Ah, food and beverage. Rare is the event, large or small, that doesn’t have some component of food and beverage in it. People need to eat, and if you’re careful about how you plan out the meal, it can be the thing that keeps the productivity of your meeting going. If you’re not careful, things can go bust in a hurry.
I see food and beverage planning in two separate components – one being the negotiation of the food and beverage service by the caterer or hotel, and the other being how you serve your people in order to make the most of the situation.
Negotiation of the services
Minimums – There will be a food and beverage minimum if you’re working with a hotel, and it’s imperative that you hit that minimum, or you’ll be charged that amount anyway. Guess as accurately as you can, but try to err on the side of a lower number when you sign the contract. Same as dealing with minimum room nights, you don’t want to be paying for more than you need.
Discount on food and beverage – When working with a hotel, they’ll sometimes throw in a discount on your food and beverage as a perk of signing the contract. That’s a good deal, because food and beverage will always be your highest cost. In fact, if you’re dealing more than a year out in planning the event, angle to get a discounted rate on the current year’s menu. It’s likely that food and beverage will go up in price the following year, and you’ll be cemented in with a discount on last year’s rates. You can negotiate discounts with a caterer as well, but more likely than not you’re dealing with a sole proprietor, and he probably doesn’t have the room in his margin to give you better prices unless you’re giving him a very large event. Of course, if you have a party with liquor involved, you have more bargaining room than one without, because the markup on liquor is huge.
Cancellations – If you can, negotiate a lost profit clause versus a lost revenue clause in your contract with the caterer, or even a per-person cost. It will likely cost you less money!
References, references – Certainly when working with a hotel, but ESPECIALLY when you’re working with a private caterer, ask for references and check them. Equally important, be willing to provide a reference when the event is done.
Gratuities – Pay attention to whether they’re included in the contract, and make sure your budget includes room for gratuities that aren’t specified on the paperwork.
How and What You Serve Your Attendees
Consider your audience – It may sound obvious, but if you’re throwing a party for the congregation of Temple Israel, don’t serve bacon. Consider the tastes and sophistication of your audience – are they a beer-drinking crowd or a wine-tasting crowd? One will eat cheese burgers and the other will prefer salmon and chicken.
Consider the conditions – If you’re planning to have them on the move all night, with no real area to sit and eat, then you’re not going to want to serve them food that needs to be eaten with a fork and knife. If you have an all-day meeting planned where the guests rarely get to leave their seats, don’t serve them a heavy lunch or they’ll be napping in their chairs.
Err on the side of healthy – Attendees rarely thank you for contributing to their hardening arteries. Furthermore, greasy foods tend not to serve well to crowds…you know what French fries taste like when they’ve been sitting under a heat lamp in a huge chafing dish. Soggy. That’s what they taste like.
Let the Chef do what he does best – If the chef claims he makes the best pasta primavera the world has ever experienced, then by all means, let him do that. My mother always told me, “Don’t go to an Italian restaurant and order a pierogi.” In other words, keep your diners happy by not forcing the chef to do something that’s not his forte.
Confirm the caterer’s/hotel’s policy on overset – Hotels and caterers will sometimes have an overset policy where they will prepare 3-5 more meals than what are needed, to be ready for any surprises. Don’t count on that, though. Always verify that this practice is in place with your vendor, so you don’t have issues with surprise hungry guests who have to drive down to McDonald’s.
Be careful about alcohol – Alcohol, like other beverages, is usually charged by consumption rather than by the head, and for good reason: when you serve free alcohol, people will take advantage of it. If you’re going to serve alcohol, you can put some controls on it by passing out drink tickets or having an open bar for just a short period of time, followed by a cash bar. Providing wine and beer is usually cheaper than providing the hard stuff, if you’re being cost conscious. If you bring your own wine to an event, check the hotel for corkage fees so you aren’t surprised by the bill at the end of the night! (And I don’t have to tell you not to let any inebriated guests drive, right?)
I could probably go on for another couple of pages about the little innuendos of food and beverage, but these are the big things to watch out for. At the end of the day, I can tell you this: serve them good food, and your guests will be talking about your event for weeks to come!
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