Event Budgeting: The 2021 Guide for Event Marketers
Is your event budget setting you up for success? In this guide we'll look at tips, best practices and examples for creating a reliable event marketing budget in 2021 and beyond.
Whether you’re planning an in-person, virtual, or hybrid event, the many moving parts of an event strategy are bound together by the event budget. Given that an event's financial foundation is directly related to the event outcome, creating a thorough and realistic event budget is a key ingredient for event success. The quick pivot to virtual made budgeting for your event even more complex. With the sudden shift, planners have found themselves in uncharted territory. Planners are now dealing with the uncertainties of the pandemic. Often these uncertainties impact budgets.
The need for planners to be able to prove the value of their event has become more important than ever. 66% of organizers anticipate budget cuts for their virtual, in-person, and/or hybrid events going into 2021. Data shows that approval of leadership (and consequently the overall budget for events) is contingent on being able to prove event ROI. With restricted budgets comes a growing need to properly allocate and intelligently spend each dollar.
In this guide you'll learn the steps you need to take to create an event budget. Along the way, you'll encounter common pitfalls, best practices, advice from event experts, and budgeting templates. To help you keep track of every stage of the event organizing process, we’ve put together this event budgeting guide:
How to Approach an Event Budgeting Strategy
Before diving into the components of the event budget and taking a deep-dive into vendor research, certain best practices should be kept in mind. If you internalize a mindset that is composed of the following tips, your event budgeting process will be much smoother and streamlined.
1. Establish Your Goals
The main purpose of an event budget should not be solely to keep tabs on spending. Rather, the purpose should be guiding the organizer to properly allocate funds to the most valuable event elements.
By stating how much you will spend on each component, the budget becomes a reflection of what parts of the event are most important to you.
2. Use Historical Data
Data from past events can be great indicators of what has worked, and what didn’t. It can allow planners to make tough decisions when it comes to your event budget. However, using historical data can be a challenge with virtual and hybrid events.
In 2020 many planners have found themselves in uncharted territory planning their first virtual events. According to the Evolutions of Events Report, 76.5% of planners have never hosted a hybrid event before. Bizzabo analyzed data from over 210 virtual events and published the 7 Must-Know Virtual Event Benchmarks so planners everywhere could quickly learn the trends and have benchmarks to better plan even if they have not planned their first virtual event yet.
Despite the unknown, both virtual and hybrid events offer unprecedented access to analytics and data. From the number of registrants attending each session and how long they viewed them, to how many attendees clicked on each sponsor page, planners have never had access to so much insight before. Some of these analytics even come instantly allowing planners to respond to the data and findings on the spot.
In the case that you’ve executed an event marketing strategy before, make sure to utilize all previous data and templates that you have access to. Doing so will save time and help inform decisions you will have to make during the budget planning process.
It may be easy to get caught up in the upcoming event and become obsessed with finding the perfect deal for each event element, but there is a risk of losing time and wasting energy. Don’t make this harder. Rely on previous research and data when you can to make things simpler for everyone involved.
3. Pay Attention to Detail
When it comes to an event budget, there is no such thing as being too detailed. Every piece of information relevant to a particular budget item should be included in the “description” section within the budget plan. This will help you make decisions further down the line and will also be helpful to future event planners who refer to your budget.
For example, if you are looking to purchase event swag to mail out to attendees, be detailed with each item. If the event swag is a branded t-shirt, specify how many of each size are being ordered and cost per shirt. Have a description section for any additional notes such as arrival date or design specifications. It would also be helpful to include a screenshot of the t-shirt so you—and your internal stakeholders—can visualize the end product. Make sure to also include the cost of shipping and packaging in your event budget. Whether virtual or physical swag the more details, the better.
4. Over-communicate with Stakeholders
When it comes to financial planning, all relevant stakeholders should always be on the same page. Internally, this means communicating key budget information with the team members who are in charge of financial oversight of the event. For example, if there’s been a budget cut on venue expenses and the person in charge of venue sourcing is unaware, you may end up securing a space you can’t afford sending you over budget.
