Event Budget: 17 Swaps That Will Save You Money

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Serve Food that Doesn’t Interrupt the Networking

Event budget is the number one priority for event planners in 2018. Here is a list of event budget swaps that will save you money while making your event better.

Our research speaks loud and clear. Event budget is the top challenge for event professionals. While budgets overall are staying the same, if not increasing, expectations and costs are rising.

That puts a lot of pressure on you, dear reader, to continually deliver events 10 times better at half the price.

While we don’t have magic hats or wands to make that happen, we researched the web for budget swap opportunities that make sense and can actually deliver more value, while saving money. 

Yes, you hear me right.

Less Money. More Value.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, unless you are reading EventMB. That’s what we specialize in.

So let’s look at 17 ideas to make your event more special while saving big bucks.

A big problem attendees have with networking time is that often they are trying to juggle conversations and balance plates and glasses as they mingle around the room within a limited amount of time.

Instead, there is an easy way to avoid these difficulties to encourage more conversations and save costs to your bottom line. Your guests will appreciate it!

By opting for oversized canapés, instead of a standard (and uninspiring) buffet menu, you are making it easier for your guests to chat. We don’t mean tiny bite-sized hors d’oeuvres either, we mean substantial, filling, finger food that can be eaten without embarrassment (napkin can be offered but no plate required). These can be passed throughout the room and work brilliantly for a standing occasion. And served alongside wine, beer or fruit juices, whatever your preference.

budget swap canapés

Let’s get to the numbers.

In New York City, the buffet menus range from $47.50 – $67.50 per person. The same caterer offers hearty canapés for $25 per person, per hour, for unlimited quantities. This is a saving of $22.50 per head and potentially an option that will suit your guests much better anyway.

Not to be scoffed at. Pardon the pun!

Use Sauces or Props to Save on Meat

When it gets to meat at seated events, beef and fish will carry a higher price than chicken. Yet chicken usually does not impress.

What about jazzing it up with clever sauces such as chocolate or exotic fruit? Good presentation or props can make the plate come to life.

budget swap beef and chicken

Think Chicken breast with three colorful sauces and a paintbrush on the plate.

You can buy 144 brushes in bulk for less than $15 here.

Beef costs around $38 per 2.2lb for a tenderloin cut.

Chicken breast costs around $8.

This a massive $30 saving you can allocate to more pressing items. Work with your caterer to be more inventive and save money, while adding the wow factor.

Unify your Goody Bag to Save Big Bucks

We have many ideas available on the blog for goody bag inspiration. Yet, getting individual bits and pieces from different vendors can push up the price of your swag.

Goody bag sets are an increasingly more popular choice because they offer you all the basics you may expect in traditional goody bags with substantial cost savings.

Central Park Tote bag $6.74 per 500

Pen and spiral journal $2.25 per 1000

Convention Set including Tote bag, Pen and spiral journal $5.37 per 500

That’s almost a $4 per attendee saving.

But it’s not the same! You may say. Yes, it is. Unless you invest in super cool totes that have fancy features and become usable outside of the event, every tote is the same in the eye of the attendee.

Budget swap goody bags

Speed Up Check-in But Cut Your Staff Bill

At peak registration periods it is easy for queues to start building. No one wants their event to start out the wrong way.

You can add more check-in staff to reduce the pressure but this means that you need to pay a full day rate of $400 – $450 when really you just need support for a couple of hours.

Offering self-service kiosks could be a speedy and cost-effective option to help keep things moving.

You can expect to pay $175 for self-service kiosks. Lilitab & Heckler Floor Standing Tablet Kiosks can be rented for $125 and iPad rentals from the same vendor can range from $50 to $150 depending on the model and spec required. An Apple iPad Air 16GB Gen 1 would do the job and is $50 per device.

You can add two self-service kiosks for less than the price of one additional staff member to help with registration.

(note: Aria AV is a current sponsor but no payment was received for this placement)

budget swap ideas check in

Swap Banners for Digital Signage for Better Wayfinding and Information

Retractable banners are still a sad reality at many events. The horror for the eye, the bulky transport, the incredible waste (unless you work with the same venue, in the same room for all your events).

You can do better than that. You can go digital.

A cheap retractable banner stands can cost you $30 to $40 if you buy in bulk.

Modern venues should offer digital signage as part of their service offering. And it should be free. I’ve personally reviewed dozens of venues around the world that offer digital signage free of charge.

wayfinding budget swap

You should reconsider your negotiation or venue selection to get the venue to do the legwork for you.

