Note: This post is the first of a two-part series on event venue negotiation strategies. Click here to read part 2 of this article.
Not only is finding a venue the biggest decision you will make for your events, but it is also usually the biggest line item expense in your event budget. So it’s critical that you know all the tips and tricks for negotiating with event venues and hotels. (And if you are a venue, it’s important to know what customers are looking for and how they might assess value so you can guide them to solutions and pricing that will benefit them the most).
We talked with dozens of event planners about their venue / hotel negotiation process and wanted to share 40 of their best practices.
Note that you should approach venues with the understanding that EVERYTHING is negotiable. Never accept the first price you are given, and never sign a contract until you have read all the fine print and are comfortable with what is on paper. So without further ado…
#1 – Start with your 4 big requirements
At minimum, the four pieces of information that are most critical in starting venue negotiations are:
- Event dates
- Head count
- Space requirements (occupancy, accessibility, electrical, A/V, etc.)
Of course if you are working up a comprehensive RFP to send to prospective event venues, you will include more requirements than these four, but often these are enough to get negotiations started.
#2 – Bonus insider tip: Many planners feel that initially divulging your budget puts you at a disadvantage in hotel negotiations, so you can always say something like “We are still working on our budget so just give me your standard rates for now.” At that point, the venue will probably show you their top pricing, and you can negotiate down from there and potentially share your budget numbers with them as negotiations proceed.
However, if you have worked with the venue before and have a comfortable working relationship with them, then sharing your budget out of the gate may enable them to help you work within it better and get more for your money. This all depends on your comfort level with the person and venue you are negotiating with.
#3 – Be realistic about your head count
Don’t estimate high when it comes to your head count. A high head count will lead to a high estimate for food and beverage and a larger reserved room block, and since most hotels will ask for minimums for both of these (more on this later), you don’t want to lock yourself into guaranteeing a high minimum spend for catering and rooms (which leaves you vulnerable to paying penalties if you don’t meet your minimums).
#4 – Provide clear timelines and expectations
We have seen event lead times shorten dramatically in the last 5-6 years, and as event turnaround times get shorter, you may have less time to negotiate. So when you start the process, provide the venue with a timeline that includes the date when you need a proposal; when you will provide a counter-proposal or feedback; and your target date for signing a contract with a venue. This makes your timeline and intentions clear to all parties from the start.
#5 – Get quotes from multiple venues
Even if you already know the venue you want to use, get multiple quotes from comparable venues so you can compare costs and make sure you are getting a good value. In addition, you can use negotiations with one venue to drive the costs down with another venue by playing them against each other.
#6 – Don’t be pressured by sales tactics
Once you have set your budget and your schedule for booking a venue, you should not let any sales ploys move you off course. Often venues will say that they have another party that is interested in booking the same space as you for the same time period. Or that their special pricing will expire after a certain day. Or that they don’t typically lower their prices because they have a premium venue that is in high demand.
Any or all of these may or may not be true, but you have no idea of the validity of them, and besides, you should not be rushed to make a decision based on their business motivations. Don’t take the bait … these are pretty standard sales tactics, and if the venue really wants your business, they will work with your budget and timeline. And if they don’t, then you can quickly eliminate them as a candidate and focus on other venues.
#7 – Consider non-hotel venues
Food and beverage and other ancillary costs are often much higher at hotels, and even though non-hotel venues may charge you for the event space, the savings you will see from using an outside caterer and other vendors may make it worth it to hold the event away from a hotel.
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#8 – Treat the venue manager as your partner (not an adversary)
The venue staff will be one of your biggest assets in making sure your event is a success, so why antagonize them out of the gate? In addition, you may want to book future events with the venue and so you want to establish a good working relationship with the venue manager. Approach everything as a negotiation and don’t make unreasonable demands or ultimatums that make them reluctant to work with you. The golden rule applies here, in that you should treat them in the manner in which you would like to be treated.
#9 – Look at things from the venue’s perspective
The decisions that venue or hotel managers make are often driven by two primary considerations:
- Booking the venue full every day of the year.
- Gaining maximum revenue from every event they host.
You should not fault them for these goals but should instead understand that this is their starting position and use these things to your advantage (more to come on this front).