Similarly when dealing with external communication, you’ll want to be overly communicative and crystal clear with all relevant event vendors. Let’s say that during the early stages of the buying process, you and the venue owner discussed a certain price but after a few more discussions, your contract includes a price hike of 15% from your initial quote.
Assuming there were no ill intentions on the vendor’s part, there were definitely details that were overlooked or not properly communicated. To avoid surprises like these, be transparent and upfront every step of the way and strive to over-communicate.
5. Stay Aware of the Latest Event Trends
Effective budgeting doesn’t only consist of finding the best deals. It also means intentionally and strategically spending money. Understand your audience and what will resonate with them. One of the best ways to properly allocate your spending budget is to be aware of event industry trends and understand which are the best investments for your event overall.
This is especially true in the ever-changing world of virtual and hybrid events.
With events evolving faster than ever it’s important to stay on top of event tech trends. Similarly, being versed in top-of-mind event trends will let you know which trends might resonate with your audience and where to increase or decrease spending. Never follow a trend just to be trendy, it’s important to always remember the purpose behind your event when choosing which trends to implement.
Consider allocating an event entertainment budget for a buzzworthy artist that will encourage the audience to share their experience attending. When planning (Almost) HYBRID, Bizzabo brought in North Coast, the world’s best hip-hop improv comedy ensemble to perform an improvised live set.
North Coast created a dynamic performance based on audience comments about what they missed most about in-person events. It was a fun and lighthearted way to come together about the changes this year brought forth and had the entire audience laughing and dancing!
Source: (Almost) HYBRID
6. Consider Sponsors
Sponsors can be a valuable resource for event budgeting. Event sponsors often provide the funding needed to have a successful event in exchange for the opportunity to get in front of your attendees, typically for the purpose of brand awareness.
According to the 2020 Event Marketing Report, 33% of marketing professionals are spending 21% or more of their total events budget on sponsoring events. This is good news for event planners, but just like with other stakeholders you must be able to demonstrate the value of sponsoring your event by proving ROI. This can be a challenge for virtual events, 37% of event planners find it’s more difficult to provide valuable opportunities for sponsors at virtual events.
Overcome this challenge and keep sponsors happy by providing valuable insights and data to your sponsors. With virtual event success softwares it’s easier than ever to show sponsors the data they want to see such as how many attendees stopped by their virtual booth, the number of attendees who booked demonstrations with them, and even video engagement. Don’t stop at data however, just like an in-person event it’s important to listen to sponsor feedback and take it into account when planning the next event.
We’ve created a Virtual Event Sponsor Workbook packed with tools, inspiration, and exercises to help you build, and refine your virtual sponsorship program. Check it out below.
Event Budget Expenses
There are plenty of ways to break down the elements of an event budget. How you dissect your budget depends on your personal preference and the strategy driving the event budget. For most cases, you’ll find the following breakdown to be similar across budget plans. Here’s a basic breakdown of the most important expenses for any event budget. Whether your event is in-person, virtual, or hybrid these are common expenses incurred planning an event.
1. Staffing Costs
One expense that can sneak up on you on the day of the (in-person) event is the cost of onsite event staffing. The team that will help you with registration, directing attendees to their relevant rooms, and greeting them upon arrival will prove to be a vital part of your event experience. Thus, you will want to keep them happy and energized for the duration of the event.
Meal costs, travel plans, and accommodations should be things to consider for your event staff. If it is communicated beforehand that these costs will be covered, you will want to include them on your budget sheet as they can easily add up to a significant sum.
It’s important to note that even with a virtual event you will also incur staffing costs. There are many elements behind the scenes at virtual events which require a talented team to execute. This team will help you with your events execution from event strategy, to live-streaming, and your events website design your virtual event staff is a critical element of your events success.
"If you have the right agency, you'll get a lot more out of seven people within an agency for the same costs than an added one or two additional headcount could end up costing."
—Janna Erickson, Drift
The speakers will also be a very important and significant part of the event budget. This is an area that will require a high willingness to spend because a main way to attract attendees is a strong speaking panel. In many ways your speakers will be the “face” of the event as you will use their personal brands to elevate your own event brand and relay your messaging.
