As with most facets of the meetings and events industry, the art of managing an event budget is a true balancing act. And while it’s easy to get wrapped up in the nitty-gritty, Eventbrite revealed a pleasant surprise in its 2018 Pulse Report (which surveyed 1,200 planners), finding that event budgets overall appear to be on the rise. But where exactly are those budget dollars going these days and how can planners best spend to craft memorable moments? We spoke with three industry experts about spending trends, new line items and tips for boosting that ever important return on investment (ROI).
Dana L. Saal, CMP, CAE, a past president of the Illinois Society of Association Executives and volunteer for the Senior Planner Industry Network (SPIN), has worked in the association meeting industry since 1986. Saal retired from planning at the end of 2017 to coach, consult and guide clients on association events.
Kelly Elliott has worked in the event industry for 10 years, mastering the ins and outs of catering, sales, client management, technical production, scenic design, and more with Event Creative and Total Event Resources before founding SOPRICO, a Chicago-based company specializing in event production, design and experiential marketing for social, private and corporate events.
As chief creative officer of The Revel Group, Sarah Finlayson-Banasiak oversees the creative and marketing strategies for the company’s affiliate brands including Revel Global Event, Revel Decor, Revel Space, Spotlight Chicago and Limelight Catering. With nearly 20 years in the events industry, she works closely with her team to deliver innovative event concepts, brand development and marketing strategies.
How have you seen budgets change over the last five to 10 years?
DS: I’ve seen the biggest shift from the audio-visual side. Booking A/V used to mean lists and lists of equipment you’d need. Now, you’ll need much less equipment, but a bigger percentage of your budget is going to making sure you’re working with high-quality equipment and skilled technicians. You’ve also got to account for service charges (sometimes between 20 and 30 percent) hotel or venue fees, and, of course, Wi-Fi—a major budget buster.
KE: It used to be enough to produce a beautiful, eye-catching event, spending big dollars on décor, but now clients are focused on making their event stand out in terms of social interaction and unique experiences. Gone are the days of the huge branded parties. Clients are leaning toward smaller, intimate events with a high-quality guest list, rather than the 300-person corporate event. Driving ROI and extending the reach of your event past those four walls has become the focus and clients are spending just as much, if not more, on smaller, more curated events, but they’re seeing a payoff with more engagement post-event from that smaller group.
SFB: The event landscape has gone through an incredible shift and a huge driver of that’s been the brands and corporate clients that have started to look at events as an extension of their marketing opportunities, helping people touch, feel and experience their products outside of the digital world. There’s also been a huge shift away from that cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all mentality and the flow of events has changed. Clients are now more willing to explore different formats and experiment with those experiential elements and activations, which can account for a lot of your budget dollars.
Where are event budget dollars going these days? Where are you investing or spending the most?
DS: Working with associations usually means working with a tighter budget, and I’ve always been a frugal planner. I don’t spend on things I don’t feel will provide clear value or change the attendee experience dramatically, so I’m usually not spending budget dollars on items like centerpieces, but I’ll always spend on quality A/V and F&B because that’s where the guest experience is enhanced. It’ll always be pricey, but the food will be delicious and served well and you won’t be running into hiccups that could distract from your actual event content.
KE: We’re trying to make events that are engaging and memorable, so most budget dollars are spent making sure we hit the mark there. In my experience, unless you’re really going to invest in F&B that’s truly unique and exciting, it’s not as important—but entertainment, technology and any interactive elements we can include are going to be at the top of the list. Things like branded photo backdrops or shareable moments and experiences they can’t have elsewhere—from private dinners with a Michelin-starred chef to woodworking workshops or a custom fragrance-making experience—are worth the investment to draw attendance, capture attention and help your event stand out from all the noise.
SFB: Custom is king. The majority of our clients are looking for custom-built and custom-designed pieces, graphics and large installs—things that don’t feel like generic rental items. Clients have also been more willing to spend on things like lighting and A/V where you can get so much bang for your buck by enhancing your event design and experience. Everyone’s looking for ways to engage their audience without making them feel they’re being sold to and creative food, drinks and entertainment have become an amazing way to experiment with that. These days we’re investing in innovation on the catering side to excite attendees visually and engage all of the senses for a fully immersive experience they won’t forget.
Where are you generally spending less? What’s the first line item to be cut?
DS: It depends on the industry and event, but for my clients it’s paid speakers. Highly skilled paid speakers are valuable and draw a better crowd, but the budget’s not there. Years ago, I might have been working with a speaker budget in the $50,000 range, allowing us to hire a keynote speaker and breakout session speakers and cover things like travel and other expenses, but that was a different era. These days clients are grabbing for every penny and they might be able to find a volunteer to donate their time for the good of the organization to share their expertise.
KE: In my experience, we’ve found ways to adjust the F&B or A/V away from things like ancillary lighting to free up budget dollars. Everyone wants to eat and drink, but we’ve found that as long as everyone is fed and you’re creating other interactive or “wow-worthy” touch points in line with the event goals, your attendees will be happy and satisfied.
SFB: We’re seeing less of a spend on items like basic printed programs that clients may have always included in the past, but weren’t providing much value beyond the event, and instead using those funds for something more memento-based that guests can keep. We’re also seeing a shift from small details like linen, primarily because clients are going toward a more residential, high-end look and feel. Linen elements are still included, but we’re seeing people move toward items like custom black acrylic dining tables or highboy designs that don’t necessarily require linen.
What are your go-to strategies for boosting event ROI on a budget?
DS: With association events, one of the biggest challenges can be netting attendees so you do need to answer that question of “what’s in it for me?” Attendees need to know what they’re going to walk away with so communication is key. I coach my clients to have a clear message from the get-go. They need to know the purpose of their event and communicate that value early and often. Taking full advantage of tools like mail merge or the art of a strong email subject line go such a long way without any additional spend. Personalization can also make a big difference without necessarily requiring a larger budget. At past events I’ve taken topics attendees wanted to hear about and turned them into roundtable discussions so that guests could sit at tables where they wanted to learn more or had advice to offer on a given topic and could come away with information personalized to them. Clients have also invested in very nice, quality giveaway items attendees could “shop” for rather than general swag so that spend would be more memorable and more personal to the attendee’s interests.
KE: Driving ROI is a major focus these days and making sure clients are investing in the design and management of a solid communication plan—along with making sure the event tells a consistent, cohesive story—gives those wow-worthy moments a rocket boost. I think there can still sometimes be a mentality of events being a one-and-done expense, but with a strong communication strategy you can begin building those relationships with attendees well before event day and continue to see those results and relationships last long after the event has ended. It takes time and strategy on the front end, but it’s also a major value you can bring to your clients.
SFB: There are elements to every event you can optimize for ROI, but our team also sets aside time to do a lot of creative concepting, trend forecasting and build-out. We’re taking trends like CBD-infused cocktails, talking through what’s on the horizon and testing them out so that when we go to roll them out, we know what they need to look like, taste like, any challenges involved, etc. That, paired with the pricing system we have in place, allows us to price things down to the minute detail. Knowing those true costs allows you to be more creative and see where you can amp things up or trim down to maximize the impact of those budget dollars.
The Revel Group
therevelgroup.com | firstname.lastname@example.org
Saal Meeting Consulting
saalmeetings.com | email@example.com
soprico.com | firstname.lastname@example.org