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This guide examines a shift event professionals are experiencing in negotiation power with venues. We'll show you how to get the most out of strategy, opportunities, and tools available to strike the best deal with venues.
The world of venues as we know it is changing rapidly. Political, economical, and technological turmoil are profoundly affecting the way we choose where to host our events and creating unprecedented opportunities.
For the first time in decades, event professionals are in command of the venue negotiation and selection process.
How does that translate for event professionals? The rules of the game have changed and will change even more in the foreseeable future.
For years the experience of the event had to suffer from the limitations imposed by large venue conglomerates imposing their rules. Well, it seems that the party is over. Event professionals finally hold a position of power in a negotiation they lost too many times in the past. It's time to leave compromises behind.
It's time to get the venue we want, at a price we can afford, on conditions we feel comfortable with. Moving hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of attendees cannot be taken for granted by venues anymore. You are entitled to get the best possible deal. Let us help you to make the most out of the strategy, opportunities, and tools available out there.
The purpose of this guide is to look at the research, strategy, tactics, and tools successful event professionals use to secure the best deals with venues. Luck is not a factor.
We researched how experienced event professionals select venues and get the best deals.
As event professionals, we often use the terms “strategy” and “tactics” to mean the same thing, but we shouldn’t, as business gurus agree they’re distinct and different. Strategy is all about the final destination, the big plan, the overall goal while tactics are the milestones along the road, the pieces that make up the jigsaw, the specific objectives that lead to the goal. Strategy is what we want to accomplish, tactics are how we’re going to accomplish it.
Clearly, you can’t have one without the other, and yet this is not a classic “chicken and egg” situation. We know for certain that strategy comes first – or, at least, it should do – as without a clear vision of where we want to go, we’re simply busy fools, without a mission.
So before we jump into tactics, it’s a good idea to re-evaluate our overall strategy for negotiation. Above all that requires clarity around why we might choose one destination or venue over another. That choice is always down to some combination of the following 7 criteria for destination or venue selection:
Our overall strategic purpose or aim will define how we weigh each of the 7 criteria above. Following the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, for example, attendee safety has become a key focus for event professionals. This will be a strategic imperative in destination and venue negotiation moving forward.
Access is usually the most important criteria in destination and venue selection – if attendees can’t get easily to the event then they won’t show up –but if our strategic purpose were to "expand our audiences" and connect further with both in-person and virtual attendees then we might select a hybrid event venue in direct fulfillment of this objective.
As event professionals, we desperately want to be known for our innovation and creativity but a key aspect of our true value lies in our ability to marshall the numbers and march them into a shape that corresponds to the available budget. At the end of the day - or week or year - what makes a great event planner is the manner by which maximum event impact is achieved within the confines of the money there is to make it happen. This means event people need to wear the hard shell hat of the negotiator in tandem with the technicolor dreamcoat of the event professional. Managing the budget can truly make or break the event and to manage the budget well you need to be an excellent negotiator.
But remember, excellent negotiators, are in it for the long game. They always shoot for win | win in any negotiation because they know that in events, maybe more than any other industry, what goes around, comes around and the supplier we screw in today’s negotiation will become the buyer who screws us in next year’s one. They also know that information is king in any negotiation so their research is forensic and meticulous, they’ve conducted exhaustive online searches, called all their contacts, checked and double-checked the numbers, and run the spreadsheet just one more time.
Rates are what make or break budgets and perceived high rates can be enough to eliminate that destination or venue from the selection process entirely.
When negotiating on rates, however, we need to be strategic. We might need to shave $1,500 off our venue rental fee but, as the saying goes, “there are many ways to skin a cat”. If we keep our focus on where we need to get to – reducing the total event cost – then there’ll be multiple routes to that destination.
Sometimes it makes sense to start with price and test how written in stone this is. The best way to do this is to make an offer below the published rate and see what reaction you get! This offer should be reasonable, certainly no more than 25% below the asking price as otherwise it’s not credible and you end up losing ground in the negotiation game.