Choose speakers who align with your event vision and enrich your event content. If your conference focuses on the future of mobile, it would make more sense to book a senior engineer from Apple as opposed to a social media thought leader. Though the latter may have a coveted influencer status and draw attendees, choosing an Apple engineer would align more closely to the event content and offer concrete value to attendees.
Don't overlook your professional network when brainstorming speaker engagements. Leveraging you and your team's network for thought leadership candidates can surprisingly generate an impressive roster of event speakers. Tapping into your network has the added benefit of providing a warmer introduction to a potential speaker than cold outreach. It may also help to alleviate higher costs if speakers are willing to join your event for free.
"Usually when high profile professionals travel, they usually have a little more time for meetings than when you reach out to them out of the blue. That's how I built a lot of relationships and set up meetings. You want to strategically understand and get to know them before proposing to collaborate with them on a project."
—Vasil Azarov, Growth Marketing Conference
3. Signage and Event Branding
Creating a memorable event experience requires you to bring your event brand to life. Discuss and strategize what this might look like and make sure to set aside sufficient funds to purchase enough visual elements that will make for an amazing experience.
At INBOUND’s 2020 virtual experience, the INBOUND team virtually created their world and brought in familiar elements like the iconic #INBOUND sign and virtual signage to all their sessions. Having a strong vision in mind when planning the event budget will help you better understand what is needed and how much should be dedicated to creating the event brand.
4. Unique Attendee Experiences
With interactive technology becoming more advanced each year, having specific areas dedicated to enhanced attendee experiences will make your event more memorable.
The rise of artificial intelligence and virtual/augmented reality makes it easy for attendees to engage in onsite activities that expand their imagination. VR can also be a way to immerse your virtual audience and make them feel as though they are in-person. Look into technologies that align with your event content and add unique experiences for attendees.
As events pivoted to virtual new challenges surfaced, creating engaging attendee experiences has proven more difficult. The event audience is now at home, and you are competing against Netflix, work, and family for attention. More than ever planners have to be focused on creating engaging experiences that can cut through the noise.
Source: (Almost) HYBRID
Leon Winkler, Director of International Events at Ubisoft faced this challenge early into the pivot to virtual head on. The Ubisoft team had been planning an experiential event for the books for E3, the world's premier event for computer and video games and related products. With the recent launch of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Leon and his team were planning to create an immersive experience for the books with demo pods within a viking ship packed with vikings roaming about. The experience was designed for attendees to experience the game in a truly memorable way.
With the rise of COVID-19, E3 was cancelled shortly before the event. Leon and his team needed to innovate.
“We heard in March that E3 was cancelled and we had to pivot towards a digital experience, there was of course a sense of panic. But at the same time, we looked at it as an opportunity. It was an opportunity for us to really invest in the virtual experience. Try to create content different than we normally do for a live event, create content that resonates with this broad audience, and content that allows people to create their own journey into our universe…”
Leon Winkler, Director of International Events at Ubisoft
In partnership with Parsec, Ubisoft created a virtual environment that allowed them to stream games to anyone without the person needing to download a game. All attendees needed was a controller. This innovation created an immersive and engaging virtual experience for players. It allowed attendees to interact with the game and tap into a childlike joy, allowing them to interact, engage and touch. This created a truly unique attendee experience.
Technology powered examples like these are what will take the attendee experience to the next level. Research new gadgets and devices that would align with your specific event content and have the potential to be the “wow” factor at the event.
Want to hear the full story? Watch Leon’s session by registering for (Almost Hybrid).
5. Emergency Fund
This is definitely a fund you will want to set aside early on in the planning process. Event organizing is an unpredictable journey and there will surely be situations in which you will need to tap into your emergency fund.
Ben Anthonisz, head of Customer Education at Bizzabo recommends keeping a 20% contingency budget to cover last minute costs. For example, after a successful sponsorship campaign, you have added an additional 15 concurrent breakout sessions. It’s great news that your campaign was such a success but you estimated a much lower number of sponsored break out sessions. You will need a team to help you execute these breakouts. In order to properly execute you will need the help of a production team, like Bizzabo’s Virtual Production Services to ensure your additional concurrent sessions run flawlessly.
