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What Comes First in Event Planning: The Budget or the Goals?

By: Kara Nacarato | Jun, 21 2024
Meeting/Event Design & Management

Photo Credit: Pexels.com

In the world of event planning, there's an age-old debate that mirrors the classic conundrum, "What comes first, the chicken or the egg?" But for planners, the question is: Should you set your budget first and build the event around it, or should you define your goals and then develop a budget to meet them?  I’ve worked with clients on both sides of the spectrum and there are certainly pros and cons to both approaches. Let’s take a look!

The Budget-First Approach: Start with What You Have

Starting with your budget means you’re dealing with known constraints. Here’s how it can work in your favor:

  • Clear Financial Boundaries: With a set budget, you know exactly how much you can spend, which helps in making quick decisions on venues, catering, and other key aspects without overspending.
  • Focused Planning: Knowing your financial limits can force creativity, pushing you to find innovative solutions and prioritize essential elements that will have the most impact.
  • Risk Management: Financial risks are minimized as you avoid overcommitting resources and can plan for contingencies within your set budget.

However, this approach can also have its downsides:

  • Limiting Vision: A strict budget might limit your creativity and hinder the overall event success and attendee experience, most likely ignoring any other goals for your event.  
  • Quality vs. Quantity: In an attempt to stay within budget, you might find yourself cutting corners and potentially compromising the quality of the overall event which may significantly affect your attendance for future events.

The Goals-First Approach: Set the Bar High then Build a Budget

On the flip side, starting with your event goals allows you to dream big and tailor your budget to achieve these loftier goals:

  • Strategic Focus: Defining your goals first ensures that every aspect of your event is aligned with your desired outcomes, whether it’s maximizing attendance, achieving high satisfaction scores on post-event evaluations, or ensuring repeat attendance.
  • Tailored Experiences: With clear goals, you can design an event experience that directly addresses what you want to achieve, likely leaving your attendee with a much more memorable experience. 
  • Flexibility: This approach allows you (and forces you) to explore more creative funding sources, including sponsorships and partnerships, to meet your financial needs and achieve your objectives.

And while the above reasons make for a compelling argument to throw the budget to the curb, there are some downsides as well:

  • Uncertain Costs: Without an initial budget, costs can quickly spiral out of control, leading to financial stress and potential overspending. Particularly if your organization relies on the event as a revenue generator, this is a huge risk. 
  • Funding Challenges: Securing the necessary funds to match your goals can be time-consuming and uncertain, potentially delaying planning processes.
  • Backpedaling: You may find yourself deep into the planning, and marketing of the event, when you realize you need to scale back. At this point, it may be too late to pivot in an effective way and instead you find yourself cutting costs without fully considering the consequences. 

Finding the Balance: A Hybrid Approach

The truth is, successful event planning often requires a blend of both approaches. Here’s how you can integrate the best of both worlds:

  • Preliminary Budgeting: Start with a rough budget outline to understand your financial boundaries while leaving room for adjustments based on your goals. It’s great if you have historical budget numbers from previous events. This will also help you make decisions on attendee registration fees, ensuring you charge enough to cover costs. 
  • Goal Setting with Flexibility: Define your goals clearly but remain flexible, allowing for adjustments based on budget constraints. Don’t limit your creativity, dream big and then right-size an idea to fit your budget, while keeping other goals in mind (e.g. attendance goals, attendee experience, sponsor involvement, etc.).
  • Iterative Planning: Regularly revisit and revise both your budget and goals throughout the planning process. This iterative approach ensures that neither is set in stone, and both can evolve together.

Practical Steps for Balancing Budget and Goals

It’s a great idea to begin your event planning with a strategic planning session. You may event want to consider bringing in a consultant to help you clearly identify your goals for the event. Remember to refer to your organization’s strategic plan and financial goals at this time. Consider these steps in the process:

1. Conduct a Needs Assessment: Before setting a budget or goals, assess the needs and expectations of your stakeholders. This will give you a clear understanding of what is essential for your event’s success.

2. Prioritize Goals: Not all goals are created equal. Prioritize them to ensure that the most critical objectives are met within your budget.

3. Create a Flexible Budget: Allocate funds for must-have elements first, and then set aside a contingency fund for unexpected costs or opportunities that align with your goals.

4. Seek Sponsorships and Partnerships: Identify potential sponsors and partners early on to supplement your budget and help achieve your goals. By identifying your non-financial goals first, you have a better idea of the activities you want to include and can make these sponsorable experiences. 

5. Evaluate and Adjust: Continuously evaluate the planning process, making adjustments to either the budget or goals as necessary to ensure alignment and feasibility.

If you do decide to build your event based on goals first and then develop a budget, finding cost savings and securing revenue sources will be crucial. In the end, whether you start with the budget or the goals, the key to successful event planning lies in finding a balance that allows you to be both financially responsible and goal-oriented. By integrating elements of both approaches, you can create an event that not only meets financial constraints but also achieves your desired outcomes, ensuring a memorable and impactful experience for all attendees.

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