There’s a lot more to planning a corporate event than meets the eye. Whether you’re planning a client presentation, analyst meeting, training or team building, it all comes down to carefully managing many details so that they all come together at the same time. Even after 10 years in the space, I find the process rewarding but not without its challenges. Below are some best practices that can help you maneuver through those challenges to achieve event-planning success.
Time and Place
As you begin preparing for your event, think about the event’s purpose to help you determine where and when to hold it. For example, is it a training event? A hotel meeting room is ideal for these, and breakfast or lunch meeting times often work well for busy executives. When it co mes to selecting dates, also be mindful of holidays and other events that could affect your target audience’s attendance.
Next, think about where your attendees are coming from. If they’re local, choose a location that’s close to freeways or mass transit and consider negotiating for free or discounted parking. If they’re from out of town, downtown or airport locations are usually preferred—and walking distance to shopping, dining and local attractions will earn you bonus points.
There are a few tools I recommend to help with selecting venues. Cvent.com is a great website for searching based on location, type and other parameters. And iacconline.org, the International Association of Conference Centers’ (IACC) website, lists IACC-certified venues that offer a variety of budget-friendly meeting packages including audiovisual (AV) equipment, Wi-Fi and food and beverage deals. Travel review sites like tripadvisor.com are also helpful, allowing you to sort reviews to look at those submitted by business travelers—which often include references to event operations. This can help you avoid a mistake in choosing a venue sight unseen.
Most venues also list their floor plans and capacity charts on their websites to give you an idea of how many people fit in each room with different setup styles. A word to the wise: When communicating with the venue regarding the number of attendees, be conservative if you don’t know an exact number. You can always increase your number, but you can’t decrease. And keep in mind that you should err on the side of caution when a venue tells you that you can fit more people in a particular room. As a general guideline, the ideal area per person space is 35 square feet (although long narrow rooms may require more). Therefore, for example, 40 attendees times 35 square feet means you need a 1,400 square foot space.
When it’s time to call the sales or catering manager to book your event, provide most details but be vague about your budget. You want the venue to be the first one to talk price–otherwise your “budget” may coincidentally become the exact price they are charging for the meeting room. Also, have a clear idea about what concessions are important to you and highlight them as “keys to success.” Top concessions include:
Group sleeping room rates. Be mindful when committing to a number of rooms per night. Hotels will charge attrition fees based on rooms your group doesn’t use. Try to negotiate a courtesy room block, where you aren’t liable for rooms that don’t get booked. If that’s not possible, negotiate attrition based on a percentage of your room block. Hotels will often waive attrition fees, if you are able to pick up 80 percent to 90 percent of your group block. Start small with a block of about 5-10 rooms per night, since you can typically add more if needed. Note: You’ll want to check that the group room rate they are offering you is actually lower than what’s posted on their website.
Meeting room rental and food and beverage minimums. Hotels have the most wiggle room on these two concessions. Ignore charts that tout typical meeting room rental for a specific meeting room. (Nobody pays those rates.) You can also ask for waived or discounted meeting room rental based on meeting other minimums: Food, beverage and sleeping rooms are often tied to a sliding scale reducing room rental fees.
Audiovisual. Most venues employ third-party AV companies as their preferred “in-house” technology provider. Because they don’t want you to outsource, most AV companies will offer a 20-percent blanket discount off services, just by you asking. They also own all of their equipment, so they typically can come down on price on both labor and equipment.
Contract clauses tied to financial liability. Most of these policies are written on a sliding scale based on a percentage of the total guaranteed revenue that increases as the event start date approaches. If you are concerned at all that your group might need to cancel, negotiate the cancellation policy in the contract.
Smaller concessions. These can add up, so why not ask about discounted parking rates, package-handling fees and VIP amenities? The worst a venue can say is no.
Don’t be afraid to drop names during the concessions negotiation. Hotels have a “competitive set” or “comp set” list of competing venues in their market, and they track how they are performing in comparison. Mentioning the Hilton Seattle to the Marriott Seattle as an option you are considering might spark some friendly competition.
Eat and Greet
While planning the food for any event can be particularly tricky, be sure to negotiate to spend more money toward the food and pay less in meeting room rental. That way instead of providing pure profit to the venue for the room, you are actually getting something tangible for your money.
In determining how much to serve, a good rule of thumb for small appetizers (such as cut fruit, vegetables or small cookies) is five to six pieces per person. For larger items (whole fruits, pretzels and yogurts), one piece per person should suffice. Plan on two cups of coffee or tea per person for morning breaks and one cup of coffee, tea or soda per person for an afternoon break.
When making your food selections, keep in mind that the right food can make the difference between focused, appreciative and alert participants and angry, bloated and drowsy ones. Carbohydrates and fatty foods take longer to digest and sit in the stomach longer, making people uncomfortable, weighed-down and fatigued. And simple sugars can lead to a quick “high,” but with an inevitable crash afterward. Select food options that are low-glycemic (less likely to cause such spikes), while also providing complex carbs and healthy treats.
Choosing food to please a crowd can be an onerous task. This is especially true when attempting to account for regional, religious and other special dietary concerns. While you can’t anticipate all of these concerns, it is important to be sensitive to them when selecting food and beverage for an event. Ensure that every attendee has something to choose from by offering a variety of different options.
Other considerations include how messy a dish might be and the time and dexterity required to consume it. Ribs might be delicious, but they are a real mess and can be difficult to eat. The same goes for pizza, long pastas and other foods that splash, splatter and drip. The less effort your guests need to put into eating, the more they can focus on the conversation or business at hand. It’s also a good idea to avoid foods that lead to bad breath, such as curries, onions, garlic and hot peppers.
Here are some of the other dos and don’ts when it comes to choosing food for your event:
Whether it’s the food or one of the many other details that go into planning an event, it can be a rewarding experience to see it come to fruition—and I hope the tips included in this article can make it even more so. Happy planning!