How do you make your conference budget go further? The average business event is an expensive exercise in boredom but it doesn’t need to be that way. Read on for 5 ways in which you can make your company’s annual conference budget go further – and make the event better.
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Making the most of your annual conference budget
You know the drill: a darkened hotel ballroom in which an endless cycle of powerpoint slides are delivered by presenters who seem barely more conscious than the audience; at least one ‘inspirational’ external speaker (‘Hi, I’m Brad and I had an out-of-body experience while herding goats in Orkney, which has surprising lessons to teach us about business strategy’); an Awards Ceremony, celebrating some people, but never everybody; an enforced ‘fun’ team building activity which, no matter what it is or how it starts, will end with somebody getting something intimate caught in a harness.
And all this to justify taking everyone out from their day jobs.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. The opportunity of getting large groups together for some dedicated ‘us time’ is rare and valuable, so how about making the most of it by challenging some conventions – and saving some budget that can be used for other, more useful, things.
Money pit #1 – the Venue
Typical conference venues have to be booked months to years in advance, and are programmed to run things in the same way, every time. Whenever you want to do something off-piste, it seems to cost more: “You’d like flipcharts instead of a projector and screen? That will be 400 Euros extra”.
To avoid this, follow our money-saving tips:
- Find a non-traditional venue. Get exploring and find a venue to suit the kind of messages and activity you want to deliver. Think of places suitable for large groups: how about a church, a community centre, or even a theatre – all places well used to creating great experiences for people and events.
- Get the most out of a traditional venue.If you have to use a traditional venue, make sure you get maximum bang for your buck. Don’t sleepwalk into a standard package where the glazing on the gateaux is more important than the experience overall. Tell them up-front that you will want to run things differently from the usual business meeting, so there won’t be any surprises with added costs later on.
- Be hands-on and clear about your vision for the event. Get down to the venue, meet the Conferencing team, and explain to them the kind of atmosphere you want. Ask for photos of recent events of all types (think weddings, parties and trade shows as well as conferences) and use those for inspiration so the venue can create a proposal for an event that feels welcoming and human.
- Avoid equipment hire. Our best tip on expensive equipment hire is to consider buying the equipment or bringing it in yourself from the office – often the cost of a new flipchart stand is about the same as the hire charge from a hotel. Plus you get to keep it.
Money pit #2: the Conference Branding
The standard approach recently seems to be that every conference needs its own brand, with associated logos and expensive set and materials design. There are agencies who will happily take your money from this, but how much value does it really add?
When was the last time you left a conference raving about the logo, slide graphics or theme music? Slick is expensive and has had its day: instead focus your preparation energy on making sure everyone knows why they’re there and what the event is about so that you can use the occasion itself as a vehicle to get people talking to people. It’s being together that makes memories, not receiving a branded baseball cap or a wristband with a slogan on it.
Here are our tips for stretching your event budget while still having a memorable look and feel:
- Keep set design and stage-sets simple. All the slick branding becomes magnolia after a while anyway, so how about communicating right at the start that the budget saved on single-use conference logo cutouts mounted at 10 feet high will be used for better things (like having everybody stay overnight so they can enjoy the evening event).
- Cheap and cheerful can create big impact. If you want to sprinkle some magic around the space, look no further than your local (or friendly online) party shop – where colourful, high impact decorations can be found in any theme for small change. Party decorations are designed for single use, they’re not bulky and you can have them delivered straight to the venue. To make the stage pop out more, a set of rope lights around it will do the job beautifully.
- Do not overspend on the technology. This is a gathering of people, not a TV show, so do you really that sixth autocue screen at the 85 degree angle to the stage, the four rows of fully tunable spotlights above and the five camera operators showing the speaker from every angle to people who are sitting just 30 metres away? You could save on lighting costs by getting a room that actually has some windows. And have presenters who lead conversations rather than transmit one-way, scripted presentations then the need for autocues should be a thing of the past.
- Have less furniture. Think about the seating layout to make sure everyone can see – big round tables just create a barrier and encourage people to get their laptops out so get rid of them and have small groups of seats closer to the stage. Use the space for people to stand up, mix and move around in while they’re interacting.
Money pit #3 – the ‘Inspirational’ Speaker
The typical answer to the challenge of the post-lunch energy dip is to bring out the Inspirational Speaker. After all, it will help people stay awake to hear an interesting story – and if they fall asleep they won’t missed anything too important anyway.
