Meeting Design

15+ Event Ideas to Help You Wow Attendees on a Budget - By Sherri Defesche

Food items ion a buffet
15+ Event Ideas to Help You Wow Attendees on a Budget

Social Tables

Events serve an important business purpose. They help establish a brand, market products, gain clientele, raise funds, and increase employee morale. Luckily, as important as events are, they don’t have to break the bank. Here are some tried-and-true event ideas to help you wow attendees and bosses on a tight budget.

Event Ideas for Themes

You may intuitively think that a customized event theme is costly. However, themes actually narrow down choices for catering and decorating. A theme not only makes the event less expensive by avoiding decoration overload, it also creates a more cohesive guest experience. That’s because:

  • Each element—from promotion and decoration to food and entertainment—becomes décor. That means there’s less to buy in the way of decorations.
  • It’s important to satisfy guests’ five senses at any event. With a theme, an event planner can determine the most effective, yet least expensive way to do that.
  • The element of surprise doesn’t cost a thing but adds “wow” to events. A theme can help transform a room into an altered reality, might include a surprise guest, or involve an interactive guest activity.

Keeping Catering Costs Down

Food and drink lie at the core of a positive guest experience. That’s why you never want to run out! The first key is to keep track of where your catering dollars are going. Then you can really stretch your catering funds by:

  • Making food experiential. Choose an inexpensive menu where guests can have fun interacting with each other while creating their own concoctions. A taco bar, rice bowls, a hot chocolate bar, or ice cream sundaes are all great choices.
  • Schedule the event when appetizers or dessert are expected, rather than lunch or dinner. Another way to keep costs at bay is to host a brown bag lunch, where guests bring their own lunch and the host provides a big, beautiful salad, an elegant dessert, or spa beverages.
  • When hors d’ oeuvres are served, place the less expensive appetizers (like crackers and cheese) on the buffet table and pass the more expensive ones on trays. Guests eat less food when it’s passed and having the appetizers brought to them elevates the elegance level.
  • When serving alcohol, let the bar service know that you want to pay by consumption rather than per person.
  • Negotiate with vendors. If you have an annual event, try to negotiate a multi-year contract where you get a discount if you commit to exclusively using their business. This not only applies to catering, but also transportation, rental space, floral, hotels, and dining establishments.

Decorations on a Budget

It is every event planner’s dream to have the budget of a big Hollywood gala, but the “wow” factor can be achieved even on a tight budget.

  • Use a monochromatic color palette. Crisp, bright white is always elegant, but a saturation of any one color makes a bold visual statement.
  • Lighting sets a festive tone. When professional lighting is not in the budget, illuminate the room with flickering candlelight or strings of big bulb lights.
  • Ask the caterer to decorate the buffet table at no extra charge by using:
    themed items they may have on hand, such as wooden crates, nature-inspired display blocks, and pretty tablecloths.
  • floral arrangements that may be leftover from other events.
  • fresh fruit or vegetables, such as a crystal bowl of red, ripe strawberries, or a tall glass cylinder with lemons, filled with water, and topped with a floating candle.
  • Don’t buy expensive floral arrangements—make them yourself with a dollar-store bowl vase, colorful aquarium rock, and a fully-opened rose bloom.
  • Borrow decorations from others—friends in the event industry, co-workers, and family—or bring decorations from home—flowers from the garden, potted plants, and decorative home goods.

Entertaining Your Guests

Booking big-name entertainment can drain an event budget in a flash, but with a little ingenuity, you can delight your guests with something unexpected.

  • Utilize free or low-cost entertainment—does a co-worker or friend play music, read poetry, draw caricatures, perform acroyoga, or read fortunes? Call them first!
  • Use food as entertainment. For example, nothing provokes an emotional response at a Snow Day party like making snow ice cream with an ice shaver and re-creating the childhood favorite, Frito Pie in a Bag.
  • Pull guests out of their usual groupings by asking them to serve as event photographers. Use Hootsuite or Storify to create a collage ready to share in real time or on social media after the event. Having guests participate in this way creates a festive atmosphere and helps the quiet ones come out of their shell by giving them something important to do.
  • Offer a photo booth made with a simple metallic door curtain and a few props. For example, a summer theme photo booth can be made with a shimmering blue backdrop and attached beach balls purchased at a dollar store. Provide some funky sunglasses and group photos mean entertainment for everyone.

Stretching the Event Budget in Other Ways

Here are some final event ideas to cut the budget even further:

  • From invitations to event promotion, use social media instead of paper. Destroying trees is passe, and printing and postage quickly accumulate. Most everyone is on social media, so meet them where they are.
  • Instead of hosting an event in a generic, square room, position the event components in adjoining rooms. Use a big square room for the buffet and cocktail tables, a hallway to accommodate the line for bar service, and an atrium for mingling and music. The money you spend on the special occasion is the same, but the event will appear bigger and more elaborate.
  • Consider unconventional venues. It adds an element of surprise and can be quite cost-effective. Instead of hosting a staff luncheon at an expensive restaurant, try a venue that’s free, such as a park for a picnic or rent an Airstream trailer for a retro-themed luncheon.
  • Plan your event layout by diagramming it with free room planning software.

Using imagination to find innovative solutions to budget restrictions not only helps the business’ bottom line, it demonstrates the talents of the event planner. Make this known to the powers that be!

Bonus: Wow the Bosses

Create a chart listing the way an event was executed in the past and how much it cost. In an adjacent column, list the innovative event ideas you implemented to cut the budget in the same areas. Finally, include a column that demonstrates how much money the company saved.

You can go even further by tracking the return on investment through increased attendance, social media buzz, new leads, product profits, and brand awareness. A report with this level of information will remind the budget bosses that events are good business.

Sherri Defesche works at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, where she coordinates events and manages web content for the Center for Ethics and Leadership and the School of Arts and Humanities. She has 33 years’ experience in event management and is certified in social media marketing.

Remember, stretching your budget is great, but having a big budget is even better. Check out our free guide for some great strategies that’ll help you score more when you have the budget talk. (Let us know what you think on Facebook!)

Social Tables

Planning the buffet, placing the mics, laying it all out — it’s not easy making the little details come to life. So in 2011, we set out to change the way events are designed by introducing better collaboration between planners and properties. Today, we’ve evolved that vision into an innovative platform offering the industry’s leading solutions for event sales, services, and group distribution. All to help the world create the best face-to-face events.



Logos, product and company names mentioned are the property of their respective owners.