Special Events

Guest Room: Food for Thought

Great Performances is a class act.

Founded 21 years ago as a temporary waitstaff agency by Liz Neumark, an aspiring photographer, and partner Janet Lee, a would-be flamenco dancer, the firm has grown into a $12 million-a-year catering and events company.

Great Performances has a history of innovation. From its pioneering use of the Internet to market its services to its growing role as the exclusive caterer at prime wedding venues, the company continues to redefine the role of the industry.

For Special Events Magazine's annual Catered Arts issue, Great Performances president Neumark discusses trends shaping the catering world.

Special Events Magazine: You have described catering as a marketing tool. What do you mean by that?

Liz Neumark: People think of catering, and they see just a party. But catering is really more of a complex event that has targeted goals.

For example, last fall we did a big event for Deutsche Bank, which had just absorbed many companies. It needed to get people from different groups focused in the same direction. So we created a companywide family outing with games and activities.

Outdoor events themselves are growing. They have been coming at the East Coast like a wave from the West Coast. We expect to do $2.5 million in outdoor events this year, up from $150,000 in 1995.

Outdoor events are much more family-oriented, which has never been a big part of the corporate mentality in Manhattan. But we're trying to educate our corporate customers that their employees are working harder and longer. Family events are a way of giving back to employees and building connections.

Q: Some caterers say they prefer corporate business to social business. What do you think?

A: Our business used to be 80 percent corporate. It's now 65 percent corporate with the rest social and non-profit. The shift has come thanks to our alliances with Wainwright House, in Rye, New York, and Wave Hill, in the Bronx, two premier wedding and event venues where Great Perfor-mances is the exclusive caterer. The wedding business is tough, but if you have a noteworthy location, it's almost guaranteed business.

It's great to jump on the corporate bandwagon, but everything is cyclical, including this boom. When that downturn comes, we want to have a diversified business.

Q: The dotcom companies certainly seem to be fueling the corporate side of special events.

A: A year ago I would have said that most of the new-technology and dotcom companies were not mainstream catering clients, but that's changed. Now, they're doing IPO events every day, and they don't have to pick the darkest club that's most off the beaten track. They are interested in more mainstream locations. They have the same issues everyone else does: building relationships, wooing suppliers, introducing new products.

Q: What menus are popular?

A: Our core is contemporary American with classic European. Our executive chef, John Reilly, has a solidly American background; he comes from New York's Hudson Valley. It's the food closest to his heart.

Two years ago, food from the Asian Rim was much stronger. But that seems to have integrated itself. It has become less a stand-alone theme.

Q: As the special event industry matures, some observers expect consolidation of businesses. Do you?

A: In my heart, I don't believe our industry will withstand consolidation. Catering companies that grow this way will become establishments, and in short order, the Young Turks will be nipping at their heels.

We create a personal product; it touches personal, emotional aspects of our buyers. Can we really do away with the individual touch in hospitality? When you plan your wedding, do you want to deal with some mammoth corporation or the person who will actually be in the kitchen?

Consolidation will succeed marginally, but not as a sustained force.

Q: What's next for the team at Great Performances?

A: We will update our Web site to make it a little younger, less linear. We will include an interactive segment.

Growing a business is like a giant chess game. We have to distinguish ourselves from our competitors-and we have some fabulous competitors. We try to do what no one else is doing. I have been doing this for 21 years, and I'm never bored. There are always new challenges, new market segments to go after.

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