Getting more from your conference suppliers

3 minute read

Tips from conference professionals on finding – and dealing with – suppliers for your research conference.

When you’re new to the conference-organizing party, there can be a million things you need to get to grips with. Finding helpful, value-for-money conference suppliers is one of them. Thankfully, professional conference organizers Robin Baldwin in Canada and Sarah Jeffery in the UK let us pick their brains on how to get the best deal from suppliers when you’re organizing a conference.

Don’t jump at the first quote you get

Always get several quotes from different suppliers, says professional conference manager Robin Baldwin, who works with The Willow Group in Ontario. “Aside from venues, most of the suppliers I deal with are on the AV end. In Canada, AV is all over the map from a pricing perspective.

“I’ve organized events where I’ve had $20,000 – $40,000 spreads between the top and bottom quote – all for the same service.” Don’t take the first quote you’re offered because it sounds about right, do some digging and see what’s out there.

Use the local tourist office to help you find a venue

If your research conference is in a major city, Robin advises using the local tourism bureau to help you source a suitable venue. “They filter responses so you don’t get put on every hotels’ mailing list. They also only send your request to the appropriate venues, so you don’t end up hosting a 20-person meeting in a conference centre.

“And because the request comes from the tourism bureau, the venues know they’re bidding against other properties.”

Seek out word of mouth

Treat word-of-mouth recommendations for conference suppliers as golden.

“Talking to people is where you get the true service report. You’d think that catering is catering, but no! And I know some high-end AV companies that charge through the nose, but god help you if you can find a tech when something’s going wrong…

“If you happen to know people who’ve done events or know people in the industry, talk to them and get their recommendations,” says Robin.

Choose conference suppliers based on service, not just price

Keeping your conference costs low is one thing, but cheapest isn’t always best. “Sometimes suppliers have to do so much business to cover the cheap price they’re offering that you have so much more work to do,” says Oxford-based professional conference organizer Sarah Jeffery.

“On paper it’s cheaper, but the hassle value means it’s not worth it. Will you be running around like a mad thing because the supplier hasn’t delivered what they said they would?

“Be mindful that you need to be able to trust that what they’re offering is what they’ll do.”

Be aware that in-house suppliers aren’t always better value

One thing that catches out a lot of non-professional conference organizers is assuming that venues’ in-house suppliers automatically offer a better deal.

“Anybody who’s not a professional conference planner thinks they’ll be less expensive because they’re in house,” says Robin. “In Canada, the in-house AV supplier has to pay the hotel a commission for being recommended. I had a conference in Toronto in August. Their in-house AV cost $15,000, but quotes for external suppliers were coming in at $7,000 to $9,000.”

So be wary of “preferred” and “exclusive” wording about suppliers in your venue contract.

Sniff out hidden costs in supplier contracts

Sometimes suppliers have Ts & Cs that come with a sting. For example, some venues charge exorbitant “patch fees” for using an outside AV company for your conference.

“When you look at venue contracts you have to be aware of this,” says Robin. “I work with not-for-profits. They’re not looking to spend $50,000 on venue rental and then the same on AV.”

Go through any supplier contracts and make sure you’re clear on all the charges.

If you qualify, ask your conference suppliers for non-profit rates

If your conference is for an academic body or a non-profit, ask about getting discounts from your suppliers. Sarah organizes an international conference for education and development: “I’m always looking to get charity or nonprofit rates, trying to get good value to save on costs.”

And check if you qualify for any tax exemptions on the goods or services you’re paying for.

Negotiate, dammit

If it comes down to choosing between a few major suppliers – like your venue – let them know they’re bidding against other suppliers, advises Robin.

“If you let them know it’s down to their property and another one and you have some things that haven’t been addressed in the proposal, you can leverage them.”

Be nice to your conference suppliers

Whether it’s service staff, an AV technician, or your conference speaker – treat everyone you deal with with respect. “It doesn’t matter if you’re organizing a one-off conference or doing it regularly. If things go wrong at your event, the people you’ve mistreated won’t be the people trying to help you,” says Robin.

Feed the technicians!

One final piece of advice from Robin is to feed your crew. “During conferences I’m onsite at 5 am and go till 10 pm or 11 pm. My crews work the same. You wouldn’t make your own staff work those long hours and not feed them.

“Little things like this can make a difference to the level of service you get from suppliers.”