Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What is a CVB and how can they help your meeting?

CVB stands for Convention and Visitors Bureau. When we looked at common acronyms in the industry, this was one that definitely needed to be in that list and, if you are new to meeting planning, this is one of those terms that you absolutely must learn. Why? What’s in it for you as a planner?

Well, for starters, CVBs exist for the sole purpose of bringing business to their city and region – from individual travelers all the way up through citywide conventions. They have the resources and knowledge to help you find the right venue or the right services to support your event. You do not need to know the region in depth – that’s their job. Every first and second-tier city has one (some areas have more!) and most third-tier cities have them as well.

They can also assist you in selecting a venue for your event – helping with everything from initial determination of meeting specs and lead distribution to collecting proposals and aiding with site inspections.

They are a resource for every kind of service that you could need for your meeting or conference. If they do not have members who offer the kinds of services you are looking for, they can help find them. I will often use the CVB to help me find AV providers, caterers, decorators, and other specialty services – especially if I do not know anyone in that area already who provides the services I need.

If you need information on events going on while you are in town, the CVB can provide that to you – everything from dining options and shopping centers to museums, sporting events, and theaters. Remember, the Bureaus are geared to help individuals as well as groups so, when I need to know what options exist for my meeting attendees before or after my meeting is done, the CVB gives me a great place to start to find the things that will interest my group.

The kicker for me, though, is the cost – free. That’s right, free! How CVBs are financed varies by bureau but, for me as a planner, there is no cost for most of what they offer in the way of assistance.

It is worth noting that Bureaus are usually funded by a combination of taxes on hotel rooms sold and disbursements from their cities so, yes, I do “pay” for the service through taxes on guest rooms for my groups but that tax will be charged whether I use the CVB or not – so why would I not use them? If in doubt, ask them what they can do to help you for free and what comes with a cost. The stuff I’ve mentioned above, though, is all provided for free.

Another bonus is that many of these resources are available online (also free of charge) and the CVB web sites are a great way to get an initial “feel” for a city and what they might have to offer your group in the way of attractions, dining, entertainment, etc. Look for the “meeting planner” links on their sites. You can get valuable information about venues in the region, as well as submit a Request for Proposals (RFP), check out their convention and events calendars, or locate local vendors for the services your event needs.

Check them out. You may be surprised at how much a CVB has to offer you…

~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How do I know if a budget expense is variable or fixed?

Here’s another question for you: why should you care? After all, many planners never have to worry about this at all. I’ll assume that, if you asked the question, you care about the answer. However, my take on it in general is: if you are going to work with event budgets, then it is your responsibility as a meeting planner to make those budgets as accurate as possible. Knowing whether an expense is a variable or fixed cost is crucial to that goal. It is also an absolute requirement if you are going to do projections and not simply post-event reports. And, one of the most important projections you can do is to calculate at what point your event “breaks-even” and starts making money. [For more info on calculating the break-even point, check out my previous post on that subject (Part 1/Part 2).]

In preparing or working with conference budgets, one area that many novice planners struggle with is knowing when a budget expense is fixed and when it is variable. Fortunately, there is a simple rule of thumb that will help you keep it straight: if the total cost for an expense goes up or down proportionally as you increase or decrease the number of participants, then it is a variable cost. If not, it is a fixed cost.

Some cases are easy – meals, for example. Food and beverage costs are nearly always considered Variable Costs when calculating event budgets. Why is that? Well, meals are prepared, served, and billed “per person”. If your 75 person meeting suddenly jumps to 125, then your total bill jumps proportionally; each person added to the count increases your costs by the same amount. Similarly, the total cost of your meal will drop if your numbers drop (providing you have not already guaranteed a minimum number of meals). Handouts for attendees and confirmation letters are two more examples of Variable Expenses.

Speaker fees are another simple example – this time of a fixed cost. If you are paying $1,000 to a speaker, that fee does not usually change if there is a change in the number of attendees for the meeting. Nor do the speaker’s travel costs change (if you are paying for those). It does not matter how many people actually attend your meeting, the airline will still charge the same for the speaker’s ticket. Other examples of Fixed Costs are meeting space rental, audio-visual charges, and marketing expenses, just to name a few.

So what about tax and service charges – the dreaded “plus-plus”? They count as Variable or Fixed, depending on what expense they are tied to. When calculating tax and service charge on meals, you should include them as a variable cost. If they are being tacked on to room rental, then they should be treated as fixed.

