SURE, THE TASK of heading catering and events for a major university has its perks. There's the steady stream of campus clients clamoring for service, plus the range of ready venues, both on campus and university-owned. But the blessing is a mixed one, according to David Rand. “I'm entertaining a lot of the same people all the time, so it's up to me and my team to make each event different,” says the executive director of catering and special events for Northeastern University in Boston.
In no instance is the need for new ideas more significant, he says, than in the case of the university's annual “President's Night at the Pops” event — an on-campus commencement-week reception that precedes an off-campus Boston Pops orchestra concert. Held in the same room each year, and always presented as a station-based cocktail soiree, the 800-guest donor thank-you event combines sky-high expectations with the risk of “been there, done that” attendee fatigue.
With his most recent Pops production, Rand explains, he knew it was time for a major shake-up. “I thought, ‘It's only one and a half hours. Why not inundate them with every type of passed hors d'oeuvre we can imagine?’” Meetings with culinary staff resulted in an elaborate menu of more than 50 butlered items. To fill space once taken up by stations, Rand furnished the room with designer chairs, couches and ottomans, adding coffee tables and lamp lighting for a chic, “boutique hotel lobby” atmosphere.
Did his risk-taking pay off? Rand's boss certainly thinks so. “At the end of it, my boss said, ‘You've hit the highlight of your career,’” he proudly recounts.
And it's not just his higher-ups that have taken note of the 15-year industry veteran's visionary work. Three years ago, in what Rand calls one of his most cherished moments, Dallas-based event design guru Steve Kemble tapped the relatively unknown campus catering director, who is employed by foodservice contractor Chartwells, to deliver a keynote design speech at NACE's annual educational conference in Boston.
Building on his successful NACE presentation, Rand now frequently leads seminars for university caterers, helping his industry counterparts enhance their design acumen and amp up their campus catering operations. With topics ranging from decor to marketing to hiring versatile culinary staff (who can turn out five-star cuisine “but don't get bored doing day-to-day focaccia sandwiches and little lunches,” he says), he's raising his industry sector's professional profile, and dispelling the myth that university catering is about “Salisbury steak and mac-and-cheese.”
Chartwells Division/Compass Group Northeastern University 106 St. Stephens St., Boston, MA 02115; 617/373-3595; www.mycampusdining.com/neu
RIGHT ON SITE
“My clients here at Northeastern University used to take all our major donors off campus to wine and dine them. We proved to them we could do it on campus. And if someone is giving $5 million or $10 million to the university, why not thank them on the very campus they're donating to?”
LOOK THE PART
“If you walk into a client meeting and you're disheveled or unshaven or you don't match, forget it. You don't have to be wearing Prada, but wear a nice pressed suit with a little bit of edge. You've got to be confident and know what you're talking about. As an event designer, you're creating a mood. If you don't walk in with that mood, they're not going to buy into it.”
“The past few years were rough for a lot of people, but I really see our industry taking a leap forward. Big events are being brought back. People are not going overboard, but they are spending more money, showing themselves in a better light. NACE, MPI, ISES, our peers — we got through the tough times together, now we're reaping the rewards together.”