Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Budget Busters 101:
Look out for hidden charges!

The specific charges I want to discuss in this week’s post are the infamous “plus-plus” charges. Now, I know these are not really “hidden” in the sense of planners not knowing about them but, if you forget about them as you are planning your event’s food budget, they can quickly break the budget.

So what does “plus-plus” mean? Plus-plus refers to service charges and taxes. These fees are added on top of the base price for, say, the per person cost of that banquet you are planning to serve to your top sales people. Menus for catering typically list the base price with the plus-plus added on. It usually looks like this: $35++. When my wife and I were looking at catering for our wedding, she was amazed at how deceptive that little “++” could be. It seems so easy to just plug that $35/person into your budget and know how much your banquet would cost – but you would end up with the wrong number. This is one place where novice planners and those who do not usually handle catering often get into trouble.

Service charges vary by specific property, though the different hotels within a city or geographical area typically have similar rates. (20% is a common rate in larger cities such as San Francisco.) Remember, too, that service charges are taxable. Taxes are set by cities and states and are one of the few items that hotels really cannot negotiate away – after all, they still have to pay those taxes to the city or state whether they collect them from you or not (unless you are lucky enough to be tax exempt). There are many others areas they would prefer to negotiate on instead. And, if you cannot find the specific numbers, ask. You need to know them.

So, let’s look at our example banquet at $35 per person (base price) again. If you are feeding 100 people and have a budget of $4,000, it looks like you are OK. However, remember that the rate is actually $35++, so you have to take service charges and tax into account to know if you are really under budget. If we assume a 20% service charge and 10% in state and local taxes, then the total for your dinner is not $3,500 but would be, instead, $4,620 – a difference of over $1,000! That represents a huge amount to a group on a tight budget and even large events with much larger food budgets can get into trouble if the planner forgets to include tax and service charges in their budgeting.

Keeping an eye on your food budget can be tricky with any group but, if you remember to budget for the plus-plus, then at least you won’t find yourself tripped up by these “hidden charges”.

- Karl Baur, CMP, Project Director

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Reception Tip

Limit the number of different items that are served at your reception.

In an earlier post, I gave a brief response to the question of how much food to serve at a reception. Once you have determined how many “pieces” you need to have at your reception, you can start deciding what to serve at your reception. Most hotels and caterers have an extensive selection of reception items available to choose from and it is easy to go overboard and serve a little bit of everything. Resist that temptation!

One of the interesting things about receptions is that when you give your attendees a lot of choices of what to eat, they tend to choose everything. If you have ten different items to choose from, people will walk away from the food table with at least one of each item served on their plate. After they have nibbled on those items, they will go back for more of the items they particularly liked. Sometimes, they even do this without having finished what they took the first time! As the organizer, that can be very frustrating to see. To minimize this, we recommend that our clients limit the number of different items served at their receptions, usually to no more than four or five. That allows for a nice variety of items to be served, while reducing the “take one of everything” mentality to manageable levels.

For a small group, we’ll usually go with one meat item, one vegetarian item, and one cheese and crackers “item”. As the group increases in size, we’ll expand our choices from there to include one or two more items. No matter how large the group gets, though, we typically do not have more than five different items available. We would rather have more pieces of fewer items (so everyone can get some) than fewer pieces of many items (that the early birds are going to pick clean before everyone can get some). And, of course, what we choose to serve a particular group depends heavily on the preferences of that group. After all, you want the group to enjoy the food you’ve chosen for them, so don’t serve a meat item to an all-vegetarian group – no matter how much you may like meat dishes!

- Karl Baur, CMP

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

So how many people will that room hold anyway…?

Many experienced planners can just look at a meeting room and make a fairly accurate estimate of its capacity (without looking at a capacity chart) – which is, admittedly, a cool trick. But how do they do it and how do they know how large a room they need to begin with? They had to figure it out somehow, right? Right. Well, it all comes down to math…

Different room sets use different amounts of space and there are generally accepted guidelines as to how much space is needed per person for each type of seating. So, once you know how many square feet a room contains, it is a fairly easy matter to then figure out how many people it will hold. For instance, I assume that I will need 15 square feet of space for each person attending a banquet. If the room is 4,000 square feet, then I figure I should be able to get about 260-270 people in comfortably. This (very rough!) estimate includes space for servers to access the tables once diners are seated, space for people to sit and move about easily, exit aisles, and so forth. I also include space for the common audio-visual equipment that might be needed for the program in my estimate since I would rather have slightly too much space for my group than not enough. Great. So what about other types of seating? Here are the approximations I most frequently use:

