Food & Beverage -- Making or Breaking Your Bottom Line

I was chatting with a highly respected franchise consultant recently (contact me if you need a recommendation) and we were discussing the value of collecting data when managing meetings or events. 

Its  importance cannot be overstated!

As I have indicated in previous blogs, you have to track your historical information – whether it be registration fees, hotel room blocks & performance, evaluation scores or F & B guarantees – in order to improve your results. 

For most meetings and events, the accuracy of your food & beverage guarantees can make or break your bottom line.  It is almost certainly your single biggest budget line item. To my initial horror, the executive who would become my greatest mentor,  made a point to walk around the General Session luncheon of 2000 people to scan the open seats or tables.  I knew I had to get better – and fast.  The only way to hone those skills, is to know your history.  Sure, you know how many have paid to attend the event, but that often bears only partial resemblance to how many registrants actually show up.  To take advantage of that difference will make you a hero.

If you have different categories of registration, then you better be monitoring your doors, because inevitably there are those whose level of participation does not entitle them to attend all the food and beverage events.  Sometimes they don’t know and sometimes they have been doing it for years!

Particularly with large, plated meals,  it has become more difficult to provide guarantees often required 72 hours (in business days) before the event – which might fall over a weekend or before on-site registration has opened.   And the percentage the hotel or caterer is prepared to provide over your guarantee may be as little as 2%.  It’s a tough needle to thread.

The best way to be comfortable with your numbers is to track them, year-over-year, for every event.  Record the number guaranteed, the number set and the number fed.  In many cases you can review past hotel or caterer invoices for several years to determine previous performance.  Then see how they track over a five-year period and you will start to see a pattern develop and begin to guarantee with greater confidence. 

If you can’t reconstruct the history of performance against guarantees, start assembling it.   In the case of a reception where you ordered appetizers or canapes by the piece, assign someone to check periodically how the food is holding up.  And at the end of the event, make sure to determine if you over-ordered or if you ran out.  And if you did run out - when did that happen? Fifteen minutes before the event was over or 15 minutes after the doors opened?

Do the same for general coffee breaks or continental breakfasts served in registration or outside meeting rooms.  You may be surprised at how many people have already eaten breakfast before arriving at your event.

Bottles water has become an exceedingly costly line item.  Many venues will provide 5-gallon containers of filtered water.  If you offer individually bottled water, expect to use at least twice what you ordered.  Attendees will take them in bunches including back to their rooms at night.

As to guarantees, there are some cautions. 

  • You may experience totally different statistics in some cities (like Las Vegas) or in cities where your registrants have to walk between a hotel and a convention center (and the distance between the two). 

  • Your numbers might also change in cities where you have a spouse attendance program that includes some of your evening receptions or dinners. 

  • At one association, we saw  our percentage of attendance changed far more dramatically than anticipated when we went to high-profile, big-name speakers.  And I didn’t do very well that first year, when a couple hundred extra people showed up. The caterer and convention center did the best they could and we sent staff around to collect business cards from those who got seats but did not get fed (for partial refunds).  But it was an embarrassment that I would not wish on any of you. 

Remember, meeting planning is an ongoing cycle -- you will assess, plan, train & meet in an overlapping fashion.  The more thorough you are in assessing your event, before-during-after, the more accurate and successful you become.  

F & B is such a crucial element in successful event planning, we will address this often in the months to come

We welcome your questions & input and will try to serve as a "help desk" with any problems you encounter.

 

 

Boost Your Event Revenue

 

Most meetings have just a few areas from which they derive revenue.  As events, seminars and conferences become increasing expensive and you are a profit center then it is critical to regularly review these keys segments and assess your ability to maximize their monetary value to your organization.

In future blogs, I’ll examine each of these revenue streams individually and in greater detail, but as a start, here is a quick reminder of what areas to evaluate, as applicable to your event.  You can start today!

