How to Buy a Big Gorilla
Planning finances for your blockbuster events
Hollywood spent over $200 million a few years back on nothing but a big ape, and then waited nervously to see if it would get that money back. Making movies is scary business. You only get one chance, they're never the same twice, and most of the people who worked on the last one are doing something else now. Sure - and there's a lot of money involved. Sounds very familiar. It sounds a lot like big chapter and regional events.
Blockbuster chapter and regional events come in all shapes in sizes: Regional conference, formal banquet, Founder's weekend, Parent or Alumni weekend, or the ever complex Campus-Wide Event. But they have lots in common with each other and Hollywood. The planning tricks that make it possible to spend $200 million on a gorilla are the same ones that help make Southeast Region's GET SLAM'D and hundreds of other big Phi Sigma Pi events possible - without breaking the bank.
What Kind of Event & How Many Tickets?
Make no mistake, this is Hollywood trick #1. These are not two separate questions, they are two sides of one question. You can't make King Kong and have March of the Penguins attendance.
While you are even just scoping out the event, start estimating your attendance levels. Most important: "Be realistic," Gamma Epsilon President Matthew McKenzie advises. The only thing worse than 50 leftover T-shirts is 50 leftover dinners.
Keep in mind that your own chapter will make up the bulk of attendance for any "home" event. Getting a very clear picture of your chapter's attendance will help you make fewer mistakes when estimating visitors. Some chapters use an early "interest" sign-up sheet for these estimations, and then later use a "commitment" sheet right before locking in the most expensive event reservations.
How much for each and every Banana?
A motion picture budget has an obscene amount of detail in it, and that's the key. How much is each chair, each pencil, each page in each script for each actress, cameraman, and grip.
"Break down costs in your budget in (excruciating) detail," says Matt Mckenzie, "before you set the event price." Often an event chair will say that they'll "wing the details" as they go along. Tell them no. If Spielberg can set a budget, so can they.
For success with GET SLAM'D, Gamma Epsilon planners counted out details like the number of meals, food for each meal, number of welcome packets, and even number of copied pages per packet to get an accurate count.
For every event of this size, you'll have two types of costs:
- Variable - The cost per t-shirt, meal (especially a banquet meal), printout, or folder. Again, it's critical to have an accurate attendance estimate - or commitment count even - because these costs total as simply the variable cost multiplied by the estimated number of people. Obviously, variable costs are already in a nice "cost per ticket" format. But an attendance count that's off by 10-20 people can easily cost you several hundred dollars.
- Fixed - Costs like banquet rooms, clubs, playing fields or rental equipment that are set with the event plan itself. If no one shows up, you still pay this cost. Allocate these costs to a "per ticket" price simply by dividing out across the estimated attendees. Because these costs can be more dangerous (a $1000 room, for example), many chapters use the trick of minimizing them as much as possible. For example, instead of a rented room every time, an outdoor tent and BBQ for lunch.
Setting the price and pay options
The basic price of any event should start with the variable cost per person, plus the fixed costs divided across the number of estimated attendees. Then, "bump up the price a little bit," advises Matt Mckenzie and other event leaders, "there will always be some cost you didn't expect."
As a quick advanced concept, know that some chapters budget some (or all) of their key events into their dues price at the beginning of the semester. Then the brothers have free "credits" to the events during the year, while visiting guests generally pay the regular ticket price. This has two interesting benefits: 1) guaranteed funds upfront for these key events, and 2) increases activity because brothers on the fence realize that they've "already paid," so they're more likely to attend.
Keep in mind not only the personal budget of your guests, but how many events in the year you are asking them to attend. An $80 event one weekend may not be unreasonable (depending on circumstances), but the third $80 event in the semester is probably pushing the limit.
Dealing with Overages
You planned perfectly, no need to worry about this part!
Seriously, no one plans these events perfectly all the time. If you've done your homework, and bumped the price slightly, any overages should be relatively minor. Most chapters simply cover the excess costs from the dues-based budget, and a few even build in a special safety net amount for this purpose.
If you can get within +/-10% of the final event cost, you've done very well. You have to figure, 10% of $200 million is only $20 million. and that's not even enough to hire Jim Carrey these days.