Whether your event is in-person, virtual or hybrid attendees love swag. In fact, attendees not only love to receive swag but it is an expected part of the event experience. Make sure to set aside a portion of your event budget for this.
If you plan to mail out a swag box you will need to also plan for shipping expenses. Not sure what to budget? If you are looking to send out a swag box companies like swagup will send out a box complete with custom t-shirts, water bottle, notebook, and a few other items in a custom mailer starting at about $53.00/ attendee.
If a swag box is not in your budget, or the cost of shipping and packaging becomes too high consider sending a voucher from Uber Eats or check out these digital gift ideas your attendees will love.
Virtual Event Expenses
More than 60% of event professionals pivoted an event to virtual this year due to COVID-19. The transition was quick and budgets were uncertain at first. Now that virtual events are here to stay it’s important to properly budget for them. As with all events, proving your virtual event ROI is critical. Having a well-integrated event technology stack can make proving ROI simpler and less painful.
Here we'll review several virtual event technology expenses to consider when building out your virtual event.
1. Event Success Platform
An event success platform that fits your event goals will likely be the best investment you can make with your event budget. Your event success platform equates to your virtual venue. The amount of organization, streamlining, and insights that you will gain from your event technology will help inform decisions for not just one event, but for all future events and programming as well. This is also where your attendees will experience your event, having a great user interface and design will improve attendees experience.
From event registration to contact management, choosing the right event management software will be a foundational piece to your event planning and attendee experience. Be sure to allocate sufficient funds and decision-making time for the particular part of your budget. It could make all the difference.
For more information on how to choose the right platform for you, check out the Event Software Buyers Guide.
While some software solutions will be able to integrate with others right out of the box, others may require additional integration solutions. These solutions could be something like an open API (where a tech team connects two solutions together), Webhooks (a similar process), or an integration platform as a service (like Zapier or Mulesoft).
3. Virtual Event Production
In order to have a great virtual event experience you need virtual event production. Depending on the type of event virtual event production can range from a simple live-stream directly from speakers homes to a full studio recording experience. Video editing, graphics, and animations can be another surprise expense when it comes to virtual event production. Regardless, you’ll want to understand the needs of your event, what is included from your production team, and budget accordingly for studios, virtual presenter kits, and beyond.
Hybrid Event Expenses
With the possibility of vaccine distribution right around the corner hybrid events are likely to start popping up in 2021. 97% of organizers believe we will see more hybrid events in 2021, however only 24% have ever invested in hybrid experiences.
Planners are in uncharted water, and even if they have planned a hybrid experience in the past, it’s safe to say that the “hybrid” events of the future will be quite different. Both virtual and in-person attendees will be looking for an engaging experience. This means the simple camera stream from the back of the room will no longer cut it. There is a lot to take into consideration when planning your event budget for a hybrid event. The costs will go up, and your event budget should reflect that.
During our event, (Almost) Hybrid, Mark Wilson, Executive Creative Director at Cramer shed light on what we can expect in terms of budget “plan to spend up to twice as much, you have to plan for the virtual and venue audience.” While this may come as a shock to some, in reality you are planning 2 shows and no matter what your hybrid event ideas are your event budget will need to increase for that. Here are some of the most common expenses we are seeing for hybrid events.
Source: (Almost) HYBRID
1. Hybrid Event Production
AV and virtual event production become much more expensive when planning a hybrid event. You have to make sure that your event set up works for your in-person and virtual audience alike. Now that attendees have been to virtual events they will expect the experience to be immersive. Staging now needs to be designed with broadcasting in mind, making sure your scenic and camera angles work for a virtual audience will become key. Audiences will expect to experience the in-person elements live with little lag time and a great streaming experience.