Likewise, venues that offer food and beverage, AV, and production as part of the events package will often agree on discounts on total event spend, taking all elements into account. To encourage long-term partnerships venues will sometimes look at total spending over a 12 month period and give cash rebates based on reaching pre-established revenue thresholds.
Rates can be particularly complex when guest room accommodation is part of the overall meeting or event requirement. Be super-careful with those insidious “resort fees” charged extensively in large event cities. Allegedly covering WiFi and access to health clubs they can often be negotiated out of the contract, particularly if they are being picked up elsewhere by the event budget.
Savvy event organizers know that the initial budget presented to the client should always include every possible line item of cost including easily forgotten items such as storage space, staff changing rooms, build and tear downtime, etc. This is particularly important as it allows an actual cash value to be given to “concessions”, the in-kind discounts where the destination or venue waives its right to charge for a product or service, bringing significant savings to the event budget.
It’s a key part of the negotiation process but unless the monetary value is given to these items from the outset, the real saving is not appreciated by the client. For example, being able to ship materials directly to the venue and to have them stored there is hugely beneficial for the overall event in terms of logistics and convenience but a monetary value needs to be placed on this upfront so that the venue and the event professional are seen to be proactively participating in the win | win dynamic.
Food and beverage is what divides the sheep from the goats in the world of event professionals. Signing off on guarantees for food and beverage is plain sailing for some but for others, it’s the rock upon which they perish. Get your guarantees wrong and you’re entire event flops and flays like a rag doll; get them right and your event and budget are golden.
For experienced event planners negotiating on food and beverage is a piece of cake:
500 have registered and paid but you guarantee 450 to the venue with a plus or minus factor of 5%. When 470 show up you’re covered but 30 x the cost of the function drops to your bottom line. Happy days. An inexperienced or nervous planner, however, guarantees 500 and stands back powerlessly as 30 meals go unconsumed.
So how should you negotiate food and beverage? Firstly be meticulous about historical data – what has been the behavior of this group over the past 5 years? The client may have this data but, if not, the venues they used previously will certainly have it. Be forensic about this and evaluate the pattern – odds on it’ll be the same this year!
For first-time or one-off events it’s more difficult to calculate food and beverage elements but there are some general demographic principles you can go with. At the risk of being sexist, agist, prejudice, or old fashioned, here are 5 failsafe measures:
AV and production is a key part of virtually any event and another focus for negotiation with a venue. Many event professionals have their own preferred partners for AV and production so often the first thing to negotiate is the right to use these as opposed to the in-house incumbent. For venues, there are two issues here. In-house AV and production teams are a profit center for the venue so allowing a third-party production team means forgoing revenues. But it’s not just money. An in-house team working permanently in the venue knows best how to achieve optimum quality with sound, light, and AV.
Mindful of these concerns savvy event professionals always look for the middle ground – can the in-house technician be hired onto the preferred partner's team for the duration of the event – or indeed vice versa? Can a combination of in-house equipment and hired-in equipment be used to maximize revenues for everyone?
If the planner elects to use the in-house equipment, can the technician be provided free of charge? Can on-site additions available in the venue such as podiums, extra microphones, extra power cables, adapters, laptops, and switchers be provided free of charge?
Think about the skill base of an event professional today – you’re required to be an expert in computer software, financial planning and budget management, logistics, event planning, design, gastronomy, audio-visual production, and now, of course, the ever-expanding horizon of technology!
Negotiating technology in a venue is way more than trying to secure free WiFi although some event professionals - and even more venue managers - think that this is still the key variable. Offering “Free WiFI” as a key benefit in your venue may sound like a great thing but to the truly experienced event planner, it’s akin to offering “Free Wine” with the Gala Dinner. “Free Wine” might, in fact, be the worst possible thing to serve at your prestigious dinner particularly as its unspecified provenance and nature means it could be a horrific blended aberration of “wine from the EU” served from a box! So beware of free wine and beware of free WiFi.
Large iconic structures like stadia and concert locations have generated significant recurring income from print and digital display advertising at the venue and from selling the naming rights to big corporate enterprises. Now venue managers are applying the same principles to conferences, corporate meetings, events, and exhibitions by charging event organizers for any prime real estate space they use for branding purposes.
