In today’s not-for-profit economy, it seems like everyone is faced with the same challenge: how to create a fantastic conference for your association’s members with the least cost. Our experience in planning not-for-profit conferences for our associations each year has enabled us to create the following list of tips and tricks.

  1. Call upon the expertise of the local convention bureau and visitors bureau, if possible. Since they have a vested interest in having your conference hosted in their city, they can be enormously helpful in many ways, such as advising on which properties in their area have the meeting space you’re looking for.
  2. Try to book your conference during the slow season. The reason is obvious: hotels are much more motivated to fill their spaces during slow times and will lower prices for you. Also, show your loyalty: plan multiple meetings in the same hotel or hotel chain and ask for a deal.
  3. Do your homework in advance of your negotiation. Know how much your group is going to eat and drink, how many guestrooms you need, how many meeting rooms you need, etc. Try to negotiate lower rates for your speakers and staff. Put everything in writing and review it during the negotiation. This will help avoid extra, last-minute charges.
  4. Re-use everything you can, such as your name badge holders and signage. You can use these again next year, and re-using materials makes you look environmentally friendly to your attendees.
  5. Collaborate with like-minded groups. By attaching your meeting to another organization’s meeting, you can save on room set-up and special equipment charges.
  6. Determine how many breakout sessions you will offer. Reducing the number of breakout sessions can save money on meeting room fees, speaker costs and audio-visual charges.
  7. Book flexible entertainers for any social functions during the conference. Entertainers who offer several types of music or entertainment can be used for more than one event, which saves money. Also, find out if there is a specific type of entertainment that is relevant to your group; for instance, there may be a band that members of your group belong to. We once planned a conference for surgeons, and the band was made up of surgeons from across Canada. Another key point is to try to book entertainment directly rather than going through a talent agency. This can save you a significant amount of money.
  8. Book versatile speakers. Choose industry experts who can offer both a keynote speech and lead a workshop or sit on a panel discussion. If possible, choose local speakers to save on travel costs. Convention and visitors bureaus and hotels often have lists of local speakers.
  9. Work with the hotel to plan meals that take advantage of food that is in season. This allows the hotel to bring the costs down. Keep in mind that the menu the hotel gives you isn’t written in stone. You can tell the hotel what you want to pay for a meal and have them create a menu to fit your budget – but don’t forget dessert! For receptions, use drink tickets: providing guests with two drink tickets will reduce consumption.
  10. Think small. Rather than offering full-size pastries and bagels at continental breakfasts and breaks, offer mini versions. Alternatively, ask the hotel to cut everything into halves and quarters. This will reduce consumption and waste. You may also want to consider whether you need to offer a full breakfast. By adding cereal and yogurt to a continental breakfast, you can satisfy most of your attendees and save a lot of costs.
  11. Order food for breaks by consumption only. This means that pop, candy bars and other packaged items will be charged per item consumed. This can be less expensive than paying per person or ordering a specific quantity. If you can get away with it, go to Costco and bring some big boxes of granola bars and cookies yourself. Also, ensure that the hotel only adds more food and drink to a break upon your request. This will cut down on wasted food that’s not eaten but that you are required to pay for.
  12. The cost of audio-visual equipment can make or break your budget. If you are planning a meeting with lots of AV equipment needs, choose your location accordingly. Some conference centres have on-site equipment and can be a lot cheaper than a venue that requires you to contract these services from an outside vendor. And, don’t forget to re-confirm your speakers’ AV needs. They may have originally requested equipment that they no longer need.
  13. Manage your AV requests carefully. For example, wireless microphones are much more expensive than wired microphones. Limit microphones for panel discussions by using one table microphone for every two panelists and having them share.
  14. Design your conference programs in house. As an alternative to printing, consider emailing the program to attendees, providing it to them on a USB key, linking to it on your website or developing a conference app. Printing is expensive.
  15. Know your participants. For example, if your participants love fresh fruit but don’t care about excessive signage, you can provide the fruit and cut back on the signage.

Overall, carefully monitor your budget throughout the entire process to avoid any surprises!

Andrea Smith, BComm (Hospitality & Tourism Management), is the Conference Manager at Secretariat Central, a turn-key association management company in the Greater Toronto Area. Secretariat Central’s Conference and Events Division plans and implements conferences and events of all sizes for not‑for‑profit associations, societies and charities.