Mindful of the Recession, Planners Open Doors to New Vendors

By Alesandra Dubin March 26, 2009, 10:30 AM EDT

Elton John's Oscar party organizers saved money on this year's event by considering bids from multiple vendors.

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

Once upon a time—say, roughly prior to the autumn of 2008, when the economy took its dramatic turn—many planners enjoyed a committed relationship with vendors. For annual events, tried-and-true vendors got the job year after year based on demonstrated performance and an understanding of the specific challenges of those projects. But now, in tough financial times, many planners are being forced to look outside the bonds of existing vendor relationships, instead sending out multiple requests for proposals—or at least keeping an open mind to pitches from new vendors—in the hopes of sealing a better deal.

“I am often accused of being overly loyal to my vendors, [but] I have sincerely come to enjoy the peace of mind that [they] give me when I ask them to assist us with a large event. They know what I like, have proven themselves, and instill confidence that all will go smoothly,” said California Science Center vice president of food and event services Chris Sion. “That being said, this is the perfect time for the savvy vendor to offer goods or services at a discounted introductory price.”

For this year’s Discovery Ball at the museum, Sion had a reduced budget, and was consequently more open to cost-saving ideas. “I listened to sales pitches more carefully when [vendors] dropped a too-good-to-be-true price,“ Sion said. “It’s a win-win situation because if all works out well, I wouldn’t hesitate to include them on my vendor list for future events, and I did not have to risk as much to try them out in a year when every dollar counts. A good deal was definitely a driving factor in vendor selection more than usual during this economy.” Paying special attention to deals when they were offered up led Sion to include six new vendors at this year’s ball.

Virgina Fout, who produces the annual Elton John AIDS Foundation fund-raiser on Oscar night, had to make significant cuts to the budget this year, and did so in part by sending out multiple requests for proposals. She found it helped her shave thousands off various line items. “There are vendors I probably won’t [ever] switch—I’ll probably never go away from SenovvA because [audiovisual production and show management, the services it provides] are such a crucial part of the night, which is based on a live telecast, so it's got to be perfect," said Fout. But moving down the list of vendors, she did find room for potential cost savings.

“Where can I cut? Save me a couple grand—just give me $5,000 somewhere. I got to my rentals, and there’s a lot of companies out there,“ said Fout. “I [approached] three and made them come back to me to bid it out, fair and square. We came up with an overall $80,000 savings, a helpful chunk. I'm always trying to get the best price, but now with the economy the way it is, [it’s more important than ever].”

Christina Kaye Murphy, who produces about 75 events a year as the event manager for the U.C.L.A. chancellor's residence, emphasizes that constant re-evaluation is an important piece of the budget puzzle. “After working in events for so many years in Los Angeles, I have an established group of vendors. Within this group, I constantly challenge them to supply the best product at the best price. Nothing is a given in this environment, and I certainly do not do things one way just because it’s always been done that way.”

Further explaining her methodology, Murphy added, “All expenses are questioned and everything needs to have solid, documented ROI. I actively pursue multiple estimates even for smaller items and do feel it’s my responsibility as a steward of the university’s event budgets to seek the highest quality products and services at the most competitive price.”

Chad Hudson, whose company has produced events for Warner Brothers and Chivas Regal, said he’s also requesting bids more than ever before. “Because the economic slump has hit across the board and 75 percent or so of our events have budget cuts, we sometimes have to ask vendors to bid on jobs. It’s difficult because we have relationships with all of them, and it puts everyone in a tough position. But we are all very blessed to be working, so everyone understands, for the most part.”

Sometimes planners who seek multiple requests for proposals do so out of the need to demonstrate—on paper—that they’ve worked hard to secure the lowest costs for their events, in case their bosses demand to see documentation. It's a means of defending against potential scrutiny and protecting what's left of dwindling event budgets.

Of course—even in this climate—the lowest cost isn’t always the best option. “Whether I am asked to justify my expenditures or not, I would be acting irresponsibly if I didn’t continue to seek the most cost-effective ways to showcase U.C.L.A. and its mission,” Murphy said. “Events are always under a microscope. It is the most public exposure many organizations will have, so I think it is important to seek vendors who not only offer lower costs, but who can be a trusted partner in producing high-quality, effective events.”

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