! Everybody loves peeking into a goodie bag to see whats inside, but we definitely believe that quality counts, not quantity. Those gifts are for people to have and use, so no matter your budget, make sure you’re giving out something that people will delight in (rather than toss in the donation bin).
SPEND: If you’re going to give out swag, do it well. Consider turning the swag into a memorable experience that guests get to take home with them. Don’t just give out branded clutter or a bunch of brochures. Our hunch is that this would actually be counterproductive to your goals. Give swag items people want. (We have ideas! We’ve seen it all!) When in doubt, go for quality not quantity.
One of our favorite swag gifts at an event was a screen printing station. Guests could pick from four designs to put on a t-shirt, onesie, or even a dog t-shirt. People loved it! An activation like this creates a lasting memory and is something your guests will likely talk about (and use), which is exactly what you want.
SAVE: If the budget is tight, think hard about swag. Ask yourself if it’s really necessary. What’s the strategy behind giving out swag? If you don’t have a solid answer to this question, swag may not be appropriate for your event and that’s A-OK. Instead, focus your energy and budget on giving people a great experience—rather than a lot of items—and that will make the best impact.
If you definitely want to give out swag, but are looking to save, consider a photo booth. This option is fun for guests. (It can be a great way for colleagues to get silly!) It’s cost effective and it results in both branded and shareable content. Even for a high-budget event, a photo opportunity might be a good option for the ways that it ticks all these boxes.
AND THERE'S MORE...
This list is just the tip of the iceberg. Wondering how you should allocate your funds? Let’s chat! Our knowledge is limitless—even if your budget isn’t. We can help you create the best experience with the budget you have.
Paige Buck is the co-owner of Kennedy Events is a large-scale event management company based in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. Our team creates stress-free conferences and events with a positive impact, which allow our clients to resonate with their audience. Kennedy Events specializes in producing flawless product launches, award ceremonies, fundraisers and multi-day conferences while keeping our eye on retention and engagement goals.
About Kennedy Events
Kennedy Events began with one goal in mind—to produce high-level corporate events with just as much strategy as style. Maggie founded the company in 2000, found her match in Paige, and in 2011 the two became official partners. Since then, these two resourceful and brilliant creatives have pooled their strengths to build one one of the most the most sought after corporate event companies in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles.
Make sure that your event is as valuable to your company as it is meaningful to your attendee.
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