Though much of this may seem to be pretty obvious, it can get confusing. Where most people start making mistakes is when they see expenses that do change as attendance numbers change but are not directly tied to individuals. Audio-Visual charges, for example, can often trick novice planners – these fixed expenses are often misidentified as variable. What the planner says to me is something like: “but I would not have ordered that microphone if my numbers had not grown so it must be a variable expense.” While that statement may be true, adding or removing a microphone on your order is a result of a certain threshold being reached and not a function of each individual added to or subtracted from the audience – therefore it should be considered a fixed expense.

Though the examples provided here are but a few of the potential budget items that you might have to manage, the rule of thumb provided above should aid you in determining how each item in your budget should be handled. If there is an item you are not sure of, or have questions about specific budget items, please send me an email and I’ll be happy to respond to your questions.

~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What is a “Pre-Con”?

“Pre-Con” is short for pre-conference (or pre-convention) and can refer to any meeting that occurs before the main conference or convention. However, for meeting planners and hoteliers, the term has a particular meaning that is instantly recognized by any who have been in the industry for a while. We use the term to indicate a specific kind of meeting that takes place before the conference, one between the meeting planner and the venue. So why is this special meaning important? What happens at these meetings that make the term stand out in the hospitality industry?

At its most basic, a pre-con is a meeting in which a representative for the group producing the meeting meets with a representative from the venue in which the meeting is being held for the purpose of reviewing the details of the event to ensure accuracy and completeness. This meeting gets everyone on board and “on the same page”.

A typical pre-con begins with the venue welcoming the group. Introductions are made of all of those present from the hotel side and their role in making the event a success. The planner will introduce their team as well. I think of this part of the pre-con as the “big picture” section. We review the goals and objectives for the event and discuss the keys to making the event a success. This section is not always needed and whether or not it is included is often a function of your needs and preferences as well as the size of your event. The larger your event, the more likely this will be included in some fashion. For small functions, an informal round of handshakes may suffice before you move on.

The next portion of the pre-con, which I call the “nuts & bolts” section, usually involves a much smaller group than the “big picture” piece. Where the “big picture” piece can involve as many as 20 people, the “nuts & bolts” piece will usually not involve more than five or six – and I have often had just two or three people (including myself) for smaller meetings. This portion of the pre-con is where the details of the event and the BEOs are discussed in…well, detail. Everything is reviewed to ensure that everyone knows what is scheduled to happen when, what goods or services are to be provided, and who the responsible parties are. This portion of the pre-con is the part you should not ever skimp on – take the time to do it and do it thoroughly.

For large events, I make sure to meet with my CSM far enough in advance to make sure that there is time to inform every department of any changes and get them “on board” with my group’s requirements. Typically, holding the pre-con the day before the event starts provides sufficient time for this, though I have seen pre-cons done as many as three or four days ahead of time. If I am managing a small event, do I still do a pre-con? Absolutely, though it may just be a quick review of the BEOs with my catering manager the night before my meeting starts. In any case, though, I never do a meeting or conference without conducting a pre-con prior to the beginning of the event – and neither should you!

~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Healthy Meeting Options – Meals & Snacks

When planning meals and snacks for meetings, it can be hard to provide healthy options to participants. Actually, the hardest part is getting people to choose healthy options but, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. So what’s a meeting planner to do? Make sure the options exist. Here are some of the ways I strive to provide healthier meal and snack options for attendees at my meetings.

1. Make sure that fruit and/or vegetables are available as much as possible within the constraints of the menu. For me, this usually means whole fruit for breaks, particularly in the afternoon, since they last longer on display and can easily be taken by those who want a healthy snack later on. I typically include a vegetable-based item for receptions.

2. For any meal where fowl or red meat is a main component, be sure to include a vegetarian option. For lunch buffets, this could mean including entrées that are based on non-meat proteins such as beans or tofu, or alternate meats such as fish, depending on the needs of your diners. At receptions, including multiple dishes that do not contain meat gives participants additional choices.

3. Control meal portions. This is nearly impossible to do with buffets, but is quite easy to do with plated lunches (read this post for more info on plated vs. buffet meals). You can control portions at receptions through choices of items or by having servers walk around the room instead of simply putting all of the food out at once (which I discuss briefly here).

4. Talk to the chef about lean meat options so that those who choose meat dishes still get a healthier meal. The chef can often even work with limited budgets to still make this happen.

5. If possible, choose snacks that are low in fat and salt and that contain no added sugar.

Now, I don’t always use every one of these ideas but even choosing just one or two of them will help you provide healthy meals or snacks for your events. Use the ones that make sense for your budget and particular situation – and, above all else, that make sense for your group. If the attendees won't eat a particular item, then providing it is a waste of food and money. However, that does not mean I can't provide healthy options to that group…it just means I need to work a little more to find something they will like.

~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises

Ed. Note: A follow up post on beverages - the other half of F&B - can be found here.