As fall approaches, the conference circuit is heating up around the country. But behind the well-run facade of a modern conference is a maze of logistical and financial challenges that must be overcome. Event planning is “one part editorial, one part marketing, and one part theater,” says Jess Black, head of events for the content management software company, Contently.
We spoke with Black, who is in charge of about 35 events a year — from large two-day conferences to smaller executive dinners — to learn more about the stressful but exciting art of financing and planning corporate events.
Budget in Advance
For Contently, successful events are measured by the value of the experience and the interest generated in the company, all while keeping costs in line. “Some elements of event planning are stressful, but that's what
also makes it exciting,” says Black.
Her careful approach to reining in expenses starts at the end of the year, when she establishes expected budgets for each event for the coming year. “In the last six weeks of the year, I do a ton of research,” Black says. She starts out with historical data for similar events, then looks at expected costs for each element of the event, like venues, catering and audio/visual needs.
“I have to back up the budget with our ability to make that money back, and also balance lead generation with customer nurturing.” The value of a lead, Black adds, is as much a part of the calculation as the expected attendance fees or projected expenses.
Stick to the Plan
Sticking to the plan is key to managing expenses. “I try not to deviate from the budgets,” she says. “It's really easy to get distracted by all the cool things you can add to an event, like a new speaker that would cost thousands of dollars, or using a better brand of vodka in the cocktails.” Those kinds of last-minute decisions can derail a budget, Black says. So, you have to ask yourself hard questions about return on investment for a frill you hadn't planned for.
That said, you have to allow for some wiggle room for on-the-spot expenses. “I build that into the budget, so it's not crippling if you need to spend a couple of hundred dollars on hole punchers,” she says. Likewise, she's willing to go higher on budget for critical services, or ones where she may not have enough knowledge on where to cut costs. “I don't know much about AV, so I'm willing to spend more money there,” Black says. “I want the Olympic-athlete version of AV people.”
Track Costs in Real Time
Once she starts spending money on an event, Black keeps track of costs in Expensify, the cloud-based expense management tool. She also creates a spreadsheet for each event, and continually compares anticipated costs to actual expenses. “At the end of the month I compare the spreadsheet to Expensify to find things I forgot, like random meals,” Black says. She then enters those costs into the spreadsheet so she always has a snapshot of how close she's sticking to budget.
For on-site expenses, “I try to charge everything to the same company credit card,” Black says, instead of using cash or spreading expenses among different cards. “Then it's easier for me to judge what we're actually spending, instead of what I think we're spending.”
Evaluate Return on Spend
Once the event wraps up, Black evaluates the return on event expenditures. Audience surveys provide feedback on event content and speakers, as well as food and the venue. This feedback can help her decide where to spend more (or less) money at similar events in the future. But she also takes a close look at the event's ability to drive new business, since that's also a key metric. “If we close new deals, that adds value,” Black says. “It's about knowing where you need to spend money, and justifying the expense.”
Christine Kent brings over 20 years of writing and journalism expertise to her work for technology, consumer and corporate organizations. Her journalism-driven approach enables her to not just write a document, but to find the voice of a client to tell their story in the most compelling way.