How to Run a Seminar on a Budget
Hosting your own seminars can be a great way to get started as an edupreneur or to expand your revenue streams by offering offline as well as online options to your students.
The upside to seminars is that they can be whatever you make them, from hour-long lectures to a series of events held over the course of several days or a week. Seminars give your learners a chance to get to meet you and learn directly from you, asking questions and getting real-time feedback and interaction in a more personal setting – all benefits for which you can usually charge substantially more than for an online course. They’re also great for increasing your credibility as an educator, and a popular and well-run seminar can be a lucrative revenue stream if you’re interested in diversifying your income.
One key downside to hosting a seminar is the cost, which can be prohibitive for many edupreneurs. As well as the venue, you have to consider catering, accommodation, promotion, handout materials, and more. Keep in mind, though, that a seminar can generate more income than ticket sales alone. You can market additional products, such as books or online courses, to the attendees, and prospect for longer-term opportunities such as speaking engagements and private classes.
The key to making a seminar successful (and profitable!) is careful planning, and thinking outside the box to keep costs low. Here are some key areas to consider and related budgeting tips to get you started. What else can you think of to make your seminar a success?
Where you host your seminar is probably the single biggest consideration when it comes to planning the event. Is your chosen location close to your target audience, with good travel options and nearby accommodation for out-of-towners?
Always keep your attendees’ needs in mind when choosing your venue, and balance the expenses they’ll incur against the value of attending. An isolated, expensive location might be a great choice for a week-long executive retreat, but isn’t going to appeal to low income learners attending a two-hour talk.
Also, be realistic about the number of attendees you can attract, particularly when you’re planning your first seminar. Remember just because someone says they’re interested in an online questionnaire, that doesn’t mean they’ll actually buy tickets and show up. As a rule of thumb, book a venue with a capacity 20 to 30 percent lower than you think will want to attend. That way you should avoid being embarrassed by lots of empty space if you don’t sell all your tickets, you aren’t spending more than you need to on an oversized venue, and if there are people who missed out, you just made your seminar an exclusive event and started generating interest in a second.
If you’re planning a large seminar, don’t be afraid to negotiate prices with your chosen venue. Most have some degree of flexibility, particularly if you’re prepared to include consideration of other services such as catering, committing to a block of hotel rooms (though be very cautious about this!), and equipment rental. If you’re a member of any hotel or credit card loyalty programs, check to see if they offer bonuses or discounts for booking event spaces. If your credit card comes with a concierge service, see if they can help you get a great venue at a great price.
For smaller seminars, there are lots of great cost-saving venues available. Local bookstores, boutique hotels, colleges, your chamber of commerce, co-working spaces and more all often play host to seminars and similar events. If you do consulting work, you may be able to find a client to host your seminar (possibly in exchange for some complimentary registrations.) Or, if you are a member of a trade or professional association, check in to whether the organizations or (where relevant) one of its chapters can make space available to you for free or at low cost. Finally, don’t forget to look for available public spaces to see if you can’t score a free site.
Food and Beverage
Whether or not your seminar will be catered depends largely on its duration. If you’re planning a two-hour talk on a weeknight, your attendees won’t expect you to provide anything (although a tea and coffee station would be appreciated!). For all-day or longer events, you should be making catering provisions.
The cost of catering can be recouped from your seminar fees, but don’t get carried away and make the event prohibitively expensive by serving steak at every meal. Check with your chosen venue to see what catering services they offer. Some will charge for event space based on a catering minimum, rather than a room fee, for example. Others will insist you only use their chosen caterer, or have rules about what food and drink you can and can’t serve.
To save costs on catering a seminar, make sure you explore all the avenues with the venue and negotiate to offset costs. Choose a time and duration for your seminar where catering isn’t expected, or keep your ticket prices low and find a venue next door to a Starbucks so people can grab a drink and a snack if they wish.
If your venue will allow, consider approaching local food vendors and asking them to sell at your event. Many towns and cities have independent vendors who are always looking for new sales opportunities, and a partnership could be a great deal for both sides. And, even access to food trucks has become an option with some event venues.
If you have to cater your event and have no other alternatives, think cheap. Cold sandwich platters, barbecues, and buffets are the most price-conscious options. Usually a local Panera, Corner Bakery, or similar chain restaurant can offer an affordable option.
Even the smallest seminar will typically need some promotional materials, from handouts or programs to posters, flyers, and giveaway products or “swag.” Think carefully about what you need to have, rather than what you’d like to have. Is a program really necessary, or can you use a noticeboard to adequately inform attendees of events? What’s going to happen to that handout once the seminar is over? If an item has no long-term use for its recipient, it probably isn’t necessary. The same goes for swag. It’s a cool idea to hand out goodie bags with printed pens, magnets, stress balls, and the like, but most of those items only end up being thrown away after the seminar is over.
