Do more with less is the planners’ mantra for 2023. With an annual inflation rate of more than 7 percent reported by the U.S. Department of Labor in November, it’s no wonder more than half of planners in a recent Encore survey say they expect to spend more on transportation, event technology, and food and beverage for future meetings.
Professional associations grappling with rising costs and tight budgets are innovating to find budget-friendly options, including hosting fewer meetings, shortening meeting times, using less expensive venues and food options, choosing destinations close to their members, and negotiating everything. The Alabama Association of Realtors (AAR), based in Montgomery, began scaling back its largest events a few years ago. With more than 19,000 members, the association previously held multiple four- or five-day conferences each year, sometimes even traveling out of state.
Now, the association hosts one annual in-state conference. The 2022 Annual Conference took place at the Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa. This October, members will gather at Gulf Shores on the Alabama coast. The goal is to host events with impact at interesting locations while maintaining amenities their members value.
“We realized we should have fewer conferences and a shorter [length of time],” says Madeline Roth, AAR’s events and professional development manager. “We didn’t want to be a financial burden every time [an event] came around.”
In 2022, the conference celebrated the organization’s 100th anniversary. To keep the event festive and budget-friendly, Roth created a feature wall with lights and balloons rather than purchasing memorabilia to give away.
“It was one big statement piece members could take pictures with,” Roth says. “I found that to have more bang for the buck than lots of little things. It was one big thing they will remember for years to come.”
The association trims costs for attendees by holding the conference onsite at the hotel and offering à la carte sessions for the approximately 300 guests. Key elements of the conference include honoring new leadership, an awards dinner, and educational sessions for professional development and networking.
“Each session is broken down into individual prices,” Roth says. “Members get to choose what is most interesting to them and what they spend their money on. We typically look for hotels that have event space so the conference is all in one building.”
Trimming the food and beverage expenses is more challenging. The association plans a formal dinner the first night and a boxed
lunch, instead of a more costly plated dinner, the next day.
“Food is something we don’t want to skimp on,” she continues. “This is Alabama. People like to have a good meal.”
The association doesn’t provide snacks during the conference but schedules shorter sessions to give attendees time to purchase their own snacks and beverages.
“With each year, we’re always working to improve,” Roth says. “It’s thinking on your feet and being a strategic planner to save money and make a memorable experience for our members.”
Location, location, location
Some associations are cutting costs by holding events close to their members, moving events to smaller towns, or taking advantage of less expensive college campus facilities.
The Georgia Library Media Association (GLMA), based in Waverly Hall, held its 2022 Summer Institute in Peachtree City, Ga., just southwest of Atlanta—a location from which many attendees could commute home after each day’s sessions. This year, the gathering is moving to a less expensive venue in the small northeast Georgia town of Helen. The group hopes attract 200 to 250 attendees despite an anticipated increase in registration fees, says Ashley Sherman, communications coordinator for GLMA, a professional organization dedicated to advancing school library media specialists.
Vendor sponsorships cover most expenses and extras such as swag bags, says Sherman, who also is a school library media specialist.
“Vendors are already reaching out to us for 2023,” she says. “We have book publishers, sometimes furniture vendors that provide furniture for school libraries.”
Most guest presenters at the conference are unpaid, and GLMA members volunteer to present education sessions. Informal sessions take place in the hotel lobby or public area.
“We talked about doing a run or a hike,” Sherman says. “None of that costs any money. It’s just fellowship and collaboration.”
The Mississippi Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA), based in Clinton, is considering going back to school. After years of hosting its annual Winter Conference at a convention center, the group is thinking of returning to a more budget-friendly college campus venue. Many of the association’s 850 members are alumni of the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine in the town of Mississippi State, and that’s where the organization is considering holding its Winter Conference in 2024 and beyond.
“Our  Winter Conference is in a location adjacent to the College of Veterinary Medicine,” says DeAnna Dillard, MVMA executive director. “In the past, we’ve actually had this Winter Conference on the campus of the veterinary school.”
The annual February event doubles as a mini-reunion for veterinary school alumni, so holding it on campus is fitting. “Probably 75 percent of attendees are alumni from the veterinary school,” Dillard says. “It’s a great opportunity for them to catch up. That’s why we don’t sponsor after-conference events. We want to allow them time to do their thing.”
Returning to the veterinary school would reduce audiovisual and facility fees, Dillard says. “I will have to give on some other areas,” she notes. “I won’t have food and beverages onsite, so I have to look at offsite catering and then the space in which to do lunch buffets. I’m going to have to work through how to cut those costs.”
The association’s Summer Conference is held at The Lodge at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Ala. The beachside location attracts members who bring their families to enjoy nearby activities. “It’s pricey, but I’ve been able to rely on a lot of sponsorships to get those offset,” Dillard says.
The association also eliminated most printed materials, which resulted in noticeable cost savings. MVMA now provides conference speaker notes, handouts, and presenters’ slide presentations to attendees on a USB flash drive data storage device.
“It’s a fraction of the cost,” Dillard says. “We implemented that right before COVID-19, and we saw that definitely helped us to continue cutting our costs. In the past, presenters would send us this [material] and we would have it printed into this booklet, and it was costly and it took up a lot of space. Digitizing cut our costs significantly.”
Reducing the number of conference sessions and increasing sponsorships also saved money by having exhibitors fund speakers and various portions of the event.
“We used to offer as many as six concurrent sessions,” Dillard says. “We’ve now scaled that back to four, and that has helped. We don’t have as many guest speakers, but we’re still able to get quality, renowned speakers.
“We also took a hard look at food and beverage consumption; that’s usually the most expensive part of any conference,” she notes. “While we wanted to provide the coffee and water all throughout the conference, we encouraged people to bring a coffee cup so we didn’t have a lot of paper products to purchase.”
The group also scaled back food choices on its lunch buffet. In keeping with the industrywide trend, the MVMA began serving healthy, fresh foods and offering a smaller number of meat and side dishes while maintaining a vegetarian option.
“With both conferences, we have had to get a little creative on cutting some costs without cutting the quality of the event,” Dillard says.
Negotiate and DIY
Other associations have found additional cost-cutting measures, often out of necessity.
“We’ve always had budget constraints, so I’ve learned over the years you have to cut where you can,” says Jeanne McFall, director of conference services for the Louisiana Dental Association (LDA). “We try to make events reasonably priced, and the way we do that is by cutting costs but keeping it nice.”
The association gave up a bit of space for its annual L.H. Bowden Leadership Development Conference—which draws 30 to 50 people—by moving the location from a hotel to an LDA office. “It’s a little scrunched, but it saves money,” McFall says.
Before moving any event, McFall says she considers whether other logistics, such as finding new vendors, are worth the potential cost savings. “For bigger conferences, I don’t shop around for vendors too much,” she says, adding, “I try to cut costs when working with them. I’ve learned to negotiate with everyone and anyone I work with. If you can’t negotiate your costs, then I don’t work with you.”
Like others, McFall relies on sponsorships to help defray meeting expenses. And she says she achieved significant cost savings by learning to handle tasks that previously were outsourced. For example, McFall uses a free online graphic design tool to create sponsor signs, floor clings, aisle numbers, and other content that used to be sent to a vendor.
“It saved us thousands of dollars,” she says. “It’s very easy. If I can do it, anybody can do it. To me, saving money is thinking outside the box. Little things really do add up.”