7 Tips to Make the Most of Your Event Budget

Nonprofit event planner Todd Hawkins shares his tricks for leveraging everything from social media to established vendor relationships to cut production costs.

By Rose Curiel July 11, 2014, 3:06 PM EDT

Save money on an open bar by serving signature cocktails instead.

Photo: Tony Brown/ for BizBash

As the founder and head of production company the Todd Group, planner Todd Hawkins has come to specialize in nonprofit events, impressively counting the West Coast chapters of St. Jude and the Red Cross among his many clients. Given the fact that he consistently works on fund-raisers—where the priority is raising rather than spending money—Hawkins definitely knows a thing or two about cutting productions costs—and his tips work equally well for both nonprofit and corporate events. Here’s what he had to say about maximizing an event budget:

1. Draw from internal resources when possible
Whether you’re working with a nonprofit or a corporation, Hawkins highly recommends looking at the client’s resources. You’ve got to really analyze the existing partners or collaborators on a project. What type of resources do they have that can help benefit an event? Do they have extra money? Do they have extra hands? Do they have equipment?”

For one event, that meant Hawkins used a literary nonprofit’s books to create eye-catching centerpieces. For another, it meant avoiding nearly $11,000 in rental and sound fees when he discovered his corporate client had an inventory of 20 televisions that he could use for free.

2. Leverage vendor loyalty
If you find that you’re bringing a particular vendor consistent business, you can work that relationship to your advantage. “If I get a multiyear contract with a venue and I’m bringing them a client event annually, I’d like to get a break. How can you help me in adjusting my price in year one? Year two? Year three? It counts as a break for everyone because it secures visits and that’s a great way for you to get a deal and a discount.”

3. Never underestimate the power of social media
Planners are often concerned with an event’s social media numbers and, as it turns out, so are potential partners who are willing to pick up part of the tab. “One of the things that we’re finding is that social media is helping in such a huge way to add value to events in a dollar amount and to decrease some of the line items in your budget, because brands want people to engage and they want them to engage socially,” Hawkins explains.

“We did an event with Petron where—on top of their product donation—they paid money to be able to capture guests’ information, and to have guests do a photo booth they paid for. We had to give Petron permission to collect our guests’ information, and tweet guests' photos or send it to them via Facebook. There’s a dollar amount in that, and that offsets the budget.”

4. Consider skipping the gift bag
“Unless it’s something amazing, you don’t have to give it away,” Hawkins says. “That’s my motto: If you don’t have anything to give away, don’t give anything away at all. It actually saves you money. Analyze what you’re giving people to walk away with: Is it important? Does it fit into your event? Is it sponsored? If you’re paying for it or you’re spending lots of money and staff resources to assemble it, then you need to cut it.”

5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions
Hawkins has found that venues tend to offer packaged deals complete with predetermined price points when it comes to catering and audiovisual capabilities, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t negotiate custom offers—at a better price.

“As planners, it’s far easier for us to say, ‘I’m just going to take it, that’s what it is, and I have to present it to the client.’ But really there’s so much money to save. There’s ways to be creative with those departments, if you only say, ‘Look, we are trying to save money and we don’t want to do the rubber chicken. Are there ways to go around that?’ You’ve go to ask the questions. Ask the question of all your vendors. Don’t be afraid—from your caterer to your florist to your venue—ask, ‘How can we do something a little differently?’”

6. Serve signature cocktails
An open bar can significantly drain a budget, but guests often expect to unwind at events with a cocktail in hand. The solution? “One of the ways to bring down your bar is doing the signature cocktail,” Hawkins says. “Make something that’s fun for people, and that somehow ties into the event. People will not focus on fact that you’re only serving two or three cocktails—they’ll focus more on, ‘Am I getting the mojito drink with the clever name?’”

And while nonprofits can often rely on product donation, Hawkins notes there’s also potential for corporations to entice alcohol brands. “I haven’t seen it a lot but when there are celebs involved, corporations can benefit from that product donation simply because the product wants that celebrity engagement.”

7. Propose shortening the event
While clients may push for a lengthy event, Hawkins stresses the importance of getting them to think strategically about whether or not guests will actually stick around. “If it’s before dinner and we’re not serving dinner, there’s no reason to prolong the event. If it’s a cocktail hour and there’s some sort of presentation that’s going to happen in the middle, most likely people are going to start leaving right after. There’s a lot of events where planner’s book more time than needed and you’ve got an hour left and there’s nobody, but guess what? You’re paying for it.”

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