. A Guide to Budget-Friendly Education Meetings | Northstar Meetings Group

A Guide to Budget-Friendly Education Meetings

Here are the best practices to accomplish a great education event — all while controlling costs.

Northstar Meetings Group presents a new editorial series focusing on some of the hottest and most important meetings industry segments. Our in-depth coverage pinpoints trends, provides critical insights and offers expert advice for buyers and sellers in key sectors. Read more in our series here.

Meeting-market trends come and go, but in the education segment, budgetary restraint is a constant. Meeting professionals who plan education events must keep tighter-than-usual control over costs while simultaneously ensuring that attendees gain valuable knowledge and insight. Following are best practices to accomplish that in several key areas.

Venue selection and negotiation


Examine all consumption patterns. Greg Jenkins, a partner in event-planning company Bravo Productions, says more than 30 years of planning education conferences have taught him the value of this step. “I’ve found that it’s an excellent way to stop wasteful spending without anyone truly noticing [a difference at the event],” he explains. Jenkins suggests that planners review not only the number of room nights and meeting rooms used, but also actual quantities of food and beverage consumed as well as whether all meeting space was maximized to its greatest potential.

Negotiate service fees. Planners will find it much easier to negotiate more favorable, cost-saving rates with meeting venues if these venues are asked to reduce more than their rental fees. Request discounts on service fees across the board, including those for staffing, function room and equipment rentals. The standard 18 percent is high and it isn't always used as a tip for those who service the meeting; a reduction to 16 percent can add up to significant savings, suggests Jenkins.

Focus on a flexible learning environment. Increasingly, hotels, convention facilities and other venues are catering to education groups by offering "flexible use of space at no extra cost for configurations and even furnishings or equipment that support programming," observes Sam Bhandarkar, CMP, CASE, event placement director at LRP Media Group. Among other events, LRP produces the Future of Education Technology Conference for primary- and secondary-school educators. Bhandarkar adds that these facilities are also beginning to support the extension of the learning environment from meeting rooms and expo floors to hotel lounges and guest rooms, making use of free WiFi connectivity and yielding a nice savings.

Make walkability and accessibility a priority. Arranging room blocks in hotels that aren't in walking distance of the convention center can add costs in the form of shuttle services and the like. So, too, can holding off-site functions at venues that lie outside the convention district. To avoid such expenditures, the Joint Mathematical Meetings (JMM) sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America and the American Mathematical Society are held in "walkable" destinations, according to a spokesperson.

JMM meeting 2
Mathematical Association of America and the American Mathematical Society chose Atlanta in 2017, due in part to the city's accessibility. Photo Credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography, courtesy of American Mathematical Society

Atlanta, the site of the associations' 2017 JMM, has always been known for its accessibility. and improvements to the Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA) campus — the largest combined convention center campus in North America — are making it more so. Since 2010, the GWCCA has invested more than $360 million to improve connectivity between the campus' facilities—which include the Georgia World Congress Center, Centennial Olympic Park, and the state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz stadium — and the surrounding entertainment district. Highlights of these improvements encompass the $55 million GWCC Exhibit Hall BC expansion project, the addition of two new parking facilities (increasing capacity to 7,500+ connected spaces, and a pedestrian gateway project that creates a seamless guest experience from the surrounding hospitality district through Centennial Olympic Park to the front door of the convention center, stadium, and a Signia Hilton hotel now under construction. There are more than 12,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the GWCCA campus, giving meeting attendees a walkable, park-like experience in a downtown environment where they can visit some of the city's most popular attractions and acclaimed restaurants. 

Seek out sponsors. Soliciting one or more sponsors to defray costs and fund programming is becoming an increasingly prevalent practice in the education meetings sector, Jenkins notes. The 2017 JMM had five sponsors, including two educational publishers and three corporate sponsors; the 2019 JMM, held in Baltimore, had three corporate sponsors. The National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development also seek multiple sponsors for their annual meetings, offering sponsorships at multiple levels to make the prospect of sponsorship more enticing for a wider breadth of entities.

Consider co-location. Co-location of meetings is a growing trend in other meetings segments, such as technology, and it is taking hold in the education meetings market, sources say. JMM 2018 featured the Maplesoft Online Education Summit, a one-day co-located event held by one of its sponsors. "Co-location can defray costs, while also providing a lot of networking opportunities" that add value to the meeting, Jenkins observes.

The GWCC easily accommodates co-located events. Boasting more than four million square feet of total space, it offers 12 exhibit halls, 98 meeting rooms, two ballrooms, three fixed-seat auditoriums, and three landscaped outdoor plazas. Once the above-mentioned expansion project is completed in December 2019, groups will have access to the facility's new, 100,000-square-foot Exhibit Hall BC. The hall will connect Buildings B and C, yielding more than one million square feet of contiguous exhibit space.

Food and Beverage


Avoid over-estimating attendee counts. Provide venues with a slightly lower head count than is really expected. Hotels and other banquet facilities often charge a penalty for last-minute reductions in the number of guests who will attend a meal function, but typically do not impose such a fee for increasing headcounts at the last minute, according to Jenkins.

Make work of lunches. For smaller education meetings, hold working lunches in breakout rooms rather than renting separate space for meals.

Think small(er). Bravo Events' clients are advised to request smaller plates, such as 7-inch dessert plates, rather than 10-inch dinner plates, for receptions and networking functions because it controls guests' consumption and reduces food waste. 

"You'll save money on the luncheon, which is often less expensive than a dinner menu. Plus, if you're providing a hosted bar, attendees tend to drink less at luncheons than at evening functions."
Greg Jenkins, Bravo Events

Jenkins and his colleagues also suggest taking a "smaller" approach to dessert by replacing dessert service as part of a dinner with a dessert station set up as a post-event function. "A dessert station can have less quantity for those with a sweet tooth, and you're not paying for dessert for those who won't eat it," Jenkins explains. He adds that whether dessert service is part of a meal function or becomes a separate event, bite-size desserts (think mini-cupcakes or tarts) can take the place of expensive options (such as chocolate mousse). "Most guests take two bites of dessert and the rest is tossed," he points out.

Bring the attendees to the food. Reducing the number of passed appetizers — or doing away with them completely in favor of serving stations — significantly decreases labor costs.

Eliminate less popular, potentially pricey fare. In Jenkins' experience, offerings like raw vegetable crudites and cheese — the tab for which can add up fast — often languish on buffet stations.

Turn evening functions into luncheons. "You'll save money on the luncheon, which is often less expensive than a dinner menu," Jenkins says. "Plus, if you're providing a hosted bar, attendees tend to drink less at luncheons than at evening functions."

Re-think the drink — alcoholic and otherwise. Substituting water from dispensers for bottled water (and canned soda, for that matter) at breakout time saves anywhere from $2 to $5 per serving. For evening functions, Bravo Events recommends allotting one or two alcoholic beverage tickets per attendee and asking that guests then pay cash for additional drinks at the bar.

Lighting and Audiovisual Gear


Engage as few vendors as possible. 
The fewer suppliers education meeting planners engage to handle lighting and A/V, the more likely they will be to successfully negotiate discounts on rentals and services, sources say.

Consider using outside labor. The cost of using in-house labor for setting up lighting and the like can be much higher than the cost of using outside labor. Read contracts carefully to determine whether there are restrictions or fees imposed on outside suppliers.

Put a limit on props. "Use more lighting to achieve a desired ambiance instead of a lot of props and theatrical scenery," Jenkins advises. "And while it might be nice to have two A/V screens for presentations, ask yourself if you can get away with just one."


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