Creative Ways to Stretch Your Food and Beverage Budget

By: Jeff Waddle

If you're creative with your food and beverage budget, you can save money and let your attendees taste everything Florida has to offer.

With an abundance of warm, sunny days and ample rainfall year-round, it's not surprising that Florida is one of America's most prolific food-producing states. In addition to being the nation's top producer (based on value) of oranges, grapefruit, and tangerines, the Florida Department of Agriculture reports that the Sunshine State ranks first in the production of fresh market tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, squash, and watermelons. It's clear to see why Florida enjoys a reputation as a "breadbasket" state.

But what does the proximity of all this fresh food mean to associations meeting in Florida's numerous hotels, resorts, and other event venues? It can translate to significant savings if you're flexible and creative. When planning your next event, keep these ideas in mind for stretching your food and beverage budget.

Custom Build Your Menu

It wasn't so long ago that association planners at most meeting venues would simply choose from a set food and beverage menu. Those days have gone the way of the floppy disk, says Ann Williams, director, catering and convention services, park event operations, for the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. "About three years ago, we were 70 percent menu items you could pick from a catalog of menus, but then in the next year and a half, we went almost totally custom build," says Williams.

"Local cuisine and seasonal items help stretch a meeting planner's budget."—Chris Mueller

Williams explains that Disney assigns a team of culinary consultants to work with every client to plan food and beverage functions for an association's program based not only on budget but the group's history as well. "If we know what they experienced in the past and what their budget is this time, we can work with them to ensure that returning guests don't say, 'Wow, they must have really had a budget cut this year' because of what they're seeing,'" she says.

"I like to work directly with the chef assigned to the venue and also the convention-services manager and explain to them this is what I need and [ask], 'Can you give it to me for X amount of dollars,' and they're usually very agreeable," says Joann Freel, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based National Association of EMS Educators, which conducted its 750-person annual symposium and tradeshow at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort last August.

To save on food and beverage expenses, Freel worked directly with chefs at both Coronado Springs and Epcot Center to design events that were a departure from past NAEMSE experiences. "Instead of having three separate thank-you dinners for our faculty, board, and committee chairs as we had done in the past, we lumped them together into one buffet dinner," says Freel. "The chef and convention-services manager worked with us to tailor an event that fit our budget. The food was great, and our leaders really enjoyed having an event that brought them all together to talk and network."

Freel explains that NAEMSE also departed from its history to do a special dessert-only night at Epcot Center's Isle of France, where attendees could bring along family members for a small fee. "Our people were just wowed, and the chef at Epcot worked with us so we didn't have to do the entire gamut," says Freel. "He helped whittle it down to what would be affordable for our association."

Use What's Available

When working with the chef and convention-services manager, Williams emphasizes that planners should let the chef make suggestions based on produce that's in season and other factors that could cut costs. "Walt Disney World has a purchasing group, and they look at local growers because obviously it cuts down on transportation costs," says Williams. "Examples of things we get at locally-reduced prices are tomatoes, strawberries, and melons, and we do a lot of fruit trays and salads so they are pretty important items for us. Also, because we are so big, we sometimes can leverage our surplus inventory. So, if we have a surplus of filets, for example, we're able to leverage that inventory as part of the chef's selections and the pricing is better for the client," she says, adding that Disney even offers discounts on tilapia that is farm raised onsite at Epcot's Agricultural Sciences Group.

Rod Gutierrez, manager, meetings and events for Florida-based Darden/BCD Travel, agrees that taking advantage of what's available is an effective way to reduce food expenses. "See what other groups are doing [with] F&B for various functions [at the venue] and piggyback with them," he says, adding that many Florida chefs work with local growers to leverage seasonal items. "This helps reduce the overall food and labor costs for the hotel and the savings are passed on to you. You end up with really good meals at a reduced price."

Chris Mueller, director of food and beverage outlets for the Hilton Orlando, agrees that taking advantage of local produce in season as well as other group functions at the hotel can reduce costs. "Local cuisine and seasonal items help stretch a meeting planner's budget," he says. "If a meeting planner is willing to choose a chef's selection menu, the chef can create a menu to coincide with another event going on at the same time. The ability to order in bulk will cut down on food costs which will result in a lower menu cost, especially with local products."

Rethink Everything

With the large food and beverage events that are commonplace at association conferences, every seemingly minor cost-cutting measure can represent potentially big savings. One popular budget-saving idea at events throughout Florida is replacing floral table arrangements with edible centerpieces that feature standard desserts or fresh local fruit.