To keep costs low, only print what you need, and make sure what you do print is reusable if possible. Don’t put dates or locations on signs or banners so you can use them at every seminar you host, rather than just one. If you intend to run the same seminar multiple times, keep identifying information such as the date or venue off programs and handouts as well.
If you do want to offer promotional materials, make sure you get something useful, and make it good quality. There’s nothing more irritating than a pen that doesn’t work properly. You’ll be far better off spending a few cents more on products your attendees can (and will) actually use.
Most seminar advertising can be done online, limiting the need for you to print posters and flyers. However don’t completely discount physical ads. Many venues will display your poster or handout flyers to promote an upcoming seminar at their location. When you do purchase promotional materials, shop around for the best deal, and check reviews before you buy. Lots of printers, including online companies such as Vistaprint, will allow you to order samples so you can see the product and print quality before you commit to a large order.
Finally, have someone proofread everything before you approve a design for printing, rather than make an expensive typo.
Room Set-Up and Audio
How the room for your seminar will be set up and how well your attendees will be able to see and hear are critical, but often overlooked aspects of seminar success.
Make sure you put some thought into how attendees should be seated in the room. Do you want them to be seated in rows, like a traditional classroom, or at round tables – “rounds” – as is usually the case at conferences? If rounds, how many people per round? (I generally limit it to seven, but prefer five – which Seth Godin makes a case for here.) Whatever your preference, make sure you have discussed this with the venue in advance. Usually there are no extra charges associated with one approach over another, but you will want to be sure there are no issues with accommodating your needs.
How much technical equipment you’ll need depends a lot on the size of your seminar and venue. There’s nothing more annoying than sitting at the back of a room and being unable to hear what anyone is saying at the front. Public address systems are a must have for large locations, and if you’re taking audience questions, consider a mobile mic so everyone can hear what you’re asked. Most venues of any size are going to have this kind of equipment or have standard ways for you to get them.
Other technical aspects to consider includes lighting rigs, projector screens, and recording equipment if you intend to broadcast your seminar or produce a video for later distribution. While that may seem like overkill, keep in mind that one of the major potential benefits of hosting a seminar is that it is a production event. You will want to leverage it for all it is worth to get a high return on investment.
In general, check with your venue to see what equipment they offer. Some provide basic sound and address systems as standard, while others will charge a fee and/or will require you to work with a preferred vendor. Don’t forget to negotiate this cost if you can (and you almost always can).
Try to get to your venue in advance and test the acoustics of the room before you deliver your seminar. Check for echoes or dead spaces where sound doesn’t carry. See how loudly you have to speak, and make sure there’s no electrical feedback from the equipment as you move around. And, make sure the room is set up overall to ensure that your attendees will be able to see you and interact with you and each other, as needed.
Video and Photography
Hiring an expert is a good idea if you intend to record video and/or audio of the seminar. This might seem like an unnecessary additional expense, but again, this is a production event. The recording can be broadcast live online to generate interest in your seminar (and sell tickets for the next!) or promote your other products, such as online courses and books. You can also edit and package the seminar as an educational video or even a complete course, helping to generate ongoing revenue down the line.
You can find local videographers and photographers at reasonable rates on sites like Thumbtack. Also, you may want to speak to your state film commission or approach local news stations and broadcast schools for tips and advice. They can probably also put you in touch with film students who will work the seminar for a reduced rate.
When getting prices, remember editing can take much longer than shooting the original footage. To keep costs low, don’t insist on too many cuts, changes, or additional elements in the finished video. Also, be sure to specify that you want a copy of the raw video footage. This will make it possible for you or someone else to do additional editing and production later.
If you’re hosting a smaller seminar, there’s a strong possibility you won’t cover the whole cost of filming and producing your seminar from ticket sales alone. This isn’t a disaster. The video adds value to your business and can generate revenue beyond the initial income from the seminar itself. Keep the value added in mind when calculating your profit and loss.
Finally, if you do want to try to do it yourself – and especially if livestreaming is involved – consider an option like the Mevo. It is compatible with Android and iOS devices, livestreams in full HD, and records 4K videos. Your phone becomes your switchboard and editing suite in one, allowing you to zoom and change angles as you broadcast, all for less than $500. (You may also want to consider some of the other equipment covered in How to Create a Simple Home Video Studio for Online Courses – most of it also applies when capturing a seminar.
Travel and Accommodation
The travel considerations for your seminar are twofold: yours and your attendees’.
