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Catering, Event Disruption During COVID-19--And It’s Not Bad News!

The director of meetings and special events at the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans shares exciting new opportunities for catering during the COVID challenge.

At the onset of the pandemic, I was continually asked by clients and colleagues how we would be forced to reinvent the catering experience to mitigate the risk of our attendees contracting COVID-19. During these early days, it was a negative and defeatist conversation: what would not be permitted to do, and the negative impact it would have on our events and teams.

Yet even in these early days, I saw this as a unique disruption to our industry that could make us stronger, more profitable, and more sustainable for the long term.

The first notion we had to face was the elimination of self-service buffets. Certainly the easiest vector for getting people sick is having them wait in line in tight quarters, sharing the same serving utensils, and potentially contaminating the food by coughing or sneezing on it. However, when we look at the pre-existing downsides of traditional buffet service, we realize that this disruption is actually a good one. Self-service food introduces choice-anxiety for guests and often results in people taking more food than they can or should eat.

A second downside is presentation factors. While a platter or presentation may look wonderful for the first guest, but by the time Guest Number 20 serves themselves, we’re not talking about a luxury presentation anymore.

Meeting planners love buffets because they accommodate a variety of dietary restrictions. This is usually done through labels and topping/garnish bars--however, if you’ve ever tried to read food labels written in a 10-point font from more than one foot away, you realize the limitations here. While garnish and topping stations/bars are an effective way to isolate common and specific allergens for guest dietary-preference management, they can also create unnecessary lines, and reduce the creative expression of the culinary teams.

If we take the learning of food trucks and festival catering and apply that to events, we have a path forward for a more sustainable event future. “Just in time” assembly and finishing of food items can mitigate all the risk without also reducing the excitement of event F&B.

Take a trendy item such as a grain or rice bowl, which is more and more common at our more health-conscious events. By setting up a number of assembly and finishing stations, a service team can quickly produce an almost infinite variety of bowl options for guests by adding, subtracting or combining different proteins and garnishes, as well as ingredient ratios. This type of catering has been done successfully for groups of several thousand guests and has more upside in making guests feel the level of personalization they are craving these days.

In addition to the food and service experience changes, I’m personally looking forward to new technology innovations coming to on-premise and hotel catering environments.

The first of these is direct customer-to-venue ordering and preference tracking apps. Movie theaters have long been able to supply personalized food and beverage to guests directly at their seats. We know this technology exists, but to date it has not been widely adapted to use at events. From beverage orders to snacks and even meals, this technology could allow us to increase personalization, reduce waste, and improve customer satisfaction. Also by having the guest communicate directly with the venue on their restrictions, we can craft selections for them that are the highest quality and not merely lowest common denominator and have that food item delivered seamlessly to them with none of the demeaning, awkward self-identification to a banquet server, who has to remember and recommunicate what a guest does and does not eat and why--the why being especially important now because guests choose to not eat some items not because of allergies but because of preferences.

In a luxury hotel or on-premise catering environment, the value we provide for the higher prices come from the service experience, and the expertise in sourcing new, innovative and luxury ingredients. Value, as someone once described it to me, is the difference between what something costs and the prices we charge for an item.

To create value in an environment with service restrictions, we need to use technology to communicate more effectively. Imagine your typical hotel event bar--standing in line waiting with your 20 friends to make a quick transaction with a busy bartender. Do you want to be the person holding up the line talking to the bartender about the attributes of the many wine selections that the meeting planner spent a lot of money for to offer at your event? The likely answer is “no,” and you make a simple decision of white vs. red.

Using an event microsite is one way hotels and meeting planners can work together to share information and attributes on their event selections. Meeting planners often spend a large portion of the budgets on F&B, and sharing the information with the attendees is more and more important. In a luxury environment, the food and beverage selections matter to the guest. In a culturally relevant area like New Orleans, we have many local food and beverage items a guest may want to learn more about, as well as shops to buy local and indigenous food and beverage items.

For larger events where the space can be hard to navigate, Apple’s iBeacon is another technology that allows for discoverability. When a guests gets within a defined proximity of a bar or food station, an event app can send the user a push notification with information on the items at that specific station. This would allow guests to make decisions while in line or in transit to a point-of-service.

Through the creative uses of technology and innovative F&B service models, we can thrive in the time of COVID-19 in spite of the limitations we have had to overcome.

James Filtz, CPCE, CMP, is currently director of meetings and special events at the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans Hotel, where he leads a team dedicated to delivering uniquely local, luxury meeting and event experiences to guests of the hotel. Prior to the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, he was director of catering and conference services at the Loews New Orleans Hotel, managing director of catering at Yale University, and in leadership positions with Hyatt, Sheraton and Venetian hotels throughout the U.S. A trained chef, he began his career in the kitchen and is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. While living in Las Vegas, he was also an instructor at the International School of Hospitality, teaching courses in F&B and catering.

James currently holds the office of vice president of the board for the National Association for Catering and Events and will take office as president-elect in January 2021. He has spoken at The Special Event and NACE Experience and is a trainer for the CPCE certification through NACE. Throughout his career, he has developed a passion for wine and spirits and has been certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers level one sommelier course.

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