"If you have a tough budget, be up front about it ... If you're honest with [the vendor], they'll work with you to maximize your dollar."—Tara Liaschenko

"Creative edible centerpieces can also serve as dessert for the table at banquets," says Gary Bitz, director of conference management at Rosen Shingle Resort in Orlando. "We've provided logo cakes in the center of the table or a modular stand that can hold a variety of individual dessert assortments."

Tara Liaschenko, CEO of The Link Events Professionals, Inc., in St. Petersburg, adds that centerpieces can even provide entertainment value. "Instead of getting centerpieces from a décor company and having entertainment, use things like board games as a centerpiece that also become part of the entertainment and interaction," she says.

Liaschenko also believes that groups can combine the bounty of Florida foods with the venue's culinary pros to create memorable food and beverage events while saving money. "Instead of bringing in entertainment, maybe you have the chef in house do a cooking demonstration that showcases local dishes and ingredients," she says. "We definitely have lots of seafood and farms in Florida so there are lots of local options for produce, fruits, and even meat and fish." Liaschenko adds that chefs at many top Florida hotels and resorts have their own cookbooks featuring local dishes that groups can use as a gift or to lend a local theme to the event.

"Portion sizes are another area of potential savings," says Williams. "Do you really need to have 10 ounces of beef, or is it OK to have six ounces of beef but a different cut?" she says. "Also, a plated dinner actually can be less expensive than a buffet, and it's a way of having what appears to have a higher value because of how people perceive the dining experience in plated versus buffet."

Liaschenko agrees that it's a common misconception that buffets are cheaper. If you choose to do a buffet, she adds, try using smaller plates. "If you go buffet, the trick is to always go with smaller plates because people are going to fill their plate regardless and if you give them a smaller plate, they're less likely to consume as much," she says. "Likewise, if you go with a plated dinner and want to use a smaller salad, put it on a smaller plate and they'll never know."

Another trend at Florida meetings that is both budget and eco friendly is doing away with bottled water. Instead, groups are stationing five-gallon water dispensers throughout the event area and distributing souvenir water bottles that are often provided by a sponsor.

"If a group can't afford to do the water bottle dispensers through a bottling company, we've offered the presentation of ice water in glass and silver dispensers with either lemons or strawberries," says Bitz of another option to bottled water. "This enhances the taste of regular ice water and gives it a favorable presentation."

Mueller suggests that groups can save substantially on food and beverage costs if they're flexible on when they host certain events. For example, consider switching your traditional awards dinner to a lunch or even a breakfast event, which can also free up time later in the day for conference delegates to enjoy the great outdoors that make Florida such a popular meetings destination.

Per-Diem Deals

In addition to conducting some events differently to keep costs in check, Freel says that NAEMSE changed the way it feeds its conference presenters. "We used to have a faculty room where we would provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but in order to cut back on expenses this year, we provided our faculty with an allotment, almost like a per diem. That did save us on our food and beverage, and our faculty liked the flexibility because someone likes a full breakfast, for example, while others might be a bagel and coffee person so they had some leftover dollars for a larger dinner," says Freel. She adds that since the allotment system eliminated the need for faculty to provide receipts, it simplified accounting and cost tracking for her staff.

In response to tighter budgets, Amelia Island Plantation on Florida's northeast coast is now offering a government per diem-type pricing structure for certain groups, says Beth Bolton, the resort's director of catering and conference services. "These menus are typically 25 to 30 percent lower than our standard banquet menus," says Bolton. "We also offer concession-style continental breakfast and lunches for larger groups (500 or more) with minimal planned food and beverage."

Keeping Bellies Full Within Budget

All education and networking aside, the ultimate success or failure of many association events in Florida might just come down to what's on the menu. "As association executives, all of our meetings revolve around food," says Freel. "Even though we're providing education, everyone likes to eat and drink and feel that they're taken care of."

Given its importance, Freel believes association executives must continue to be vigilant to keep food and beverage costs in check. "If anything, hotels and resorts have raised their prices on food and beverage, so you really have to think about what how you can be creative," she says.

Liaschenko agrees that creative thinking is the key to successful events, along with good vendor relationships that are built on honesty. "If you have a tough budget, be up front about it, because the venue can only help you as much as you tell them," she says. "If you're honest with them, they'll work with you to maximize your dollar."

Freel emphasizes that part of controlling costs when associations meet in the Sunshine State should be taking advantage of the sales-tax exemption Florida offers nonprofit groups for food and beverage expenditures. "If you're meeting in Florida, that tax break can be substantial. So apply through the state office at least three to four months in advance because it can take that long for the state to decide you are exempt and to obtain the document you'll need," says Freel. "Then, any time you go back to the state over the next three to four years, you present that document and you're not liable to pay those taxes."

Jeff Waddle is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer and editor of ASAE & The Center's Meetings & Expositions newsletter. Email: [email protected]