2. Virtual and Physical Spaces
With hybrid audiences there will be a need for both a physical venue and virtual environment. Not only do you need both environments, but they need to be able to merge together allowing attendees to connect. 68% of event marketers reported that a hybrid solution that can manage both virtual and in-person events will play a key role in their 2021 event strategies. A hybrid solution allows the worlds to merge and the planning experience to be much more seamless.
3. Hybrid Technologies
We’ve touched on this before but there is a very real need to connect the virtual audience to the event. We strongly believe a hybrid event solution will play a key role in a successful hybrid event. In fact, Bizzabo just raised $138 million dollars in funding for the future of hybrid events. We are creating better capabilities for meetings and networking, engagement and interaction tools, and an overall great user experience.
4. Hosts and Moderators
A great host will aid serving hybrid audiences. They can bridge the worlds, making sure the in-person and virtual spaces are integrating and having a good experience. Hosts and moderators are the thread that ties the environments together. They can read the crowd, help create engagement, and draw out conversations should technical issues arise.
“Don’t go back to the habits of before times… now you really have to design with intention and integrate the two audiences and connect them”
Dana Pack - Executive Producer/Strategist - MCW Events
An event is about the live experience so investing in a memorable and rewarding experience is a must. When we are able to gather in-person again, there will be new expenses and considerations to take into account when planning your event. The following items will be the main elements of your onsite spending.
For larger events, the venue will be one of the largest expenses in your budget. Because this will be such a large spend, you will want to carry out all budgeting best practices for this process. You will also want to account for the current social distancing guidelines, this might mean requiring a larger space than you previously had to ensure your event is adhering to local guidelines.
First, make sure that the venue aligns with your overarching event goals. If the objective is to facilitate as much networking and creative collaboration as possible, book a venue that provides ample space and a natural flowing walkway for attendees to easily converse with one another.
When it comes to the venue outreach process, use the information you have on file. If there are venues you’ve worked with or considered working with in the past, use those contacts as a starting point.
Once the negotiations are underway, this is when you will want to gather as many details as possible. Make sure to over communicate your specific needs, your goals for the event, and the amount of support you’ll want from the venue which may be onsite staff and catering. Because this will be a larger expenditure, be sure to have multiple venues in the running.
Having options to choose from will give you a better idea of what you ultimately want as well as provide leverage when negotiating with each vendor. Choosing a venue is an important decision so make sure to allocate enough time and funds to the process.
2. COVID Compliance and Safety Precautions
In-person events are going to look different when they return. As we mentioned in our Common Sense Guide to Coronavirus and Events, the industry has changed events forever. Plan to set aside a portion of your event budget for event safety. This covers everything from your usual security teams to the new world of COVID-19 precautions. To keep guests safe you may have to allocate budgets towards additional hand-washing stations, hand sanitizer, and plexiglass sneeze guards. If you plan to have health checks at the entrance take into account the additional supplies like contactless thermometers and team members needed to staff the health check. Planners will also need to order more signage than before encouraging attendees to promote social distancing and other protective measures.
Another significant chunk of the budget should be dedicated to your overall marketing strategy for the event. Of course there are countless channels and methods that you could put your money towards, but we've listed a few popular event promotional strategies that event organizers take below.
1. Paid Search
If you anticipate that many potential attendees will be using online search to find events similar to yours, consider dedicating some of your promotional budget towards SEO and paid search. The most popular platform used for a paid search strategy is Google AdWords.
To give a brief breakdown of its functionality, Google AdWords allows advertisers to bid on certain keywords that they wish to rank for. For example, if you are organizing a low scale startup event in San Francisco, below are a few keywords you may want to bid for.
Based on information such as monthly search volume and overall demand for that keyword, you’ll want to decide on a competitive price in relation to others who are also bidding for that keyword. Also keep in mind that Google AdWords only charges when someone clicks on your link. Take these factors into consideration as you strategize how much of your budget you should allocate to paid search.
2. Public Relations
Investing in more traditional forms of event promotion could see valuable returns and additional press pickups. In today’s digital age, public relations largely consists of having your event information published on relevant outlets. This is where investing in PR can come in handy. A PR team or agency will have both the knowledge and the network to ensure your event information and all articles surrounding your event are placed on the relevant outlets and publications to maximize event exposure.