So advertising, branding, and use of on-site digital signage have become additional items on the negotiation merry-go-round. The crucial thing here is to have anticipated this upfront and to have included a contingency sum in the initial budget for on-site branding – not just creation but also placing and display. This means that provision has been made but if you manage to negotiate it for free then a real saving has been made on the budget.
However, if selling branding space at the venue represents additional potential revenue for the venue manager then, as the reseller, the event planner should also be entitled to a share of this revenue. When you conduct your first site inspection of a stadium, arena, or concert hall be sure to take note of how the large vertical and horizontal spaces around the venue are used - are there dedicated display units for advertising? Are these print or digital? Are there large banners fastened to ceiling flying points? Could any or all of these spaces be used to enhance the event experience - to display event schedules, for example, or for simple wayfinding? Could these spaces be sold onwards to event sponsors? Does the venue already manage and monetize this space? Can you assist the venue in offering these spaces and assets to event sponsors and receive a finder’s fee or commission?
Lawyers are paid to write contracts that protect and reflect the best interests of their clients so naturally the venue contract will always be slanted in the venue’s favor. And herein another crucial arrow in the quiver of the contemporary meeting and event planner – you have to have the gimlet eye of an attorney! Be aware, however, from the get-go, that contracts are not written in stone and form an integral part of the entire negotiation game.
Smaller venues may not have a formal contract in which case protect yourself by creating one to cover such key points as – access, dates, rates, spaces, liability, insurance, attrition, cancellation.
Contract law around venue rental can be complex. It’d be inappropriate, maybe even dangerous, to provide any cursory list of dos and don’ts but here are some guiding principles to follow when negotiating contracts with venues:
Today meetings and events people work in a multiplicity of venues from hotel meeting rooms and ballrooms to sports stadia to private lofts in edgy neighborhoods! This variety is at the heart of our métier and defines who we are. The negotiation tactics we deploy, therefore, may differ widely from location to location.
Most event professionals are used to working with meeting space in hotels and know what to expect both in terms of the formal contract and, of course, delivery. A core element in the business model of hotels is, of course, meetings and events so they’re set up specifically to do this. The negotiations usually include variables such as venue rental, AV rental, access, food and beverage minimums, etc.
When it comes to stadia, however, it’s different as their core purpose is to stage very large B2C events such as sporting fixtures or large-scale concerts. The meetings and events element is secondary to this core purpose and this impacts on negotiation tactics. When negotiating with a stadium look for “off-season” dates, i.e. when the stadium isn’t busy with match days. For a very large meeting or event consider the food and beverage outlets used on match day for a cheap, quick, and quirky “food truck” style lunch.
With private venues, it’s different again. These may be unused board rooms in a corporation, a photographer’s private studio, or a cool and unusual warehouse owned by a hipster. The venue owner may not have a formal contract so here you’ll need to negotiate carefully around insurance and indemnification and be reassured the individual isn’t going to change his mind about hosting the event!
When running conferences and events, event professionals often get involved in booking accommodation too. This can be a welcome additional source of revenue but also a major headache unless it has been negotiated carefully upfront.
While venue space is not universally commissionable, guest room accommodation nearly always is so this is the first item to negotiate on. Most accommodation suppliers will offer 8% but depending on supply and demand this can go to 15%, sometimes even 20%. In any negotiation always start at the highest amount!
Dealing with accommodation is similar to food and beverage in that the negotiations will always coalesce around numbers, i.e. the number of rooms you book and the attrition and/or cancellation therefrom. However, it’s usual to factor into the room block a certain number of complimentary rooms (1 free for every 25 booked, for example), a number of free upgrades (1 deluxe for every 10 standard, for example), and a number of suites.
It’s also customary when negotiating on accommodation to request free site inspection rooms. Some hotels, reasonably, might ask for upfront payment but then agree to deduct all the set-up charges from the final invoice, if the business confirms.
As mentioned previously be careful in big convention cities with “resort fees” that are not shown upfront with the quoted room rate. Large resorts often use partitioned pricing or drip pricing techniques to conceal the total room rate, only for it to be revealed when it’s too late. This practice has been the subject of a recent Federal Trade Commission report in the United States and is not condoned by consumer protection groups.
