Budget Benchmarking Drives Smarter Conference Spend Decisions


It’s budget planning season for many meeting professionals. Many are poring over spreadsheets, as they seek out creative ways to do more with less.

The burning question: What items can be trimmed without negatively impacting the attendee experience.

One of the tools we like to use when we look at how to stretch a meeting budget is Convene’s 22nd Annual Meetings Market Survey. If a planner is going to make cuts in some expense areas, benchmark data is critical to ground those decisions. Here’s a summary of the major expense buckets from the survey:

Budget Benchmarks

F&B Spend Highs and Lows Can Be Very Telling

From a process perspective, we map an association’s annual meeting expenses (not including allocated staff, general and administrative or overhead expenses) against this benchmark of 450-plus meeting professional responses and study the major gaps. Here are two big conclusions we’ve arrived at after conducting this exercise for numerous events:

1. Meetings with high F&B spend tend to deliver more value to the stomach than to the attendee networking and education experience.

Often these meetings are under-spending in the line items for professional speakers, AV, and entertainment — and collectively, these make up for the attendee value proposition. Meeting professionals with this dilemma literally need to trim the F&B fat and shift those dollars into education and experience elements.

2. Meetings with low F&B spend tend to have low spend across other major attendee experience categories.

These meetings are usually spending way too much on marketing/promotion. This often points to an attendee loyalty issue — marketing costs are high because retention is low. Some experts claim it costs six to seven times more to acquire a new customer or attendee than a repeat participant. Many of these meetings used to invest more in the areas attendees value, but have made cutbacks over time. Guess what? Your paying attendees do not value — at all — the expenses you incur in marketing.

Easier Said Than Done

Attendees will never understand why it costs $140 for a gallon of coffee, $25 per person for a continental breakfast, or $55 a head for a deli buffet. Heck, I’m amazed by what hotels charge for these basics. And don’t get me started about AV costs and Wi-Fi.

Expenses are out of control. But before you take a scalpel to those elements that enrich the attendee experience, you first must rein in the expense buckets that don’t add to the attendee value proposition. After that, evaluate if you might get more bang for your buck by increasing your investment in other education or experience elements.

What benchmark data do you reference to guide conference spend decisions? What other steps are you taking to reel in spend, while protecting the attendee experience?

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2013.

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