We’ve all encountered clients with tight purse strings. Here are a few creative ways to stretch a budget

By Beckie Jankiewicz

Every event planner has a little magician in their blood. Ask anyone who’s been in the industry for more than a few years and they will happily tell you how, with impressive creativity and mad improv skills, they’ve managed to pull off splashy events on not-so-splashy budgets.

This is incredibly common, and in my opinion, one of the most dynamic parts of the job. I love going into a kickoff meeting with a client, hearing their vision for an event, and getting super excited about all the ways to pull it off. 

When the budget conversation comes up, I will often take a deep breath, listen to their bottom-line number, and then think… Oooh, yes, let’s do this. 

I encourage all planners to think this way—that they can make it happen, no matter what. Budget numbers can be daunting, especially when a client’s expectations don’t match their checkbook. But I’m here to tell you that a modest budget doesn’t need to spell disaster. Quite the contrary.

Here are a few ways to turn a low-cost event into one that keeps people buzzing at brunch the next morning.

1. Focus on decor—and the experience

Shortly after Elizabeth, Anne, and I founded The Event Studio, we were invited by a new client to host an event at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. Talk about a tall order. “The Hofburg,” as they call it, is arguably Austria’s most legendary event space, and has been, since it housed the royal family from the 13th century through the early 20th century. With very little notice and very little money, we were tasked with creating an evening event with a modern, pop-art vibe.

How did we pull it off?

We focused on visuals. Instead of expensive wall hangings and other decor, we used custom designed digital wallpaper (courtesy of our DMC, more on that below). Lighting is huge when setting the tone for an event, so we focused on lighting various rooms in a way that gave off a pop-art feel.

Our goal was to make the event surprising to guests, so we hired musicians to play the harp and violin at the entrance, and then wowed them with a modern change in scenery as they strolled through the palace. People loved it. So much so that we were told it looked like we had a million-dollar budget. Only we—and our collaborator, Maryam Yeganehfar of Yamyam Event Production, who we still work with to this day—knew it cost a fraction of that.

Reconfiguring a space is another way to get around a tight budget. On other occasions, we’ve set up our general-session stage in a corner, on an angle, and positioned the chairs accordingly. This small tweak creates a completely different experience for the audience—and literally costs nothing.

2. Create viral marketing

The branding and marketing of an event are both hugely important and often very pricey. Branding is rarely something to skimp on—it’s essential that attendees have a consistent experience from the first time they log on to an event’s website to the moment they encounter signage in the main hall.

But marketing is a whole different ball game.

Thanks to social media, not only can meeting planners post about events for free, but they can also enlist the help of attendees and speakers to spread the word. Consider asking speakers with large followings to post a specific number of times, pre-event, to help with ticket sales. Try creating contests for attendees that incorporate sharing the event on their social media channels. Post short videos about the planning process, or even interview your client for 30 seconds about how excited they are for the upcoming event.

Before long, you will have a following that cost you little more than time, and may help to garner genuine interest from people who would not have otherwise heard about your event.

3. Incentivize your speakers

Speakers are the main draw at most events, especially for those that charge an attendee fee. A big name has the potential to attract big audiences, but with that name also often comes—you guessed it—big speaking fees. Fear not. There are ways around this.Many speakers—even the boldface ones—will consider speaking for a reduced rate (or sometimes even for free) if they are promoting a new book.

Many speakers—even the boldface ones—will consider speaking for a reduced rate (or sometimes even for free) if they are promoting a new book. 

They may also be swayed to speak on the cheap if you can sell them on the audience. Exposure and networking opportunities can go a long way, and hobnobbing with like-minded attendees can be attractive, even to high-profile speakers.

Get acquainted with a popular speaker’s current schedule. If that person just so happens to be in the same city at the same time as your event, it may be an easier sell asking them to swing by for a 30-minute session.

4. Engage your audience

There are dozens of free software programs that can ease the lives of event planners and help stretch a budget. At a recent event, we enlisted an app and asked the speaker to poll the audience on a series of questions in real-time. The answers were then projected on the stage screen, and it resulted in increased audience engagement and helped enhance the speaker’s takeaways. This cost us nothing—but had a big impact on the overall experience.

The Event Studio (TES), founded in 2008, is led by its three co-founders Elizabeth Busch, Beckie Jankiewicz and Anne Frey-Mott who met while building Inc. and Fast Company’s storied event business. We firmly believe live experiences make lasting connections and move business forward, and have built our business over the past 10 years doing just that for clients ranging from enterprises like Genesys and HP, to publishers such as Fortune and Bloomberg Business, to household names like Airbnb and Lexus. We bring inspiration to the table.