Banquet (60” or 72” rounds): 15 square feet/person
Classroom (18” tables): 15 square feet/person
Classroom (30” tables): 20 square feet/person
Theater or Reception: 10 square feet/person
Hollow Square: 40 square feet/person

It is important to note that these are not formal space requirements. I’ve rounded up the industry standards so as to make the math easier for me to do a quick estimate. If you don’t want to do the math (and have access to the internet when you need the estimate), here is a site offering an online space capacity calculator ( that will help you get a more accurate estimate of a room’s capacity – and it can run calculations for the most common room sets all at once. Tools like this are a great addition to your meeting planning toolkit but, when I really need to know exactly how many people can fit, I work with my Convention Services Manager (CSM) and the hotel’s room specification charts to get actual capacities. Each room is different – you need to take into account the shape, the locations of doors/exits, existence of pillars or other obstacles, and so on. What fits into one space may not in another, even though they have the same square footage! Your CSM will have the experience and knowledge to help you get the most out of the space at his or her property.

As always, the specific needs of your group will have a huge impact on how large of a room you need – but these estimates should at least give you a place to start. One thing to always keep in mind: City Fire Codes are the final arbiter of a room’s maximum capacity. So, just because you could fit more people in based on your calculations doesn’t mean it is legal or safe to do so.

- Karl Baur, CMP

Note: To work it the other direction and figure out how much space you need for a group, you simply multiply the number of people by the per person approximation to get a rough estimate. If I need to serve 300 people in a banquet (which needs approx. 15 square feet per person), then I should be looking for a room that is about 4,500 square feet.

Ed Note: Given the number of people still referencing this post, I have decided to add one more element to it - a downloadable PDF. You can download a one-page PDF "cheat sheet"for looking up various seating capacities based on a room's square footage.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Tips

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Three powerful words in today’s economy. As a nation, we are trying to become more eco-friendly by learning ways to reduce our carbon footprint. Here are some easy tips for everyday use.

It’s really quite simple if you can believe that. At the office or at home, instead of printing on a fresh piece of paper, reuse paper that was going in the trash anyway. The backside is just as fresh as the front. Buy recycled paper when ordering supplies. Have a recycle container next to the printer. Go through old binders or clean out your work tray and use those papers for recycling. It helps lighten your load and you feel more organized. As a meeting planner, we have a “recycle printer” to use for documents that are important for saving but couldn’t be avoided for the printer. Be mindful of what you are printing. Don't print at all if you can avoid it. If you need to print two pages, use both sides of one page. It’s easy and only takes a few more clicks in the printing option to reduce.

Bottles and cans are one of the easiest ways to recycle. At the office, have a recycle canister in one location and when it’s full, take it home and give it to your neighbor who collects, crushes, organizes and takes the materials to a recycle location. If you’re lucky, you can trade with your friendly neighbor and have them bring you fresh fruits and vegetables by giving them the recyclables.

The going green movement is also helping industries to reduce and save money. What a revelation! Some nice examples include the hospitality/service industry and the meeting planning industry. Paper registration that is faxed or mailed is just wasteful. That is a piece of paper, plus the cover letter that you’ve used, then faxed (which is a small fee), and two or three more pieces of paper for the coordinator to stamp and file. What a time commitment you’ve added for everyone involved. Online registration is a one-stop shop and you get your confirmation receipt emailed immediately afterwards. How simple and has absolutely no waste. Partner with businesses that are also going green. Order food that is organic and locally grown. It gives the city an economic boost and you put a much lighter carbon footprint on the earth. For more tips click here.

We are on our way to becoming a paperless nation. It is our responsibility to be conscious of mother earth. There is much more work to do and we can’t save the world alone but together we can have a conscious effect on the planet and there is no better time than the present.

Click here for more information on how to green your business.

Peace and love,
Tess Conrad, Meeting Planner

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

iPhone Apps

Are you busy traveling from meeting to meeting? Do you happen to be one of the world’s 22 million iphone users? How does one keep up with all the apps that are released each and every week? It’s a big job for sure!

This month’s Travel and Leisure Magazine (online version) includes a featured slide show showing some of the most common apps for the busy traveler and meeting goer. This article by Jason Cochran talks about a number of “must have” apps that are featured to make your travel life simpler. Check them out and see what you think.

I currently have the Gasbag app (it's one he talks about) on my iPhone and it is great! It helps locate gas stations and prices for gas. It also helps me track how efficient my 4-Runner is when I travel. I don’t like being late for anything, especially a meeting or a big conference! Just be careful when using the Gasbag app – the information you get is only as efficient as the user who enters it.

- Cyndy Hutchinson, Meeting & Conference Planner