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Planning a Low-Budget Event

A high-budget yearly awards gala is given a low-budget reality check

By Sherryll Sobie

It was an event with a long legacy. Marianne Thompson, CMP, CMM, and director of special events & meetings at RE/MAX Promotions Inc. in Mississauga, Ont., has planned the company’s yearly awards gala 19 times. On each occasion, Thompson dug deep into the company’s ample corporate event budget to thrill 1,800 guests with new and exciting surprises. “The dinner was customized and had several courses. We spent a lot of money making it special,” she says. “In the real estate industry, recognition is a huge part of the culture, and the cherry has always been this big event.”

Held at Toronto’s Westin Harbour Castle for the past few years, the grand evening would begin with a cocktail reception where guests mingled around a martini bar while a photographer snapped pictures, celebrity style. Later, guests would enjoy a feast and a flashy ceremony, complete with stage, lighting and music.

But as with many of the grandest corporate events, this year’s budget was a sliver of its former self. Thompson had the challenge of paring the gala down while ensuring it was still a meaningful, value-added experience. How did she achieve this fine balance? The gala is now a luncheon for 50 specialty award winners. Winners were given meaningful takeaways such as an elegantly framed photo of themselves accepting their prize, and a personal profile with photo in a national newspaper. “It’s important to strategically position the winners so they stand out for their quality and professionalism,” says Thompson.

Reaction from attendees? Mixed, says Thompson. “Some people don’t like change. But at the end of the day, what should matter to realtors is to have a firm understanding of the market, and how to make the most of it.”

With that in mind, RE/MAX allocated a large portion of the budget to the best possible speaker, yet to be announced to participants. “He’s a very high-profile person who will talk about maximizing opportunities,” says Thompson. “We are still spending money, but we are being creative in reshuffling it. And we will revisit how we handle the event next year.”

Here’s how to cut costs without cutting quality.

1. Do It Yourself. Instead of going through one-stop shops for decorations and entertainment, Thompson suggests going to the dollar store and buying themed decorations, and approaching an arts college for your entertainment needs.

2. Scrutinize Your Schedule. Stop planning meetings around meal times. Plan the program so it ends just before noon, or begin it after the lunch hour and end it before dinner. But provide snacks.

3. Audit Everything. Bring in your suppliers and comb through expenses. Ask them where they can cut.

4. Hire Big Guns. When renegotiating contracts, it may be helpful to bring in an experienced third party who has leveraging muscle.

5. Birds of a Feather. Associations such as Meeting Professionals International are your total resource for camaraderie and advice. “Surrounding yourself with a support system is so important, now more than ever,” says Thompson.

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