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Choice Cuts for Food and Beverage Savings

F&B prices are through the roof, but with some careful and strategic planning you can stay on budget and still delight attendees.

In an informal MeetingsNet survey, 87 percent of planner respondents said F&B is the first area they address when cutting costs. As Maggie Kearney, meeting and publications manager with the International College of Surgeons–U.S. Section, says, “After looking at the hotel-menu prices for my next meeting, we’re calculating a registration fee increase because we just have no room to absorb the inflation in our budget … There really isn’t a magic solution” when it comes to F&B.

While you could shorten your meeting just enough to eliminate the final meal—as 44 percent of our survey respondents suggested—there are less drastic ways to trim the fat. Most planners are aware of time-tested strategies such as working with the chef to take advantage of locally sourced ingredients, reducing portion sizes, and using less-expensive proteins, e.g. swapping out pork for beef. But there are more ways to save on your F&B bottom line. Here are 26 ideas for to consider. Have you tried them all?

F&B Creative Cuts
Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, founder of thrive! meetings & events and the “Eating at a Meeting” podcast, has some suggestions for cutting F&B expenses that you might not have considered.

• Check the contracts for deadlines. “There are a lot of new contract deadlines for ordering meals that can add upwards of 25 percent onto the cost of the meal if the deadlines are not met. Meet them!” she says.

• Put soda and bottled water on ice. “It might limit the number of cans attendees pick up,” says Stuckrath. A cold, wet can of soda might be refreshing but attendees are less likely to squirrel it away for later in their conference bag.

• Study attendees’ meal preferences. Watch the buffets not just to see what goes fast (ahem, shrimp) but also what goes uneaten. “If they didn’t eat the croissants, don’t order them again,” says Stuckrath.

• Do not preset bread. Serve it upon request.

• Reconsider specialty/sponsored cocktails. Watch the cost of these, Stuckrath says; it can vary by property and ingredients. And “if you’re getting them sponsored, make sure the price reflects the cost of the beverage.”

• Use inclusive menu design. You need to accommodate food allergies and preferences, so try to save costs simultaneously by incorporating dietary needs into the overall menu design—for example, by creating a gluten-free menu—to minimize personalized plates.

• Get specifics on special meals. Reach out to attendees who say they have special dietary needs. First, ask them which food functions they are attending. “There’s no sense ordering a meal for them if they won’t be there,” Stuckrath says. But don’t stop there. “If they specify kosher meals, ask them the level of kashrut they follow. Some may need a meal prepared by a kosher caterer. Another may simply want to avoid pork, shellfish, and plates with meat and dairy set together. I saved $2,330++ on one event by doing this and not having to order catered kosher meals for a couple of attendees.”

Tried-and-True F&B Tactics
• Serve leftover breakfast pastries for mid-morning breaks and skip the luncheon dessert to serve it as a mid-afternoon snack.

Arrange to pay for packaged items on a consumption basis so you can return unused items. Also, order a la carte when possible.

• Order mini versions of the usual pastries, cookies, and brownies—or have them cut in half.

Consider coffee-and-tea-only mid-morning breaks.

Use smaller-sized cups and plates for self-serve F&B stations to cut down on consumption and waste. Similarly, Kearney says she doesn’t hesitate to ask the hotel about cutting a salad or side dish from a buffet menu to reduce cost a bit. “It’s not a huge savings, but a couple dollars per person per meal adds up.” 

Give attendees a gift card to go out to dinner on their own rather than holding a banquet in a ballroom. “They get to hang out with their peers and experience the city. We save nearly $100 per person since dinners in the venue are so expensive,” said one survey respondent. “It’s a win-win.” Gift cards or vouchers for the venue’s F&B outlets also could be a cost-saving option for departure breakfasts.

• Right-size your numbers. Survey attendees to learn who’s planning to skip a meal. imilarly, if you know you have a late night, or you have a lot of West Coast attendees coming to an East Coast event, plan for fewer at breakfast the next morning.

Want more? Find cost savings tips for event tech, ground transportation, and venues, here.

Instead of individual sodas, offer iced tea or lemonade by the gallon. Also, flavored water dispensers are trendy, tasty, and even less expensive than iced tea or lemonade. “Several years ago, we stopped providing soft drinks at coffee breaks,” Kearney says. “I thought that would be a bone of contention the first year, but no one seemed to notice.” Eliminating individual sodas also curbs the save-it-for-later phenomenon, “when you watch people loading up their tote bags with cans to take up to their rooms for later,” noted one MeetingsNet survey respondent.

Similarly, water stations with pitchers and glasses rather than bottled water is less expensive and better for the environment.

• Offer your least expensive meal early in the program. As one person in the MeetingsNet survey noted, if you start out pricey, they’ll notice if you lower the F&B bar later in the conference. “If you want to do a meatless lunch, do it on the first day,” this person suggested.

• Think about going low on your F&B guarantees. Most hotels plan for 5 percent to 10 percent over your guarantee, so if you under-guarantee a bit, you can save without anyone going hungry. This can be a tricky calculation, notes Kearney, but she never guarantees the total number of registered attendees for a buffet. “You have to try to guess how many of your guests will skip the buffet, such as speakers who are coming to present early and then leaving, or not arriving until after lunch. If your attendees generally clear out the buffet, you probably can’t risk coming up short. But even guaranteeing 95 meals instead of 100 saves $250 on a $50 meal cost,” she said. “That $250 might cover the sound system for the same lunch.”

• Check with the chef to see what other groups are eating in-house over your dates. “The chef can ‘gang’ the menus to minimize supplier orders and use the same products,” said Stuckrath. Similarly, many properties have a “meal of the day” program, offering the same meal to all events in house as a way to keep costs down.

If your attendees aren’t big drinkers, a consumption bar is often less expensive than what you’d get with a hosted-bar package price.

Offer guests pre-poured glasses of wine when they arrive at your reception to reduce consumption of the more expensive liquor at the bar.

Ask your venue if they have any “dead stock”—such as wine they’re no longer listing on the wine menu. These can be a great value.

Specify that the banquet captain should only open wine and liquor bottles as needed to save on paying for bottles that get uncorked but go unused.

Ask the venue if it can store open bottles of liquor from one reception to be used at another function for the same meeting group.

• Offer a limited number of drink tickets at the reception, then move to a cash bar.

• Don’t announce when the reception bars are getting ready to shut down. Some attendees will interpret “last call” as “go grab as many drinks as you can before they’re gone.”

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