To minimize your costs, it makes sense to host the seminar within traveling distance of your home. A weekend jaunt to Vegas might be appealing, but it will lower your profit margins. If you do have to travel, for example if your seminar will have particular appeal in a different area or there’s another conference elsewhere that your audience overlaps with, try to do so as cheaply as possible. Stay with friends or family where possible. Drive, use air miles, or even take the train.
Most travel includes a cost/time calculation, for example the train might be $100 cheaper than flying, but take a whole day longer. Find the best solution for your budget and availability. Many business credit cards offer cashback on travel expenses so look for partner airlines and hotels, and sign up for loyalty programs to get free upgrades and other rewards.
You should also consider your attendees’ travel and accommodation needs. If you’re hosting your seminar in a hotel or similar venue with accommodation, see if they can offer a discount to your attendees. Many have a special link they can provide for at least a small discount. For bigger discounts, or breaks on food or room rental, you will usually have to commit to a block of rooms, meaning you guarantee that your attendees will book a certain number of nights at the hotel. Be very cautious about this: if you over commit, you are the one who ends up paying for the extra room nights.
Finally, consider the variety of accommodation options around your venue, from Airbnb and discount motels to executive hotels, so there’s something to suit all tastes and budgets. In many cases, simply providing a list of clear, well-organized information about the available alternatives is enough.
Event insurance protects you and attendees from a variety of mishaps, from cancellations and venue closures to inclement weather and accidents. If you’re running a seminar of any size where you will be responsible for the behavior and welfare of strangers, event insurance is a must. Indeed, many venues will require you to carry it and provide proof of your policy before confirming your booking.
An insurance policy for your seminar isn’t going to be the most expensive part of the event, ranging from about $100-$500 per day, but there are ways to reduce the overall cost. Smaller events are cheaper to insure, as are those held in modern, well-maintained buildings. Other factors that can affect pricing include whether or not your seminar will be indoor or outdoor, if you’re serving alcohol at any point, and if you’re engaging in any other potentially hazardous activities such as performing science experiments on stage.
As with all insurance, shop around for the best policy, but remember that cheapest isn’t always best. Speak to your existing insurers to see if they offer event insurance, as some will apply a multi-policy discount.
Staff and security
Even a small seminar can require a surprising number of staff, including bar and waitstaff, setup assistants, stewards and attendants, and even security. Start by reviewing what staff the venue will provide. If they’re catering the event, they’ll probably provide their own staff, but you might be obligated to pay tips.
Stewards can help your attendees navigate the seminar, particularly if it’s a multi-day event or spread over several rooms at your venue. Attendants might manage a coatroom or assistant with general enquiries. Security staff might seem unnecessary, but if you’re hosting a seminar with many attendees and/or serving alcohol, it’s a good idea to have someone on site to keep the peace.
For setup and takedown of equipment, chairs and tables, and decorations, you can always use volunteers if the venue doesn’t provide staff. Reach out to local colleges to hire students to help out. Business undergraduates who want to work in event management are useful additions to your team and can help organize your staff, and may even spot things you’ve overlooked.
If the costs of hosting a seminar are still looking prohibitive – or if you are simply looking for additional revenue streams – see if you can find a sponsor. Approach brands and companies with relevance to your seminar subject, or local businesses that can benefit from your attendees (such as food vendors that can cater your seminar). Because of the focus of much of our work, for example, my company has been able to attract sponsorships from learning platform vendors for all of the seminars we have offered.
Think outside the box for sponsorship ideas and the value you can give back to any companies willing to invest. Be prepared to approach potential sponsors with solid data to back up your pitch, and offer multiple tiers so investors can choose what’s right for them. Study your audience demographics and search for crossover with brand audiences, and look for compelling reasons why that company would back your seminar.
Also, don’t underestimate the power of PR: if your seminar touches on any kind of social justice or accountability topic, you can secure sponsorship just to make a brand look good. Yes, that bottled water manufacturer might sponsor your talk on reducing plastic in the oceans.
Keep in mind that sponsorships, in general, are a potential option for nearly everything an edupreneur does. Invest early and often in building relationships with companies that could become sponsors down the road.
The Bottom Line
If you want to run a seminar on a budget, the key – as with most activities in which you want to be cost effective – is in understanding what the potential costs are and then planning carefully. Hopefully this post has made it easier for you to identify your potential costs and figure out where you might be able to save some money.
Whatever your budget, I strongly encourage you to consider hosting seminars if you aren’t already. While online courses are all the rage, they are only one avenue for edupreneurs to connect with customers, and in many cases, they aren’t even the best or most profitable. Now is a good time to “zag” while everyone else is zigging. So, give seminars a shot, and comment below to share any tips you discover for creating a cost effective, successful offering.
Other posts in this series:
- Why you should start hosting seminars
- How to run a seminar on a budget
- How to take your seminar business online
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