Sometimes the best way to negotiate with a venue is through networking with other event professionals. So, find out who else has booked the venue that you’re considering, reach out to them and ask them to share their negotiation successes – what worked for them? How did they get that wonderful deal? What would they do differently if they were using that venue again? Event professionals are a friendly, open community generally ready to share with others.
Researching and booking venues is one of the very few areas of the event industry that until recently has been stuck in the dark ages and has not seen significant mainstream innovation in the same way that event registration and event mobile apps have revolutionized the landscape.
For many planners sourcing where to hold their event is still a manual process. Until now venue finding and contracting has been a lengthy and sometimes painful process too - but with the use of event technology, it needn’t (and shouldn’t) be that way!
Event technology can help event planners get a better deal with venues and simplify what has become a very complex process. Event professionals still using traditional methods could be overlooking some of the advances in technology that can potentially help them to negotiate better outcomes and save them significant time too.
When it comes to venue research and booking, some planners seem to have tried technology once and decided that it can’t help them, which is a dangerous and ill-informed position to take in an industry where technology advances so quickly. If a tool didn’t work for you 2 years ago, or even 12 months ago, it is probably worthwhile investigating new and improved solutions as the landscape and capabilities will probably have changed completely. Advances in this area seem to have really leaped forward in the recent past and hopefully, this pace of innovation will continue.
Although search engines and online listings are helpful to event professional's research when it comes to booking there are some planners that prefer human interaction and the personal touch when it comes to making venue decisions.
The big news is that there can be a place for both online and offline communication during this process. Using an online tool doesn’t prevent you from picking up the phone or setting up a face-to-face meeting, it can however help you weed out the options that aren’t suitable much more quickly so that you can focus your time and efforts on the serious contenders and push towards that winning agreement.
Here are some practical tips on how technology can help event planners to negotiate more successfully with venues during the research and selection stages and right up until contracts are signed.
If you are looking for new venue inspiration or are researching venue options in a completely new city an online tool can be an efficient way of filtering potential venues that match your criteria, without having to trawl through multiple websites trying to track capacity information, number of rooms, location to the train station and so forth. Some tools immediately allow you to compare side by side the venues which match your criteria.
Be aware that some online marketplaces only feature those that pay to be listed and this can cut out a lot of suitable venues and give biased results. Make sure that you find a tool that is free for venues to be listed and well-populated if you want to be shown a fully comprehensive list of matches.
Good eRFP tools can be a big driver in securing better deals with venues. They can empower event professionals to negotiate more effectively, get more responses and save valuable time.
Good eRFP tools can help with the biggest frustrations event planners have when negotiating with venues, particularly slow response times, not receiving enough information, not being transparent enough, and not taking into account past bookings.
Online RFP tools can also help with some of the biggest frustrations venues have when negotiating with event planners including event planners not giving enough information and not keeping venues informed.
Any tool which saves time and makes the process better for both the event planner and the venue is likely to enable better deals to be agreed upon.
The sharing economy has shaken up the venue and accommodation landscape giving access to unique properties, great value deals, home comforts, and something truly unique. More than ever event planners are aware of the multiple options available and how far their budget will go, with pricing information often available freely on the various sites. Event professionals are using this to their advantage by checking out the hourly hire rate and what is included from non-conventional venue hires and also comparing the average Airbnb rental price versus the best accommodation rates offered by local hotels.
This information can be used strategically to the advantage of the organizer, giving more power to leverage the negotiation process and get the best deal.
Another advantage of the sharing economy is finding and filling unused space within both conventional and non-purpose built venues during non-peak hours and for short-term hires where literally a couple of hours are all that is needed. Understandably a venue wants to protect its revenues and make the most profitable use of its space but a planner organizing a morning networking event doesn’t want to pay a full day hire charge. Having spaces sitting empty benefits no one so these matching services can be mutually beneficial for both the venue and the event planner.
A huge chunk of the event budget can be swallowed up on the production and infrastructure costs, creating impressive stage sets and audiovisual effects don’t come cheap. Think about how much you could save if you could share these costs back to back with another event, keeping the basic setup the same but switching the branding and effects to match the vision of each individual event.