Registration Fees

  • Track your fees year-over-year.  Keep a historical record and raise your fees on a regular basis, generally every two to three years or as needed.  Key considerations are increasing costs for F & B and venue rental fees.
  • Review what is included in your fees.  Categorize them by fixed or variable costs and then consider how you might modify those components to increase net revenue.
  • Check past performance in the same city.  Some locations are much more attractive destinations for certain groups and that should be a consideration as you plan future event sites.
  • Evaluate a variety of incentives to boost revenue or to encourage its earlier arrival.  An early registration fee that runs for a specific length of time is a popular tactic.  Also look at late or on-site fees as an incentive to receive payment at least a month in advance.
  • If you are a membership-based organization or track first-time attendance, consider whether a new attendee discount makes financial sense or perhaps a special promotion available only for new members.

 

Sponsorship

  • Start small, enjoy success and then expand your sponsorship program.  Select a segment of your audience, make a compelling offer to a leader in that segment and once they are on board, sell to the rest of the segment.  Competition is a good thing!
  • Evaluate what markets your various sponsors want to reach. Hint: it is not always the same audience! You will want to tailor your promotional and marketing appropriately. 
  • Modify the benefits attached to each event based on your own market analysis, the costs, placement, visibility, etc.  Be sure to treat everyone in the same category the same.  Your constituents talk to one another and playing favorites is dangerous and costly.

 

Exhibits

  • Understand the value of your exhibit revenue.  The companies and individuals that provide it can assure a financially successful event before it starts.  The vast majority of exhibit revenue drops to the bottom line --- so take care of your exhibitors.  If they are not happy, word will spread like a wildfire through your hall.
  • The single biggest reason exhibitors return to your show --- and increase the size of their booth presence --- is the ratio of buyers to sellers and their access to those buyers.  Start by making sure the location of your exhibit hall is convenient to your other events.  Door prize drawings, allowing (and encouraging) exhibitors to conduct raffles, seminars on the exhibit floor, photo booths, celebrity look-a-likes are just a few examples of ways to encourage buyers to visit the exhibitors.  My experience is “If you provide food, they will come”. 
  • Regularly conduct a  market analysis which examines who your competitors are, what they charge, what audience they reach better than you and then go after that market share.
  • Select your General Contractor carefully after a full RFP process.  Exhibitors often have a difficult time understanding the process, deadlines and costs involved with exhibiting.  A General Contractor who is clear, fair, and customer-oriented can be an critical partner in your exhibitors’ assessment of the show’s success.  Look beyond the few remaining national companies for more customized, personal service, and reduced costs for both you and your exhibitors. 
  • Conduct booth selection for your next show while on-site.  Hopefully exhibitors are having a good show and will be enthusiastic about the opportunity to reserve early and snag great space and maybe increase their booth size.  You’ll need to employ a pecking order, but we’ll address that in a future blog.  If you need more urgent advice, please email us.

 

Ticket Sales

This may only be applicable if you sell tickets to individual events and if those events feature star-power speakers, name entertainment or a limited seating event.  If this does apply to you --- a regular analysis of costs and income makes sense.

 

 

 

 

 

Raise The Bar!

Successfully managing a major meeting (however that is defined in your organization) is an epic event.  It’s a gut-check that tests everything you know, your reactions during a vortex of change, your stamina, fortitude, patience, wisdom and skill.  

So your big conference or seminar is over, everyone told YOU it was great, the budget looks good and now you can sit back, relax and rest on your laurels for a while, right?  Maybe – it all depends on your follow-up.

Make Post-Event Evaluations Meaningful

If you have not utilized a post-event evaluation protocol, you actually have NO idea how your event was received.  And you still have time to implement this critical step to hear (and learn) from your constituencies – all of them!

  • Did your registrants learn cutting-edge information?
  • Did they hear from exceptional and relevant speakers?
  • Were the topics on target for the audience?
  • Did registrants network with the right people?
  • Were the location and the facilities appropriate?  
  • Was the overall takeaway by your attendees positive?
  • And, if they paid a fee (in addition to their expenses), did they get their money’s worth?    

All of these factors, and more, are critical to improving your events and meetings every year and should be examined after each event. 

Err on the Side of Over-Evaluation. 

A general online critique should be delivered within a few days after your registrants return to their offices.  If you have exhibitors, they should receive a different online questionnaire tailored to their specific issues.  In both cases, the electronic message should include a cover message from your President, Board Chair or Event Chair with an explanation of how critical their feedback is towards improving every aspect of the meeting.  A quick evaluation for educational programs and their speakers should, ideally, be done immediately after the session (so make sure that’s on your checklist for next year).  Technology which allows registrants to access the survey from their smart phones works best when you are on-site.

What Should You Evaluate? 

Just about everything.  An overall rating for the entire event, educational content, take-home value, advance registration process, on-site registration, intent to attend event next year, general sessions, scheduling, exhibits, networking events, quality of food & beverage, and your venue(s).  Also ask how you, as the sponsoring organization, represented yourself and how did the staff perform.

What Format Should You Use? 

A number rating (1-5 or 1-10 are common) is fine, descriptors (excellent, very good, etc.) are equally good or a grade of A-F works as well.  The key is to be consistent year-over-year so you can track the trends before they become problems.

Who Should See the Evaluation Results?

Anyone who has a stake in the success of the meeting.  That might include an advisory committee, board of directors, senior management team and your staff.   Be sure to share the speakers’ evaluations with each speaker – but only their own.  Any comments are normally welcome and helpful to your speakers regardless of whether they are from within your industry or professional.

How Should You Interpret Your Results? 

First, strive for at least a 20% response.  If you fall short, de-dup and send it again with a different cover message. Once you have your results compiled, look at the big picture and any trends in the results.  This will provide a clear map on how best to proceed.  Most evaluations are anonymous with a name optional.  If you get a tough evaluation and the registrant is brave enough to include his or her name, make a personal phone call and talk about the issues raised.  Your interest and initiative often transforms a negative or neutral experience into a positive one.

Comments, Anyone? 

All of your evaluations should have space for comments. But steel yourself and be prepared because they can be tough, sometimes brutal, to read.  Any little thing that might be a sore subject is likely to surface --- including whether the restrooms ran out of toilet paper, if you ran out of one appetizer at a reception with 10 options, the meeting rooms were too cold, a microphone failed in one of the 15 concurrent sessions, a speaker or moderator was off topic – it’s all fair game. And it’s all information you need to know!    Singular random comments can be set aside.  But again, look for patterns.  Was the food and beverage rating consistently in the same range?  Did 80% or more of your attendees indicate that would be back next year?  Did a large number of attendees criticize the lines at registration?  Are your registrants generally happy with the networking value of the event? 

What About You?

And after all of this, evaluate yourself and how you performed at the event.  Many planners remember the mistakes over the triumphs.  How could you have responded better or anticipated problems?  A great practice to incorporate into your on-site regimen is to keep a running list of ideas or improvements that pop into your head during the meeting (or in the middle of the night)  --- and ask your meeting staff to do the same. 

Revel in your success while looking to raise the bar for next year.  No matter how long you are in this business, you’ll learn something new and identify areas for improvement at every event.

 

 

The RFP Sets the Stage

Preparing a thorough and accurate RFP when you are shopping for a hotel or other venue for your events is the critical first step to the financial and programmatic success of your meeting.  The RFP forms the basis for the proposals you will receive from the venues you are considering and  if written correctly, can outline and limit your financial exposure.  

Spend time to create a model template for your largest event and then tailor smaller events around it.  Every meeting you conduct should have an RFP.  It assures that all your venues are working from the same information and gives you the opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison, category by category. 

