If you don’t work the numbers, someone else will
2009 may not seem like the year for big, high-profile corporate events, but meetings do have to go on. Companies will struggle with how to convey their message on a budget, but it’s our job to help them. Look ahead at the Big Shows you did last year and figure out how you can save the customer money this year. Make a list, and then make the call. I know it’s hard to trim your budgets even before you’ve been asked, but the alternative is to be the displaced incumbent.
When you call, you have two goals in mind:  coaxing your contact into seeing you as a collaborator and then  trying to get the show to confirm as early as possible. Here’s how such a phone call may go:
TOM: Good morning Bob, and Happy New Year. [I hope they haven’t finalized the budget.]
BOB: Thanks Tom, Happy New Year to you, too.
TOM: I know it might be little early to ask you about the Annual Sales Meeting, but I had some ideas I wanted to share...
BOB: Tom, before you go any further, we just had a budget meeting and the boss is very concerned about revenue this year. I don’t think we’ll cut the meeting, but he may be thinking about cutting it way back.
TOM: [Good thing I called.] That’s to be expected, and that’s why I called. I think I can preserve the elements of the show that are most important to you while reducing the overall budget.Would your boss like to see a couple of budget scenarios before he decides?
BOB: I think he would. He likes the meeting as is, but he is concerned about looking like we’re spending too much. He’s afraid people will think we’re doing better than we are and ask for raises [laughs].
TOM: So, if we took off some of
the glitz we added last year and made some logistical changes too, I am sure I can find about 15 percent savings in there.Would that impress him?
BOB: He’s probably thinking of saving more than that. He just doesn’t understand what the costs are or what it takes to put one of these on.
TOM: [Make a note, save more than 15 percent.] Well, would now be a good time to discuss some the ways we can save this year?
BOB: If we can make it quick — I’ve got another meeting to go to in ten minutes.
TOM: Let me outline a couple of savings areas and, if you agree, I will have enough to go on. First, one of the biggest controllable costs on the show is overtime. If we can get rid of the 10pm executive rehearsal — you know the one where they go to dinner first and then try to rehearse — we can cut the crew several hours earlier.
BOB: I’m all for it, but that dinner is a tradition. And I don’t see how you can be ready before the dinner.
TOM: With some minor changes, I can get us rehearsal-ready by 5 pm and have those execs out by 7 pm for their dinner. The room won’t be 100 percent ready, but we can finish up after the executives leave. If I can put a real dollar cost on it, would that help you make your case?
BOB: Sure, but where’s the big savings?
TOM: [I need to work the list and get buy-in on each item.] I have talked with all the department leads, and video and lighting can reduce their teams by one person each. The LD says that, if you’ll approve the looks in advance, he can save a lot of time programming on site, cut down on instruments, and eliminate the separate board operator.
BOB: Done. Can he send me those renderings from his computer — what’s that called?
TOM: WYSIWYG.Yes, he will show you a bunch of renderings and you decide what you like. He will build looks based on that. And the LD would like to cut the followspots.We can still get the same effect with the moving lights — if we can get the award winners to sit in the front third of the ballroom.
BOB: I can make that happen. I hate waiting for people to work their way through the crowd.
TOM: Video can cut by one person if we cancel the recording. You say you never use it anyway.
BOB: If we cut it, this will be the one year they decide to do something with it.
TOM: How about we only record the CEO’s speech on day one and the awards on day three? And instead of iso decks, let’s do a switched record that matches what’s on the screen plus we’ll run the recorder on the main camera as backup.
BOB: I get it — you want to go all digital this year.
TOM: Bob, you read my mind. If we go digital, the hardware costs for a few items go up — mostly the cameras, but it simplifies video village a lot. And by recording the screen feed instead of a separate video switcher, we can eliminate the video bay and a whole show position.We save hardware costs in the long run, plus the labor.
BOB: I follow you. This sounds like real money.
TOM: Yes, and we haven’t substantially changed the show yet.
BOB: OK, I think you have something here. But we haven’t talked about the widescreen yet. That was a huge budget hit two years ago. How can you make that less expensive?
TOM: [Good, I was afraid he’d want to cut that.] That one stumped me, too, but my video guy had a great suggestion. If you can give us eight more feet of backstage, we can achieve your widescreen look with one stack of HD projectors instead of the blended screen.
BOB: HD? Won’t that be expensive?
TOM: We won’t be doing a true HD show — but we’re getting close — these projectors will be the brighter version of what we used last year. They are a little more expensive, but we only need half as many.
BOB: I can get you the eight feet — there won’t be as many attendees this year.
TOM: Well, then I think I have enough info to build you a new budget.Will you be using the same review schedule for confirming this year?
BOB: Yes, the boss likes to string it out to leave his options open. It drives me nuts. He also wants me to get three bids. Sorry, but it’s that kind of year.
TOM: [I saw that coming….] On your proposal this year, how about I put in some financial incentive for confirming early?
BOB: But I’ll still need to get the other bids before I can get anyone to make a decision. Whoever I call for quotes will need more time than you to figure out what I want.
TOM: Well Bob, I guess you haven’t written an RFP for a few years.Would you like me to work one up for you? I will make it generic so all you have to do is put it on your letterhead. [Hopefully he won’t change the decision date I put in there.]
BOB: You’d do that?! Thanks, that will save me some time. You’ll make it fair won’t you [audible smirk]?
TOM: I can afford to make the RFP fair, I already have the advantage of knowing where the economies are. By the way, I know you like to have Gary as your audio engineer and…
BOB: Oh man, we have to have Gary.
TOM: If we can confirm the show by March 1st you can get him.His family is planning a Hawaii thing over your dates.
BOB: OK, OK. Let’s get moving on the RFP thing.
TOM: It looks like it’s time for your meeting. I will be back in touch on Thursday. Thanks for your time today Bob.
Notice that there’s a lot of trade-offs going on here. Some clients will expect you to make all the sacrifices, which is why you have to call them first. If you have been following my mission to get the staging industry to write Scope of Work proposals, then you should understand that Big Shows are particularly suitable for ditching your equipment lists and selling the end result. In the above scenario, I would complete my reduced budget with a tight scope and then write the Request for Proposal based on that. I would send both over to Bob at the same time. And because my proposal has no equipment list in it, I reduce the chances that my client will use it as a shopping list to other potential suppliers.
The worst-case outcome for being this proactive is learning earlier that you won’t win the show. In tough economic times, it’s better to know that you need to put your energies into other clients than to string out the negotiation process. Do yourself and the client a favor: figure out how to save them money and time. Then, make the call.
Tom (T.R.) Stimson, MBA, CTS, is president of The Stimson Group, a Dallas-based management consulting firm providing strategic planning, market research, and process management services to the AV Industry.He is the 2008 Secretary-Treasurer of InfoComm International, a member of the ETCP Certification Council, and keynote speaker for the Rental & Staging Roadshow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.