We recently ran an event where the signage consisted of sending a couple of PowerPoint slides to our venue. Modern venues think that way.

Digital signage cost $0.

Be Daring with your Catering for a Refreshing Event Vibe

Don’t spend on a formal, three or five-course seated dinner, try something out of the ordinary to give a completely different feel to your event. Having a black-tie dinner with guests seated on round tables is often the preferred format for fundraising and corporate events but where is the fun in doing things the same way you have always done things? Instead, why not create a more informal, festival vibe by throwing a posh picnic, delighting your attendees and saving money as well.

Think about it. A three-course dinner can easily cost $100 per head. On the other hand, picnic catering can start from just over $10 per person, and $20 or $30 will increase the selection to offer a really top end outdoor catering selection.

Add picnic blankets and cushions and you have the perfect bohemian setting. And all still well inside your original event budget.

picnic budget swap

This idea doesn’t just have to be limited to daytime events either. Candles and fairy lights can add a magical feel to a sunset/evening event. And if the weather turns bad it is quick to move everything indoors and adapt to any space.

This idea could quite easily become an annual favorite for your company or charity.

Drop the App to Please Smaller Groups

In some groups, apps are simply not necessary. And it’s the authors of the Event App Bible people telling you this.

Where the audience is reluctant to use technology, apps should not be adopted. It may be the very nature of your event or the demographics, or some groups are just better off with less tech.

You’d be amazed at how many tech shows these days still have a valuable print component because attendees, and I quote, ’love it’.

Some groups are just better off with a paper guide. You don’t need both. If your uptake has been minimal, why keep bothering. Try another type of tech, be creative with your networking, engagement, wayfinding.

no tech budget swap

Apps can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands. Analysis of the providers that were listed in the Event App Bible reveals that the average app price is $3,783. This is a considerable savings to your bottom line if you do away with your event app for certain demographics.

Either choose a free app or just drop it altogether. Have attendees speak up or raise their hands for polling. Take a no-tech approach. Small groups love that.

Add a Real VIP Experience that will be Valued (not cliche)

To really add a special touch for important guests at your event, don’t go down the red carpet route, which is seen so often it often does nothing to make your VIPs feel valued. Instead, think about how your event can really leave a lasting impression and get the most from the event. A great idea is to give the opportunity for speakers, sponsors, celebrity guests and other stakeholders to have access to a shared area where they can mingle with other distinguished guests.

For 150 ft of red carpet, you can pay $600 (plus a $175 cleaning deposit).

On the other hand, adding a lounge or an extra space that can be used as a VIP green room to your booking shouldn’t cost you a penny if you negotiate it into your contract at the start or can pay for a nice lunch so the venue provides the space free of charge.

VIP experience budget swap

This approach can save on needless spending and cliched ways to look after your VIPs. Instead, this approach is likely to be a big hit with your most cherished supporters as they get free access to other special guests. Even if you have a big star or diva that requires their own private space contract them to spend a short time mingling and doing a meet and greet in this area and it will have your VIPs talking about it for days.

BONUS: Event Budget Checklists and Templates

Need more help with your event budgeting? Check out this post:

The Event Budget Calculator: The Only Tool You Need To Run Successful Events which covers:

  • The importance of event budgeting
  • An event budget checklist
  • A fast, online, event budget calculator
  • A downloadable event budget template xls
  • An event cost breakdown template
  • 29 more creative ideas to make your event budget stretch further

Drop the Show Guide: Save Trees (and Budget)

On the other hand, if your event is submerged with unused or un-recycled paper guides, it is time to stop this incredible waste.

This could be single-handedly the most pressing reason why event apps have become so popular. Everybody has a mobile phone, saving some money on the guides can help you redirecting budget to a better WiFi – attendees will love you for that.

free app budget swap

Let them know about it so they don’t panic. They will indeed appreciate your communication.

The cheapest show guide printing service I could find online costs around $300 per 500 items.

You can triple that for fancier products.

If you are planning to have an app anyway, that’s a lot of money saved. If you plan to use a free app, then no cost at all. Nice!

Don’t Pay Travel for Attendees. Wow Them in Other Ways

If you work in corporate events a big chunk of your budget will be allocated to moving attendees to the venue. In some cases, we are talking thousands and thousands of business class + hotel per person. Sometimes for a couple of hours or minutes.

While I will be an advocate of face to face forever, there is no question that some travel is just a waste of resources and time. Without considering the massive environmental impact.

Why not connect those traveling from very far away in a different fashion? You know it’s coming…Virtual Reality, or better 360-degree video.

