What's Worth It? Where to Spend and Where to Save in Today's Budgets

Where to spend and where to save in today's budgets.

May 27, 2009, 7:00 AM EDT

Lighting at the opening-night party for The Little Mermaid on Broadway

Photo: Courtesy of McNabb Roick

“I don’t think it’s a matter of what you must cut from your budget, but what you do with the money you have,” says Ting Wang, events and promotions manager for Condé Nast’s Fairchild Fashion Group in New York. “At the end of the day, the most important thing is to produce a memorable event.” That pretty much sums up the point of this package—to explore which event expenses are worthwhile in an economic climate that can make many aspects of entertaining seem extraneous.

Hosts with limited budgets face some difficult decisions, so we asked a diverse array of event planners about the line items they continue to approve (and fight for), and the costs they eliminate. Some opinions are specific to the respondents’ companies and brands; others are particular to their personal preferences and pet peeves. Some are contradictory—the print vs. email invitation debate is a hot topic—but in choosing which comments to include, we tried to focus on the concepts that many people agree on.

When it comes time to set the final budget, though, the ultimate decisions often depend on the situation. “Every event is so different,” says Katie Youngkin, senior events manager at the Fader Inc. in New York. “You have to judge each event based on the audience it would attract and what would be most valuable to reaching that audience. Is it more important to get a DJ with allure, or just one who will play fun music? Is food necessary, or would drinks only be fine?” You’ll have to make those calls on your own, but here are some suggestions to guide your choices.

Worth It: A good DJ. Unless it is a very small gathering, a DJ gives a certain energy to any party that you’re just not going to get from an iPod. Also, if the crowd decides to turn your event into an impromptu dance party, having a good DJ allows that flexibility.”
Not Worth It: Celebrity DJs, unless your event requires headline talent to perform. There’s so much talent out there that you can get a great DJ—who may even be better suited to your crowd— for a fraction of the cost.”
—Tomiko Iwata, vice president of special events, Fox Broadcasting Company, Los Angeles

Worth It: “I would never cut the bar to just beer and wine or not have a premium top-shelf bar—I think that looks tacky. People usually stick to their own signature drink, and if the bar isn’t stocked with their liquor, that guest will remember that event forever… and not fondly.”
—Taryn Lubin, senior manager of events, Mutual of America, New York

Worth It: “Second only to food, drinks are one of the most important elements of a great event. Top-shelf liquors and a creative drink list are a must, and having capable bartenders is extremely important to the flow of the event; guests don’t like to wait around with an empty glass. Creating a custom drink menu based on your event theme or message adds an extra flair for no extra price. It signifies that you care about the guests’ experience and took the time to consider them while creating your menu.”
—Lauren Farruggio, events and meetings coordinator, the Boston Consulting Group, New York

Worth ItBranding and messaging is still critical. In particular, we try to focus resources on the areas that will have the most impact for the longest amount of time. For example, rather than a branded entrance, we’d recommend putting the money into a branded set or stage area, since that’s where people’s attention will be for the longest and most critical parts of the event.”
—Howard Givner, C.E.O. for North America, Global Events Group, New York

Worth It: “It’s the little original details that people will really remember. For the launch of Hairspray, we did a party, and what people remember the most is that we had a lady in costume ironing grilled cheese sandwiches in the window. For the Sex and the City party, it was the pink tutus on the male waiters. Not only are those elements fun, but those surprises make great photo ops. We end up with media coverage, plus guests take photos that appear online, get forwarded around, and are posted on office bulletin boards.”
—Carrie Wolfe, vice president of publicity and promotion, Alliance Atlantis, Toronto 

Worth It: “At product launches, it’s worth investing in experiential, interactive elements. The goal is to generate as much press as possible, from print tobroadcast to blogs. So it’s vital that the press gets to interact with the products. Having those interactive elements builds a connection between consumers and the brand, so the client gets a lot more out of the event as well.”
—Ryan Jordan, national creative director, Harrison & Shriftman, New York

Worth It: “When forecasting our yearly calendar of events, we work very closely with our event partners to create assets that can be reused throughout the year. This is a cost-saving exercise that allows us to custom-design event assets that have staying power. Also, renting carpet can be very costly and the selection is limited. We use a custom company that is able to provide a very high-quality carpet that is very close to our brand color. The last piece of carpet we had cut has made its way to four different events, saving the company money but not undermining the quality we aim to achieve.”
—Beth Appleton, director communications and experiential marketing, strategic initiatives, Telus, Toronto

Worth It:Spending money on your people: a professional team to greet guests, troubleshoot, and stay calm under pressure, and a strong technical director to ensure a seamless and timely show/program.”
—Stacy Seligman Kravitz, director of special events, Fulfillment Fund, Los Angeles 

Worth It: “Your staff is a reflection of your company and provides one-on-one contact with your clients. They market your event philosophy through client interaction. When times are tough, well-trained service staff are one of the best assets you have.”
—Hillary Harris, director of special events, Warner Brothers, Los Angeles

Worth It: “It’s a mistake to cut service or staff. People don’t remember if the steak was outstanding at an event. They remember if it was cold, or if it took half an hour to get a drink.”
—Kristy Pozulp, events and communications manager, Diamond Management and Technology Consultants, Chicago

Not Worth It: “Keeping costs down by doing things ‘in-house’ can be counterproductive and can cause staff burnout. One of the best investments is the hiring of a registration company to design online registrations and to work on site. This reduces the pressure on staff and provides needed assistance at events. We also used to spend countless hours working through hotel and convention center contracts. That too has changed. We are now working with a meeting management company. The purchasing power of this company is phenomenal, and we are in awe of the bargaining power they have when negotiating with hotels and venues for rental space and food/beverage.”
—Janice Taylor, director of conferences and events, Canadian Wind Energy Association, Ottawa 

