September 22, 2002


How to avoid financial risks
when hiring an event planning firm
By Mark W. Kustwan, CMP

People responsible for planning meetings, conferences and events for their organizations may decide to use the services of a meeting or event-planning firm. These companies will assist in site selection, contract negotiations, and the creative and logistical demands that make a business successful. However, this decision has its pitfalls, including financial risks.
    Planning firms have a number of options when pricing their services. They may add a percentage (from 10 percent to as much as 30 percent) to the cost of the event, work through commissions from the various suppliers, mark up the individual events, charge on a per-person basis, or charge a management fee. Each option has an effect on your bottom line.
    By far the least risky approach is to pay a management fee, since the other options offer planners a disincentive to negotiate the best prices for you. And keep in mind, within the planning industry it is considered highly unethical to use more than one of the above forms of compensation without full disclosure to, and agreement by, you, the client.
    Selecting the right planning company - one that best fits your needs and budget - will go a long way in ensuring a successful event.

{References are fine, but requesting a list of hotels and other venues this firm previously worked with will give you a better idea of a planner's capabilities.}

Follow these simple guidelines when comparing planning firms:
1. Know your program. Know your goals and objectives, and your needs versus your wants.

2. Prepare a preliminary budget. By knowing what your business is worth, you give yourself more negotiating power. Comparing this budget to your vendor's proposal allows you to see how and where the firm may be marking up your conference costs.
3. Know your planning partner. References are fine, but requesting a list of hotels and other venues this firm previously worked with will give you a better idea of a planner's capabilities. By speaking with the convention services managers at these facilities, you should gain a more accurate assessment of the planning firm's abilities.
4. Prepare an accurate request for proposal (RFP) - Highlight the facts and requirements as you currently know them, such as the number of attendees, the need for guest and meeting rooms, AV equipment, and banquet and recreational facilities. And ask what "miscellaneous" charges you should anticipate - ones you may have neglected to include in your RFP. When requesting a proposal, ask the firm to first outline the basics (and the corresponding costs) for a successful event. Then, have the company list its suggested optional upgrades. This will allow you to pick and choose the items that fit your needs, and see the costs associated with each.
5. Request a list of upcoming programs. Then go on-site to experience what their attendees are experiencing, get a feel for the service and the planning firm's overall creativity.
6. Make sure vendor invoices accompany the final billing. Don't sign an agreement without assurance that copies of the vendor's invoices are available for your review. While not a perfect solution, it will make overcharging by your planning firm more difficult.
7. Don't be afraid to negotiate. And remember everything is negotiable.

Mark K. Kustwan is the owner of OnTheMark, a conference consulting and management company located in East Longmeadow, MA. He can be reached at
(413) 526-8900 or at: