Event planners and event managers are often tasked with creating the food and beverage budget for conferences or meetings and it’s usually a very significant part of the total event budget. While at first this number may seem like a lot of money, it can literally get eaten up very quickly without proper planning.

Food and Beverage Budget Planning is a Critical Pillar of Event Planning

It’s useful to break down your food and beverage budget into categories. Take a look at the program for your conference or meeting and figure out how many meals you are required to serve. Adding two breaks in a day, makes a huge difference in terms of your budget so make sure to include those as well.

In addition to the usual breakout sessions and plenaries, conferences also often host smaller meetings, like board meetings where you will also be required to order food and beverages. Don’t forget these as part of your overall event planning.

So your food and beverage budget categories will be meals, breaks, and small meetings.

Determine Expected Number of Delegates

Once you have determined the meals you are required to serve you will need to figure out how many people you expect to serve at each meal. Your best bet is to look at registration numbers from previous years and your delegate survey to determine how many people to expect. If your conference has been growing from year to year or if your conference is in a less desirable location this year use that information to estimate the number of diners up or down.

Also, if you have a trade show as part of your conference don’t forgot to feed your exhibitors. You will also likely have staff or volunteers on site at the conference so they should also be included in your total meal numbers.

Keep in mind that if you expect 350 delegates to attend the conference, it is not as easy as budgeting for 350 people for every meal. You need to understand your delegates, think about if they would skip lunch for a business meeting or if they would skip the morning break due to having a large breakfast. These will help to determine the guarantees that you provide to the venue. And the best predictor of this type of future behaviour is similar past behaviour – again, check numbers from previous years to see what percentage actually ate at each meal.

Venue Prices

Before you dive into creating the budget per meal it’s a good idea to take a look at the hotel’s catering package. Determine what the typical cost of a breakfast, lunch, dinner and break are, as this will help you determine where to allocate your funds. For example, if you have a budget for $100 per person for food it is easier to distribute that budget if you know that a typical dinner is $40.

Friday Sessions Budget Number of People Budget/Person
Food and Beverage (Breakfast) $2,300 180 $12.78
Food and Beverage (Coffee Breaks) $1,000 150 $6.67
Food and Beverage (Lunch) $4,500 200 $22.50
Subtotal $7,800
Tax and Service Charges at 28.75% $2,242.50
Total $10,042.50

Breakdown the Cost per Meal

Now that you know what meals to serve and how many of each meal, you can determine what you can spend on each meal. Be sure to include taxes and service charges in your costs (depending on your budget they will be included differently, but just don’t forget them as they can easily add 25% to the total). Once you get to this point create a spreadsheet to have all the information organized, as it can get confusing if you have ten different meals throughout a conference or meeting. Let’s say that you have a total food and beverage budget of $10,000 (which includes taxes and service charges), here is an example of what that might look like:

You will notice that after all your taxes and gratuities are factored in your real budget for food is significantly less. That is why it is important to include these costs in your initial planning stages. Our article Calculating the True Cost of Food and Beverages further explains how to understand the true costs of food and beverage. The article demonstrates how to properly include service charges and taxes into your food and beverage budgeting.

Where to Make the Food and Beverage Budget Sacrifices to Maximize Event Planning Value

You are likely managing a tight budget and every penny you save counts. If your food and beverage costs are higher than you expected there are ways to cut costs without sacrificing the experience of your attendees. Take a look at your current budget and see where you can cut back; breaks are often a good place to look first as delegates won’t notice if you cut back here as much. Our article, Satisfying Your Delegates’ Appetite: Creating Your Conference Menu on A Limited Budget, shares some great ways to decrease your budget.

Understanding food and beverage budget basics is your best guarantee of keeping you on budget and your attendees happy.