Your RFP should be prepared and sent on your organization’s letterhead with your name (email) and title if you are receiving and/or reviewing the proposals.

Here are the key items to include --- and be as specific as possible.

·        A brief description of your organization, its goals and history.

·        The name of the meeting along with its purpose and history.  If conducted previously, provide the names of the last three venues (the hotels will verify room performance, etc.).

·        The proposed dates along with any flexibility you might have with the dates and/or the pattern of events.

·        The expected guest room block, by day.  Be sure to specify types of accommodations and then total everything in a table or spreadsheet.  Indicate if you are handling housing internally or if the guests will be contacting the hotel directly.  If so, request a direct link to hotel reservations for your registrants to use. Clearly state your expectations for how the hotel will handle oversold situations when your attendees may potentially be “walked".   Don’t forget my advice on attrition --- (see previous blogs) and ask for an 80% performance clause with your room pick-up calculated on a cumulative basis (not by night).

·        Require that the room rate be confirmed 12 months out. If you are booking many years in advance, agree on a baseline that will increase no more than 2-3% per year.  Also remember you should be seeking the lowest rate in the hotel over those dates for any group of comparable size.

·        Your meeting room requirements.  This should include a preliminary (but specific) schedule of events that includes the day, time, and room set-up (theater, classroom, hollow square, conference, rounds, etc.).  If you have concurrent sessions, indicate how many.  Be sure to include a registration area with a general idea of the size and  set-up and your preferred  location. Try to make maximum use of the meeting space to avoid unnecessary room re-sets.  Be sure to specify which, if any rooms, are required on a 24-hour hold (like your staff office, A/V storage, etc.).

·         If you have exhibits and/or general sessions, be sure to provide both square footage and number of booths for exhibits or the stage size, set and number of guests for the general sessions. Build in set-up and dismantling dates and times  for both.  But speak with your production company and/or exhibit contractor to determine what they need.  Don’t assume you can guess at this!

·        Expected food & beverage spend and a request for at least a 10% discount off the prevailing catering menu prices.  Request confirmed menus prices one year in advance.

·        Payment and billing arrangements – what are you, as the organizer covering, and what is billed to the individual guests.

·        The concessions you require (review previous blogs for a starter list).

·        The date by which responses must be received and when you expect to make a decision.

·        Are you making a site visit in advance?  You may select a hotel subject to a site visit to assure yourself that the venue is exactly as advertised, that the guest rooms are in excellent shape (when they were last refurbished), and that the meeting space you will be assigned is in the most desirable location, offers a good flow and are also in good shape (carpeting, chairs, tables, etc.).

Of course, after the proposal comes the contract, by which you will be bound -- so be extremely diligent in comparing the proposal (with your changes) to the contract you receive.  Review previous blogs on hotel contracts to be sure you receive exactly what you need from the venue.

And remember, you are partners with these venues and success comes when business benefits both parties.  Hopefully your first experience with the venue will provide a long-term & model relationship with the hotel.

Hotel Contracts: Part 2

SHOW ME THE ROOMS!

Working your way through the contracting process with hotels, convention centers and other event venues might be analogous to navigating through a landmine.  Last month, we discussed the importance of coming to the negotiating process from a position of strength and knowledge.  You accomplish that by:

  • ·         Knowing the Value of Your Meeting
  • ·         Understanding the Concessions of Greatest Benefit to Your       Company

And as we reminded everyone, if you don't ask, you don't get!

 

THE MEAT IN YOUR HOTEL CONTRACT – GUEST ROOMS

Guest rooms are the most profitable category for a hotel.  So be candid and realistic with them from the start.  You certainly want to build a strong partnership over the long term. Do your homework and take whatever time is required to realistically calculate your guest room needs.  The sales staff will appreciate your candor and you guard against the dreaded attrition (see below). If you have history on the same meeting for a couple of years, you will have greater credibility with the hotel and begin negotiating with a strong hand.  Be sure to find out what rate the hotel is offering other groups for the same dates and approximately the same size.  You should strive to assure no other group in the property has a better rate than your guests.  You can easily extend your negotiated room rate for two or three days before and after (shoulder dates) your scheduled program, if your registrants want to arrive early or stay over.  Remember, the total number of rooms booked is the single biggest factor in negotiating from a position of strength.