Worth It: “Working with a fine caterer that has exceptional service is always a must, but absolutely in this environment. You can always work to pare down a menu, perhaps serve something simple yet elegant, rather than fussy and particular—that menu may now seem over the top. Having a great catering staff that allows your guests to have a wonderful and carefree time is always worth the money.”
Not Worth It: “Gift bags are not a must. It requires a lot of staff time to put just the right bag together, and that time could be better spent in many other ways, particularly for a nonprofit. Elaborate and extravagant gift bags may even be viewed negatively during these times. I don’t think guests will miss the bag.”
—Kara Minogue, president, Kara Minogue & Company, New York

Worth It: “A really terrific keynote speaker at a conference. Having a great speaker really helps with the initial marketing of the event, and can be a very successful draw. I’m not talking about motivational speakers—the key to a great keynote is having someone who’s directly tied to the content of the day.”
Not Worth It: “Premiums are not something that people remember. We’re a health-care intelligence company, so when we hold meetings, we’re selling intelligence and not coffee mugs. The content is more important than the tchotchkes.”
—Katie Jackson, director of conference and event services, Sg2 Health Care Intelligence, Skokie, Illinois

Worth It:Good lighting can add immediate ambience to a room and create the atmosphere you’re looking for without spending a fortune on specialty linens and florals.”
—Jenny Stahl, event manager, AOL, New York

Worth It: “If you don’t have a captivating venue, then you don’t have a great event. The venue is a very core piece to the event’s success. No matter how much the economy forces people to tighten the belt, we wouldn’t downgrade our choice of venue.”
—Katie Jackson, director of conference and event services, Sg2 Health Care Intelligence, Skokie, Illinois 

Worth It:Lighting can change the entire feel of the room. You can cover up a lot of unsightly spaces. Effective use of lighting can enhance the features within the space that deserve extra attention.”
—Beth Appleton, director communications and experiential marketing, strategic initiatives, Telus, Toronto

Not Worth it:Big-name venues can come with a large price tag. Picking a smaller, lesser-known venue can save money and also be a more personal planning experience. Everyone is suffering because of the economy, so an obscure venue may offer you a great package you couldn’t get with a more well-known place. The venue manager may also be more flexible and accommodating, making the planning experience move smoothly for you. When the event goes well, your planning style will be noted as creative and original for taking a risk, and the venue will appreciate the chance to prove itself.”
—Lauren Farruggio, events and meetings coordinator, the Boston Consulting Group, New York

Worth It:The invitation sets the tone for the event, and the guests’ experience is one of the most important aspects. A smaller event with a lot of attention to detail is better than a big event with no attention at all.”
—Rory Hermelee, director of public relations and communications for North America and Latin America, Bulgari, New York

Not Worth It: “For corporate events, printed invitations are a complete waste of money. People are constantly on their BlackBerries or smartphones, and they need invitations that can link directly to their personal calendars.”
—Taryn Lubin, senior manager of events, Mutual of America, New York

Worth It:Decor and printed materials are worth spending money on because it won’t appear that you have cut corners if your event is still elegant. There are other ways to cut expenses that would not be obvious to the eye. If you printed an elegant invitation on expensive card stock one year and the next year printed a two-color invitation on cheaper card stock, it would be obvious that the quality of your invitation had gone down, sending the message that the quality of your event had possibly gone down.”
—Ann M. Dean, director of special events, Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation, New York

Worth It:The invitation is the first opportunity for you to communicate with your guest. You want to be sure it properly reflects the mood of the event, speaks to you—or your brand—as the host of the event, and piques their interest in attending whatever it is that you have planned.”
—Kimberly Burt, director of marketing and public relations, central region, Dom Pérignon and Moët & Chandon, Chicago

Not Worth It:Save the postage and save the trees. Forgo a paper invitation. You can include a note about being green to show your concern for the environment. You can design a nice email invitation and send it out as many times as you like, or need to, to reach your target audience. You’ll never run out of invitations, so if you don’t get the response you want, send out more.”
—Janeen Saltman, president, JKS Events Inc., New York

Not Worth It: “Everyone has a sympathetic ear to hosts being more frugal, so people are more receptive than ever to electronic invites now.”
—Howard Givner, C.E.O. for North America, Global Events Group, New York

Worth It: “Guests are looking for an experience and not just another open-bar soiree. I bet people would remember a create-your-own-dessert or candy-bag station versus a perfect chocolate soufflé.”
—Ting Wang, events and promotions manager, Fairchild Fashion Group, Condé Nast, New York

Not Worth It: “It’s easy to make do with an iPod and speakers as a stand-in these days. Live music is a fine thing to drop.”
—Lauren Burack, vice president of promotional and event marketing, IFC Television, New York

Worth It: “Quality audiovisual is key to a successful event. Nothing is worse than a presentation gone bad because the audiovisual equipment didn’t work. Guests often forget what they’ve had for dinner but always remember that they couldn’t hear the speaker or see the presentation.”
—Nicholas Ferrando, special events manager, Food Bank for New York City

Worth It: ”Appropriate valet staffing. It is so tempting to cut and trim this line item, but it’s worth it. No matter how fantastic the event may be, if the guests have to wait around for 20 minutes to get their car, it could kill the evening.”
—Tomiko Iwata, vice president of special events, Fox Broadcasting Company, Los Angeles

Worth It:Healthy food options. Many people have food allergies these days and are taking better care of themselves. You can get creative without going overboard, and people are appreciative. At my last conference, I added in a variety of 100-calorie packs, and the attendees loved them.”
—Meredith Wolff, vice president, director of corporate events, OppenheimerFunds Inc., New York

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