Instead of using an agency, you can also do the PR yourself by joining a PR network or using specific platforms that are designed to support your PR strategy. Below is a list of PR networks you can explore. Note that each comes with different price tiers and analytics functions:
3. Paid Social Media
Another popular form of digital advertising is putting money behind social media campaigns. Paid social media could prove to be a great use of your event budget. All major social media platforms have an ad offering and thus the main task would be balancing your paid social investments in each platform to ensure a wide yet targeted reach.
As illustrated in the Guide to Facebook Event Promotion, the platform has one of the more robust advertising platforms out there—giving advertisers the ability to achieve massive reach with minimal effort. Ads can be served based on specific demographic information including age and geographical location. They can also be served to those who have visited your event website, which is a form of retargeting.
Ads can also be served on a “connections” basis which means the ads will be seen by those whose friends have already registered for your event. This is just a brief summary of what Facebook ads are capable of. For more tips on this form of event promotion and overall best practices, you can take a look at what the social media experts had to say on the topic.
4. Direct Mail
Another great channel to invest in for your event marketing are direct mail campaigns. Direct mail can enrich your demand generation and event strategy and potentially offer better conversions and responses in comparison to email campaigns. It was reported in Sendoso’s State of Spending Report that direct mail’s motivation response is 20% higher than digital media.
However, depending on the size and complexity of your direct mail campaigns, pricing can be more expensive than your digital channels. A successful direct mail campaign requires alignment between marketing and sales, clear goals, and a clear call to action for your target audience.
When it comes to your promotional strategy, there are certainly other costs around marketing personnel and various event tools. Adding additional allowance to your promotional budget will help you absorb additional costs should they come up during your path to launch an event.
Event Budgeting Template
It’s time to put together the key elements of an event budget, below you can find a simple event budgeting template that provides an overview of the main expenses.
Of course you can add more columns as you see fit. The above template can be organized into a spreadsheet either through Google Sheets or Excel. Wherever you choose to store your budget plan, make sure that this data is made available to only those who need this information as you’ll want to keep finances as confidential as possible.
Balancing Event Budget and Event ROI
Now that we’ve discussed the basics of event budgeting and the standard costs that go into the budget plan, it's important to explain the relationship between event budget and event ROI. The main reason for an event budget is not only to keep tabs on your spending but also to understand the bigger picture. Organizing a comprehensive event budget is a crucial step in properly calculating your return on investment.
By definition, everything that is spent within your event budget is an investment. You are hoping that these expenditures will lead to favorable business outcomes such as greater pipeline value, increased sales opportunities, or, more simply, a profit from event ticket sales. Similar to how we discussed the importance of articulating your event goals, establishing event ROI is a related process. Outlining the event ROI is simply the act of making your goals more measurable.
For more in-depth information on event ROI, read through the Event ROI and Marketing Attribution Guide. Combining this guide on event budgeting with the event ROI guide will help paint the bigger picture that encapsulates event success.
Key Takeaways for Mastering Your Event Budget
A detailed, organized, and comprehensive event budget will help you allocate your funds intelligently as well as provide the necessary data to calculate accurate event ROI.
- Set specific event goals. Your goals will dictate the scope of your event and its budget. Will you be hosting an intimate dinner for VIPs or a large-scale user conference? Each has unique needs.
- Do your research. Look at historical data, consult with your peers and colleagues, speak to different vendors. This will help you accurately gauge your event budget and will make you a more informed buyer.
- Map it all out. Your event budget will need to cover venue procurement, promotional campaigns, food, staff, tables, chairs, event technology, lighting, swag...the list goes on. Make a detailed map of your needs to help you keep it all in check.
- Hedge your bets. Catastrophes will happen. Costs will suddenly appear. Have a back-up plan and a back-up reserve of funds planned for just these situations.
As you put together your own event budget no matter the format, we hope this guide will help you get a bit closer to your definition of event success in 2021 and beyond.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published on November 14, 2019 and has since been updated.