 

ATTRITION IS THE ENEMY

Avoid this enemy at all costs.  It’s expensive and hard to justify to management, unless it is a first-year program. You will be subject to attrition penalties if you fail to reserve the required number of room nights.  First, try for an 85% or 90% performance requirement and never go below 80%.  Second, (especially for a smaller, first-year program) ask for an opportunity to review the room block at 60 days out with the option to add or cancel rooms, without penalty and at the same negotiated rate.  Finally, the hotel will offer you a standard 30 day (or four-week) cut-off date, but insist on a three-week cut-off.

 

CROSS-CHECKING IS KEY

If your guests are booking reservations directly with the hotel, you should request a weekly update  from your reservation manager.  As required, obtain a full housing list so you can crosscheck and make sure anyone registered to attend your meeting has reserved rooms AND those who have reserved rooms are registered to attend the meeting . This is also a great way to be sure your Board Members, VIPs, Speakers and Staff have all been appropriately reserved.

For larger meetings, if you are concerned about attrition, insist on a registration audit which compares your Housing List with Group Reservations. This is the only sure-fire way to get credit for all your earned room nights and potentially avoid the Attrition Enemy. 

 

MORE COMP ROOMS ARE IN YOUR FUTURE

Your Complimentary Room Ratio will almost always be offered at one per fifty.  But again, the stronger your business is to the hotel, the more likely you are able to get a 1:40 or even 1:35.   And request complimentary staff room and suites over and above the standard to accommodate your VIPs.  Also ask that your comp rooms be based on the total room nights reserved, not the number of rooms reserved per night.

 

IF THE ENEMY STRIKES

If, despite your best, good-faith efforts, you fail to perform on your room block, communicate with the hotel -- early and often.  If you are monitoring your housing reports and cross checking lists, you will know well before the 3-week cut-off date if you are likely to fall short.  If you can, release rooms back to the hotel for them to sell prior to your cut-off date. That will mitigate damages. And if you DO get struck with a penalty, negotiate with the facility to contract another meeting in the property or in the chain within a one or two-year period.  A strong relationship with the hotel company over several years and a great National Sales Manager are your biggest ally here. 

Remember, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

 

If You Don't Ask ....

Artfully negotiated contracts may be the biggest variable in the financial success of your meeting and often significantly impact your registrants experience at the event.   Nearly everything on the hotel or venue contract is subject to negotiation.  And you will quickly learn that if you don’t ask for something, it’s normally not going to be offered.

But there are a few  things you need to know before starting the process with the facility or hotel sales manager with whom you are working so that you are negotiating from a position of knowledge and strength.

 

What's Your Meeting Worth?

First, you need to know the value of your meeting.  If the event  is going to be contained in one hotel, calculate not just the cumulative room revenue and sponsored food and beverage revenue ---  factor all the other potential revenue the hotel will consider when they are negotiating with you.  Look at  hotel shopping, parking, internet fees, golf and tennis at resort locations, restaurant dining, hotel bar & lounges, in-room dining, spa services, parking and hotel sponsored event and  tours.

If you are booking a multi-property event, complete this exercise for each property. 

And, if you are booking a large city-wide convention, you will likely be speaking with the Convention Bureau as well as the Convention Center.  Both entities have already done this calculation and they know the value of your business, so you should as well. 

 

Do You Know Your History?

