There's No Pork in the Barrel

As recently as 18 months ago, the words "meeting" and "inexpensive" weren't heard very often in the same sentence. Business was bustling, people were traveling, and many meetings shifted towards the upscale. But since mid-2001, those two words have been heard together constantly, coming from the mouths of executives both in the nonprofit sector and in corporate America. And there's little chance that this trend will reverse itself anytime soon.

On the other hand, government meeting planners -- whose jobs will forever be associated with the term "per diem" -- have never had the luxury of a heavily (or even slightly) padded meeting budget. Their role has always been to balance meeting effectiveness with frugality, which requires not just negotiating skill but creativity.

In light of today's business climate, there's a lot that can be learned from planners of government meetings. So at the 20th annual meeting of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals (SGMP), held in mid-May at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott in Norfolk, Virginia, we roamed the conference halls and the show floor to garner cost-control tips from some of the 750 attendees. Here's what they had to say.

Haggle, Re-Use, Share, Get Freebies

The common theme embedded in the responses we got from attendees is that being upfront with the host property about budget constraints saves plenty of time and effort for both sides. After all, what a planner would deem a "reasonable" cost for an item may not be the same perception held by her hotel counterpart, so clear communication of figures puts everyone on the same page from the outset.

Beyond that, savvy planners know that the key to stretching what you have far enough to make things work comprises two things: negotiating for freebies or no-cost upgrades, and considering whether a less-costly alternative exists that will still satisfy attendees.

Kim Todd, a meeting and conference coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Economic Security, says that "I don't ever want to come across as a 'cheapo' government planner to either the hotel or to my attendees." She plans 15 meetings a year, so she knows exactly what her group expects and will find acceptable. Her three meeting mantras: "I almost never agree to packaged deals. I order coffee by the gallon. I feed my people well but within reason."

When planning a buffet or reception, Todd will ask the catering manager if the hotel has any props or table decorations stored in the back of the house that she can use for free. And instead of serving pricey fresh shrimp and fruit at receptions, she satisfies attendees with skewers of teriyaki chicken and curried beef, domestic cheese and crackers, pasta stations, mashed potatoes, and even mixed nuts for nibblers. "If you don't serve shrimp, it's not the end of the world," Todd observes. She notes that by the time lunch has ended, most attendees are satisfied, so she occasionally asks the hotel to save the lunch desserts for the afternoon break.

When it comes to breaks, Todd creates inexpensive but fun themes that get people talking as much as they are eating. For instance, she'll create a baseball-themed break by ordering two dozen boxes of Cracker Jacks and ice cream bars. And lately, she's been serving a lot of popcorn at breaks because it's inexpensive, yet different and appealing to attendees. She'll also add several bags of miniature-sized Snickers bars to a break table, the unused portion of which can be used at another break. Todd also provides bowls of fancy nuts and soda by the two-liter bottle, while she pays for bottled water only on a consumption basis. And Todd always reviews her master account folio every day to confirm that there are no unexpected charges.

Cheap Thrills

It costs money to have a good time. One of the biggest expenses for most meetings is the price attached to creating elaborate theme parties and hiring entertainers. Since it's hard to justify entertainment costs for government groups, Todd tries to ensure that there are lively establishments near the hotel, like a dueling-piano bar, karaoke bar, sports bar, or similar place that encourages audience participation.

Sheila Faulkner, a meetings consultant from Falls Church, Virginia, plans government meetings for those involved in navigation, communications, global positioning systems, and satellites. Since some of these groups have the same interests and training needs, she has gotten a couple of them to hold a joint meeting to save money. "It may be a way for some of these groups to survive," says Faulkner, a 20-year planning veteran.

These events must be self-supporting through registration and exhibit fees, but this year she was forced to look at what her meetings didn't absolutely need to save money. In the past, she used low-cost entertainment options like Irish dancers and a bagpiper, and perhaps some impromptu dance lessons for attendees. "I don't think it has to be a big production," Faulkner says. "If you just do something small, it still adds to people's enjoyment."

Another affordable option -- though one she originally feared might be considered too hokey or trite -- is having a magician and caricature artist mingle with the crowd during receptions. Her science-focused audience found the performers' skills fascinating. "These are brilliant people," she says of her attendees. "They have this wonderful curiosity" that was piqued by the entertainers.

For her groups' food and beverage needs, Faulkner asks the catering staff to help her trim costs, for example, by checking local wine shops for clearance or "bin" sales, or by serving foods that are in season or plentiful at that particular destination. At a recent event, one of her favorite inexpensive solutions for a quick, light meal was a "soup line." She asked the catering staff to serve five different kinds of soups, crusty bread, cheese wedges, and wine. "The attendees went crazy over it," Faulkner says. "It's a nice break after three days of meetings and the same kinds of food. It's not a heavy or a long meal."

With the majority of her attendees being men, Faulkner has learned that touches like English floral arrangements with silver bows on the tables are not only expensive, but underappreciated. As a result, she instead orders colorful balloon arrangements. "I can do more with a balloon decorator than a floral decorator, and the balloons are just fun" and less costly, she notes.

Martha Jackson, conference coordinator for the U.S. Department of Justice, says she doesn't feel trapped by a per-diem rate that, while it differs from state to state, is still fairly low. She not only wants the obligatory rates hotels can give for her government-group business, but "complimentary anything," like meeting space, a welcome reception, shuttle service to downtown, or sightseeing tours.

She keeps transportation costs down by holding her meetings in hotels that are close by attractions and dining districts. She quietly suggests to attendees that they eat outside the hotel restaurants to save money. Her cost-cutting tip for refreshment breaks is to serve the equivalent of two cups per person for the coffee drinkers, who comprise about half the group. "Nonstop coffee gets expensive, what with the constant filling up" and dumping of old java, she notes.

Margaret Geisler, a planner for the Federal Executive Board of Minnesota, is outspoken when it comes to audiovisual charges. "I let the hotel know if I think the price is high, or that I just can't afford it." Some of the agencies she plans for have their own audiovisual equipment, and she makes it a deal-breaker if the hotel won't allow her to bring in that hardware.

She also saves on space rental by serving breakfast in the back of the meeting room. What's more, she'll only have the juices and coffee refreshed -- not everything else. Geisler usually asks the catering manager to come up with a new menu idea, something not on the set menu, to better fit into her price range.

And for the past few summers, Geisler has used universities for training sessions rather than hotels. She's able to get excellent value on sleeping rooms and meals, and in most cases, parking is on-site and free.

The Supplier Side

Phelps Hope, owner of both a destination management company, Absolutely Atlanta, and a meeting event company, Aspen Productions, isn't a government planner -- but had some noteworthy cost-cutting ideas. He organizes corporate meetings and events on budgets that have been slashed in half this year.

Hope has been minimizing transportation expenses by grouping attendee arrivals and using minivans instead of town cars, or by using a shuttle system that picks up attendees every half-hour. And only select VIPs receive the limousine treatment.

When it comes to the program itself, Hope's key word is functionality. This means that as long as attendees can see and hear the program, the meeting will maintain its integrity. When cutting back on elaborate presentation visuals, Hope provides handouts to attendees. If a speaker doesn't absolutely have to go wireless, he uses a podium microphone.

But Hope adds that there are a couple things not to scrimp on, or you could get burned. These include a good sound system and a backup projector and computer. And don't underestimate the value of trustworthy convention services staff. "It's the people who make the difference," he says.