Send a VR kit to your guest and get them to connect with an uber-customized experience of the event.

budget swap

Let’s say you are moving 10 execs with one long-haul business flight each ($5,000+) and accommodation for 3 days ($600-900) you end up with a $55,000 to $60,000 bill. Some of you may see this figure as peanuts, OK, we get it and we all envy you for your amazing budget. For the rest of us, this option can give quite dramatic savings.

A super amazing 8K VR camera will cost you around $7,000 to rent – you can save if you bundle it with your AV. Software to live stream (if you don’t want to use freely available options), around $200. VR kits can be rented from $250 per kit. That brings the total to approximately $10,000 in total. That’s $40,000 savings.

I hear you. Who is going to convince high-value guests to participate remotely? I believe it is a matter of perceptions. If you think of VR as a punishment, you are going to get friction. If you incorporate it into a wider program that encourages leaders to step up and embrace efficiency and sustainability, you are pulling the right levers.

It won’t always be possible but having worked in corporates for years, I’ve witnessed dozens of unnecessarily expensive meetings. It’s time to change that. Because at the end of the day, your job is on the line when we look at how much we spend for events.

If I didn’t convince your boss, you can tell them that Google did it and it was awesome.

Energize your Audience Participation Levels

Polling your audience can be a fun way to use simple technology to get some quick feedback but it doesn’t energize the room in the same way a throwable microphone can add interest and excitement!

Throwable mics can be a cheaper alternative than a polling app and something that you can pay for once and then use at every event you plan if you wish. The more times you use it, the greater the value you get from it.

A polling app for a decent sized event and reporting features will cost between $499 and $599 for a one-off event plan.

On the other hand, a throwable microphone will cost approximately $399, saving at least $100 on the cost of a one-time polling app. If you buy it once then the saving continues with future events too.

Swap to Lighter Desserts which are Light on Budget (and avoid a post-lunch slump)

Desserts do impact your attendees. Sugar does not help learning or entertainment or networking. The post-lunch slump is very real. Another reality is that if you want to stay on budget your dessert options will be in most cases underwhelming.

A slice of cake averages at $8 a piece.

Cake pops are a great alternative and they cost $1.50 a pop. You could color code them to stimulate networking (if you have a red cake pop, go find a yellow cake pop and introduce yourself).

Better engagement, better networking, less sugar but still a sweet treat – win/win.

As an alternative, you can consider a gelato station for $3 per person for a couple of hours of unlimited gelato.

budget swap

From Quirky Venues to Hotels: Room Block Savings

You’d be amazed to know how many event planners ignore the mechanics of room blocks. If you don’t, it’s fine, we get it, you are a pro, move to the next item. If you think I am talking about some sort of game to play at events, read on.

Room blocks are essentially the backbone of the contribution events make to the economy. I move 300 people for an event, I book 300 rooms and a hotel. The property is magically full.

By doing that, I secure business to the hotel and I get a much better deal on the services I will use.

If you are using a ‘cool’ venue, an unusual space and you are stretched on budget, reconsider. For multi-day and residential events, a hotel might be a better option.

room block budget swap

Let’s say you are planning a meeting in an exotic destination. Most attendees will go with the hotel you offer them. They just won’t bother to search, they would prefer an all in one accommodation option within the venue of the event. Nice right?

Yes, because you now have the power to tell your hotel that you will bring several hundreds, if not thousands, of guests to their property and so they had better give you the best possible deal on the F&B and conference room hire.

It may be well the case that you don’t have the time to search properties based on a group travel offering. It may well be the case you are too busy.

According to this site, you can save around 25%.

I think I have your attention now. This is why hotels still top the charts for site selection if a substantial number of your guests and speakers require accommodations. Of course, make sure to know everything about your clauses, minimums, deadlines and all the legals. And connect your registration system to the hotel room block to make sure you can track occupancy in real time.

Up the Fun Factor to Boost Social Media Sharing and New Conversations

Photo booths have become a very popular addition to a variety of social events and, initially, they were a good way to ensure that a stream of photos is shared to social media from your event. However, now they have become so commonplace, it is the perfect time to consider alternatives that will save your event budget but still have the same (or greater) potential for fun and social sharing.

For professional photo booth hire, at peak time on a Saturday evening in Las Vegas, you can expect to pay a minimum of $599. An alternative could be to use giant games and the power of nostalgia to get people reminiscing and sharing pictures on their social feeds. To give an example, this giant kerplunk game can be hired in Vegas for $499.

budget swap

Giant, interactive games give the advantage of breaking the ice and getting people that have never met talking and interacting naturally by playing in groups. When you consider that photo booths are generally something that groups of friends and colleagues will do together it is quite a closed experience, so alternatives which act as conversation starters can work wonders for your event experience and create more connections.