If this is a meeting you have conducted  before, it is essential to  know your history of guest room block versus  guest room performance, F & B guarantee versus actualized revenue.  Those are the two biggest sources of revenue for any hotel.  If this is a new meeting, be candid with the property about your expectation.  It is normally advisable to be conservative with  your room block, meeting space requirements and sponsored Food and Beverage revenue and ask the hotel for a staggered schedule for reviewing the room block, space requirements and F & B.

 

Flexibility = Value, But What's Most Important to You?

Understand also that the most flexible you can be with your dates and pattern, the more valuable your business is to the property and the better your results will be.  But, even if you have dates set in concrete and your pattern is Wednesday through Friday, negotiating enhanced concessions are absolutely achievable.

But first, it is essential that you determine what concessions are most important to you. 

Do you want discounts or additional comps for the categories that will impact your bottom-line performance?  This could include additional suites, accommodations or airport transportation for VIPs which would be charged to your master account, extra comp rooms for staff (in addition to the 1 per 40 or 1 per 50 you will also negotiate), discounts on your total Food & Beverage spend, or complimentary A/V (which is now often out-sourced by hotels).  If you are booking a city-wide convention, the Bureau can often provide registration personnel at no cost, but you can and should negotiate that  as well.   And they can be very helpful in negotiating better contracts at the member hotels.

Or, do you want discounts or concessions that will improve your guests' experience.  That might be complimentary wi-fi, parking, airport shuttle, resort or service fees.  Of course, you should always negotiate your room rate so that no other group in the property over the same dates has a better rate than your guests. 

See our July Blog for more tips on how and what to negotiate to make yours a profitable meeting for your organization and a great experience for your attendees.  

Please send your comments and questions so we can address them in future posts. 

 

Welcome to MeetingBoss.com

We'll try to make our monthly blog relevant and useful to anyone planning an important event, whether it be a small board meeting or a large annual convention. There are always economies to be realized without sacrificing content or attendee experience. 

When organizations start conducting meetings, we often see they assign the responsibility to a staff person who already has a full time job!   And I can assure you, even with a small board meeting or seminar, a trained expert can coax concessions from your venue, provide greater flexibility on your meeting block performance requirements,  improve your F & B costs, assure the meeting is conducted in a professional & timely fashion and assess what can be improved for the next event.  

Food and beverages guarantees are often a make or break factor in the event budget.  It becomes more difficult to project those numbers when venues require your guarantees 72 (business) hours before the event occurs.  In some cases, your registration is not even open and you need to estimate on-site registrations and calculate how may breakfasts, lunches, dinners or people will attend.  Questions abound  -- how many individual pieces of canapes do you need, is it better to select a bar package (open for set period of time and charged based on the number of people) or should you take the apparent risk by electing to be charged based on consumption, and how can you verify the number of individual cocktails, glasses of wine, sodas & water are actually served versus what you are charged?  And, as the venues reduce the percentage over your guarantee they are prepared to serve, it becomes a slippery slope indeed.  

It is critical that you look at your event's past history (if you have one for this event) to help predict the future quantities you need to nail the guarantees.   If you don't have history of performance against guarantees, start assembling it.  You can certainly determine what you paid for at past events and make sure someone starts tracking how many people actually attend each individual component of your event.  In the case of a reception where you ordered appetizers or canapes by the piece, assign someone to check periodically how the food is holding up.  And at the end of the event, make sure to check to determine if you over-ordered or if you ran out.  And if you did run out - when did that happen? Fifteen minutes before the event was over or 15 minutes after the doors opened?

Also consider the impact your venue has on the percentage of registrants that attend each event.  If you are at a destination resort, you should expect most of your registrants to attend. If you are in Las Vegas, that will certainly impact attendance and change the formula.

Remember, meeting planning is an ongoing cycle -- you will assess, plan, train & meet in an overlapping fashion.  The more thorough you are in assessing your meeting, before-during-after, the more accurate and successful you become.  

F & B is such a crucial element in successful event planning, we will address this often in the months to come

We welcome your questions & input and will try to serve as a "help desk" with any problems you encounter.