No time is lost for the load in and load out in between the two events, slashing labor costs and access charges for early morning and late-night set up and sharing the cost of the logistics, production, AV, staging, and labor within one venue. Tools are available online to help match event projects but it is also worth discussing this directly with the venues you are negotiating with to see if there is any synergy for two similar events to piggyback off each other.
Technology tools exist to share global calendars showing international and local public, religious, and school holidays and dates to avoid in the country or city you are considering. From a negotiating point of view this can be important to identify clashes and conflicts, but also to help inform quieter periods, during which time venues may be able to offer greater discounts and incentives.
Within some venue-finding platforms, you can also integrate your company calendar to ensure no internal diary clashes for the dates you are considering. If you are open and flexible with your dates this is an easy way to check alternatives potential venues can offer for better bargaining power.
Site visits are important but it isn’t always possible to visit venues in person when you need to, particularly if the venues are a good distance away, or perhaps in another country. 3D tours of venues offer a 360-degree perspective to make better-informed decisions or enable you to ask more probing questions based on what you see. These tools are handy as they are accessible 24 hours a day and enable you to focus on the rooms or specifics that you want to zoom in on. Your clients or boss can also get a better insight, rather than relying on pictures and verbal feedback.
Technology is emerging which allows bespoke site inspections to take place over WiFi. Unlike a pre-recorded or programmed 3D Tour some venues will now pop on a head camera and walk through the venue and talk you through the space as if you were there in person with the Sales Manager for a site visit. You can experience a personalized live video experience without leaving your desk, directing the questions, and seeing the venue firsthand, almost as if you were there.
Some venues have invested in Virtual Reality technology that allows you to view different setup options and production within the different rooms and spaces of the venue. Tools which allow you to “walk” the corridors and areas between the event rooms can be very revealing and can help you identify questions to be asked or areas you should negotiate more closely with the venue.
Many planners use an online tool when researching venues only and not for the rest of the negotiation process. To get the best deals we would recommend using a suitable eRFP tool right through to the contracting stage.
Many eRFP tools are free for the event organizer to use and take a commission from the final booking when the business is confirmed.
Some venues and platforms offer automated quotes and allow bookings to be made online in real-time, without any human interaction. For small, simple, and budget-limited events options like these can work just fine and help to keep prices low, particularly if you know the space already or at times when you are looking for practicality over style.
Perhaps in the future, we will see more computerized space management systems that allow venues to publish their available space, dates, and rates and facilitate direct bookings without a middleman. With the complexities and intricacies of most event projects though the peace of mind of a robust eRFP process, backed up by questions and conversations is needed to reassure event planners they are getting the best deal and the best venue to match their criteria.
Online reviews and ratings of venues from event planners that have used them can be extremely insightful in terms of flagging things to be aware of and areas for potential negotiation. Online feedback can help reassure or warn an event planner before making a big financial commitment to use a venue.
One huge frustration flagged by event planners is that promises are made by the sales team during the negotiation process but then not honored by the operations team. An eRFP tool can help with this by:
Some eRFP tools are integrated with event management software and so when contracts are signed it allows you to pull data from the eRFP into the registration site and saves you having to re-enter dates, venue address, room details, event agenda, and so forth, making it quicker to get event tickets on sale.
Whether you are a first-time planner or a seasoned pro, booking a venue for your next meeting or event has its share of challenges. It seems there must be a better way when you consider all time spent chasing down venues for responses, on top of the frustrations with negotiations.
However, in order to change your results, you’ll need to make changes to your existing processes. In this guide, we walked you through several strategies and explained how to get the best deal from your next event venue in an effort to help you deliver more value to your attendees while building better relationships.
Using a free eRFP tool like Aventri’s Venue Connect, for example, you can easily research meeting hotels, create an RFP and get venue bids fast! Our technology has these best practices built-in, so you get competitive bids typically within 24 – 48 hours. What’s more, the technology compiles all bids into a side-by-side comparative summary, so you can spot the best offer at a glance.