Whilst interesting to someone somewhere, there is every likelihood that your expensive Inspirational Speaker’s message (given 65 times before with exactly the same slides) will not be directly relatable to your business reality. Far better to spend less, and get something more targeted and relevant.
If you are wondering how to make your conference budget go further then consider these more cost effective ways ways to keep the energy flowing after lunch.
- Give them a meal that energises the body and mind. How many of these have you sat in the half-light and dozed through, weighed down by large amounts of carbs and lulled into slumber by endless photos of mountains and inspirational quotes? How about avoiding the post-lunch dip in the first place – get good brain food that won’t make people feel tired, and fill the post-lunch slot with something to do, rather than yet another person to listen to.
- Find speakers and inspirational stories from among your own ranks. You could ask for stories of business successes – or go wider, there’s guaranteed to be someone who’s done something amazing that you can all learn from – and it won’t cost you extra to fly them in.
- Make use of experts free content and use it in smaller groups. Smaller groups make people feel more responsible for paying attention. So how about dividing into some breakout rooms and playing each group a different TED talk then having a discussion on how the lessons could apply to your current challenges.
- Get people active after lunch. Half the problem after lunch is sitting down, so you could make the post-lunch hour more active. This is the perfect time to run speed-networking or poster-sharing sessions which can be far more beneficial for minds and bodies, and cost you nothing in terms of cash.
Money pit #4 – the Team-Building exercise
People aren’t collaborating with each other at work, so it is decided that a bit of tribal drumming will create trust and interaction back at the office.
Right impulse, but ‘team building exercises’ haven’t become a comic cliché without good reason. Ask any psychologist worth their salt how to bring people closer together, and they’ll talk about the importance of working on a shared challenge…they won’t mention paintball or building towers out of pasta.
If you want to boost collaboration, try one of these options.
- Create challenges that matter to people. When the problem matters to people the creative solutions will flow. Create a session where people can collaborate to problem solve. Let them know their ideas could get adopted and feel the energy levels spike instantly. It will take you a lot further than artificial exercises and the ideas could actually make a difference to the business.
- Don’t freak people out, keep activities manageable by all. Activities are always polarising – one person’s perfect afternoon punting is another’s fear-of-drowning worst nightmare. So keep the joint activities low key and non-exposing. We’d suggest that anything requiring specialist equipment or knowledge should set alarm bells ringing. If you want to get outdoors, give people space and time to go for a nice walk and talk together!
Money pit #5 – the Gala Dinner
After sitting down for 8 hours in a darkened room around circular tables, our people will like nothing better than sitting down for another 3 hours in a darkened room around yet more circular tables unable to speak to one another for an hour while a load more presentations are given. Right?
The traditional method of showing gratitude and recognition to all those at the conference, there’s no greater waste of time or money than transporting everyone en masse for a spectacular, formal dinner where they sit next to the same person all evening, praying for 10.30pm so they can get on the first bus back to the hotel.
If you want to make your conference budget go further then drop the gala dinner and awards and try out one or more of these alternatives:
- Keep the event informal and natural. Formal = restricted. Restricted interactions, restricted behaviour, and restricted enjoyment. It’s no accident that the most fun is had before and after the dinner, in the hotel bar. Harness the energy you already have in the social intentions of the group – get small teams to self-form, give them an allowance and set them loose to have a potluck dinner together, then book a space for everyone to muster in a couple of hours later, if they so choose.
- Make any awards inclusive. If you want to give recognition, give it to everyone. Awards are exclusive, divisive and a waste of everyone’s time. Nothing kills the atmosphere like having to focus on someone else being lauded for having done their job when you know you’ve slogged your guts out all year.
- Don’t waste money on expensive prizes, keep it fun: Give fun prizes that are cheap and cheerful (you’d be amazed how many adults have relished our cuddly toy prizes over the years) and make it super-quick: a short speech of thanks and the declaration of an earlier-than-expected finish to give everyone some time back will be much more popular than a glass trophy that only one person on a team gets to keep (or leave in the hotel bar).
Making the most of your annual conference budget
We’ve delivered many a conference, and saved a ton of client money from being wasted on the unnecessary spend which has become the norm of the conference industry. Our suggestions above will not only save you money but also make your event more effective. A definite win win in our book. Oh, and be more fun. That is a win win win!
To get hands-on help with making your conference or event amazing, book a 30-minute inspiration call with one of The So Team.