#10 – Show proof of your value to the venue
If you have held similar events in the past at other venues, provide proof to the venue you are currently negotiating with that you regularly meet your food and beverage and guest room minimums. If you can provide a tally of your total spend for past events, this is a bonus, as the hotel will feel more confident that your event will provide the revenue and profits they need, and they may be more willing to negotiate on a number of fronts if they know you are a reliable source of revenue.
#11 – Have 2-3 date options in mind (and be flexible on the date)
Because venues want to be booked solid all the time (see #9 above), they may have open dates on their calendar that they want to fill. By providing the venue with 2-3 date options and being open minded about the event date, you are more likely to get discounted pricing for the dates they want to fill.
#12 – Bonus insider tip: Provide 2-3 date options around or near your desired date to see if the venue is starting to get booked up for that stretch of time. If they are, you know they may not be as flexible on price; if they aren’t, they may be more flexible.
#13 – Consider supply v. demand
Certain types of venues may simply be in higher demand than other venues and so they can command higher prices and aren’t as likely to negotiate.
Certain times of year (like May-June and September-October) are popular for scheduling events in the Northern Hemisphere, and many venues will charge premium rates for those months. Also, certain week parts may be in more demand depending on the venue (Tuesday-Thursday for business groups, Friday-Sunday for leisure travel), and those days may also be more expensive due to demand. Talk with the venue and see if you can get discounted rates by working around their peak demand seasons and times. Again, venue managers want the venue filled up on as many dates as possible, so a Sunday board meeting or a Friday wedding may be much less expensive to hold at the venue.
#14 – Book multiple events with the same venue or chain/brand
A great way to lower your event venue costs is to agree to host some or all of your yearly events or meetings at a single venue. Or you could book your annual event for multiple years at a single venue. Or you could book multiple events at different hotels under the same brand umbrella. Inquire to see what breaks or spiffs you can get for bulk bookings.
#15 – Clarify what you and your staff can and can’t do
Many venues have contracts with third-party companies or unions to carry out certain duties (like carrying luggage, building stages/displays, setting up meeting rooms, etc.). All these items will impact the pricing, so as part of your discovery process, find out what you will be paying extra for when it comes to staffing on the venue’s side.
#16 – Bonus insider tip: Find out if your staff can take some responsibilities off the plate of the venue staff. For example, if one of your staff members can be posted in the venue lobby to direct your attendees and answer their questions, this might save the venue from having to station a representative or concierge there, and they may be more likely to discount your fees elsewhere because you saved them staffing overhead.
#17 – Use guest room bookings as leverage
With net profit margins as high as 70%, guest rooms are the most profitable source of revenue for hotels. As such, the more guest room bookings you can guarantee, the more likely the hotel will negotiate on other items.
Venues typically require a minimum number of guest rooms booked and will include an attrition rate as well as a cutoff date for bookings in their standard contract (more on these later).
#18 – Negotiate for discounted guest room rates
Make sure that you aren’t paying list rates for the rooms in your hotel block. Ask for the hotel’s group rates and then compare these to their rates posted on popular sites like Hotels.com, Travelocity, TripAdvisor, etc. Also consider negotiating for discounts for shoulder rates (the day or two before and after the event for which some guests might want to book nights).
#19 – Use food and beverage (F&B) spend as leverage
The second biggest profit center for many hotels is food and beverage (F&B) revenues for events, and so a larger spend here can also help you negotiate on other expenses.
F&B can include plated or buffet meals (note that plated dinners can often cost less because there is a finite amount of food on each plate that the kitchen has to prepare) as well as snacks, happy hours, coffee breaks and continental breakfasts. All of these can increase your total spend, and the higher your spend on these items, the more leverage this gives you to negotiate on other things.
Note that many venues will want to include a minimum F&B spend in the contract, so be very realistic about your number of anticipated attendees, and push back the deadline for being able to change the attendee head count and F&B minimum as far as possible.
#20 – Use your total spend numbers to negotiate
The venue manager knows how much profit they need to make for each event and is always aware of the overall value of each event. They break down all this into line items because it’s frankly harder for you to negotiate item by item than it is the overall cost.
So you should add up all the costs in the estimate as well as consider the venue’s other potential revenue sources (like guest expenditures at the hotel bar/restaurant, in-room video rentals, gift shop purchases, spa treatments, etc.) when you calculate the overall value of your event to the venue. This way you are both working with similar numbers and you can use this overall amount to negotiate.