Save a Fortune on Awards with these Clever Alternatives

The costs of bespoke awards for your awards ceremony can quickly rack up. Even a simple acrylic, basic, rectangular-shaped award will cost over $50 per award, and expect to add more if you want to introduce color, or for a glass or crystal award.

What if we told you that you can create something just as good, for half the price? $11.67 each to be precise – by using these sign holders and adding a custom designed printed insert in the middle, which will cost a few cents to print onto paper, or print on acetate to give a clear effect (like in the example). If you are presenting 10 awards that can easily save $400 from your event budget, just like that.

awards budget swap

Need to save more money? If you have time for shipping from outside the US, you can actually pay less than $2 for each acrylic, magnetic sign holders (minimum order of 10). These are used in shop windows to display prices and many people already use these perspex blocks as photo frames, as they are freestanding and have a modern look, but they create the best event awards too.

And only spending $20 and easily saving $480 on 10 awards is something most event planners would like to do.

These alternative options mean that you are not just limited to text and engraving, your event branding and the award details can come through loud and clear, and it can be made into a double-sided award too if you want. Plus, if timescales are short, the turnaround time to print the insert can be a lot shorter than custom engraving, and you don’t need to worry about any mistakes with the etching either (yes, this has happened to us!).

Better Team Adventures with VR

If you are planning your next team building or corporate event in an exotic destination stop right there. If you have large budgets, you can still go ahead, but yet again, if you have large budgets you shouldn’t be reading this article.

Let’s say you are moving 200 attendees to the other side of the world in a nice hotel and you have scheduled on-site activities for them.

We are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What if you could be creative in a venue near you, without the long-haul flights? VR comes to the rescue.

You could use some of these cool VR activations or develop your own.


These are priced anywhere between $10K and $25K.

If you could only save on the travel, this is easily a much more creative and engaging choice.

budget swap

Swap a Speaker for a Sponsored Talk and Make Money instead of Spending

My heart is bleeding while I write this. If there is one thing I dread as a speaker it is event planners who don’t pay speakers. Realistically though, it is the case that you simply don’t have the budget for speakers or to pay for all of them.

Before I proceed let me make a couple of clarifications:

  • Speakers should always have some level of reward for presenting. If you care about content, you need to offer them a reward. A fee is usually best.
  • If you are struggling because you have slots to fill, I would think about why you have the urge to fill slots. How is that working for you? Who is that benefitting?

You can turn speaking slots into revenue opportunities. It sounds great but it is not as easy as it sounds.

You can indeed beef up your sponsorship packages with speaking opportunities. The good news is that sponsors like them. They see it as a much better way to engage with audiences. Sponsored content is happening all around us.

Companies in many instances have great things to share that the average speaker does not offer. They can share case studies, data, hand on experience, tutorials.

All great right? Not so fast.

The urge to pitch is always there with many sponsors. My experience witnessing hundreds of events around the world tells me that inevitably sponsored talks end up in a sad self-promotional display that turns the audience off.

Who is to blame though? Of course the company, but that’s what they are there for! They want to make new business. Self-promotion is the easiest way to do that.

The right approach to sponsored talk budget swaps should include a precise set of guidelines, shared by the event team on how to correctly engage with attendees. Sometimes I would stretch it to the template or the format of the presentation (think pitch competitions or Pecha Kucha).

You need to be actively involved in curating the content and sharing best practices with your sponsored speakers. You need to also provide direct feedback if they mess up during the presentation.

So let’s do the math:

A mid-range speaker fee can average anywhere between $1,000 and $10,000 depending on the industry and the expertise. You need to add travel and accommodations, a solid $1,000 to $6,000 depending on distance and requirements.

The swap here will actually make you money. It can make you from $500 to $20,000 per speaker, depending on the size of your event, the type of talk and the number of times the talk happens.

Please handle with care though and remember that value to attendees comes undeniably first.

Speaker budget swap

In Conclusion

Expenses for an event can soon mount up. We all know the importance of budgeting in event management and event planners are constantly seeking more budget-friendly options and coming up with innovative, cost-saving event ideas. We hope some of these event budget swaps have inspired you to reconsider how you spend your event budget and empower you to make savings and to make your event even better.

Now onto you:

  • Do you have a tip to make this page better? Send an email to [email protected].
  • Do you have more tips and advice about budget-busting ideas and swaps for your events? Comment below to share your best tips and event budget saving ideas with other event planners.
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