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Tracy Stuckrath of Thrive! Meetings and Events led a packed IMEX session on controlling food and beverage costs.

Navigating Rising F&B Costs: Planners Weigh In

With costs moving stubbornly higher, meeting planners must be proactive and creative to stay within their F&B budget. A panel of planning veterans at the IMEX America show shared their strategies and tactics.

It’s no secret that costs for just about every element of meetings and events shot up in 2023—and even the slowing inflation rate probably won’t be enough to head off further event-cost hikes in 2024. As a result, the recent IMEX America show in Las Vegas had a breakout session featuring four planners with ideas on how to navigate the costs for food and beverage at meetings, and it was a standing-room-only affair.

One audience member recounted how she recently had to agree to a $15,000 F&B minimum for a two-day, 30-person meeting in order to book event space at a hotel in Washington, D.C., which effectively precluded the group from going to an outside restaurant for even one meal.

While there might have been no recourse if that planner was working with a short lead time, there are ways to minimize cost and maximize the experience for attendees around food and beverage when a planner has sufficient lead time. John McKinnon, founder of Voila Events, said that “first, your RFP should note that you want a discount on the property’s unpublished F&B rates that takes into account your total spending at the property—perhaps a 20-percent discount.”

Jaclyn Bernstein, president and partner at Empire Force Events, added that “as soon as the contract is signed, contact your conference-services manager and the head chef on property to find out what meals are being ordered by other groups in house over your dates, so you can piggyback on the volume-purchasing process and get more for your money.” Also, if the hotel has a consistent weekly or seasonal special in its restaurant, a planner could sync up the event menu with that special to get better pricing for at least one meal, and perhaps more.

McKinnon also implored planners to “get the term ‘prevailing rates’ out of your contracts. Make the hotel be specific for all items, or else you leave yourself open to an unpleasant surprise on the final bill.” At the least, have the property provide the prevailing rate for an item at least 10 days out, with the option to replace it in the event menu if it is too expensive.

Tracy Stuckrath, founder of Thrive! Meetings and Events, noted that smaller protein-based portions for main courses can be complemented with more plant-based items to fill each plate at lower expense and expose attendees to new foods. To further contain costs, McMillan suggested that planners “take dessert out of your sit-down lunches, which will save 15 to 18 dollars per head, and have exhibitors or sponsors offer dessert options at their booths to get attendees interacting with them.” The hotel should charge only a small fee for allowing such a set-up, especially if the group goes over its F&B minimum.

A little bit of extra thought around the meeting agenda can also bring big savings. On the final morning of a recent 600-person meeting on the West Coast, Stuckrath guaranteed only 300 people for breakfast because many attendees were flying out early in the day. A day earlier, she brought in a coffee truck to provide attendees with a different experience, which cost notably less and incurred only a small fee from the host property because the group’s minimum had been met.

When it comes to receptions, “you could nix the full bar and offer just beer, wine, and two specialty cocktails” to keep costs down, said McKinnon. But if you do opt for the full bar, “get a detailed record of what is consumed to make budgeting for future events easier.”

Lastly, all four panelists agreed that planners should be ready to negotiate service charges, especially because many properties have gone above the 20-percent rate and are listing a 22- to 28-percent service charge in their standard contracts.

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