FOOD & BEVERAGE represents 40 percent to 60 percent of most special event budgets, and as such should be given focused attention. The key to ensuring great food and service depends on your relationship with your food & beverage vendor. Nothing will shut that resource down faster than a planner with a superior attitude, so remember that the key to successful events is getting the caterer to own your event.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to know some of the key questions to ask. Before you send out your next RFP or pick up the phone, consider the topics below:
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Rack menus or sample menus from a previous event rarely translate to another event. You should be prepared to share as much of the following information as possible: Date and hours of the event; what the group has done prior to your event (were they in meetings all day and so will arrive hungry, or did they have a late lunch?); The flow of the event; the group demographics (percentage male versus female, age, who they are professionally, where they are from); the overall goals of the event; what they did last year; and what has and has not worked at past events.
Other considerations include:
Are there specific goals that have been set that can be achieved through the culinary experience?
Can the style of the food & beverage provide some clear ROI for the event?
How important is the catering to the overall guest experience? Is food a big part of the guests' culture and as such is the focus of the event, or is food being offered because you have to and the event is really about another theme or activity? The answer will help you prioritize your dollars.
What are your budget expectations and limitations? You will get more bang for your catering buck if you are up front with your parameters rather than if you bid to see what you can get for the best price. If you do, then the caterer ends up guessing — often incorrectly.
Specify what you expect to see in the proposal — the format and software that will best mesh with your paperwork, when you want it and how you want it presented (e-mail versus a soufflé delivered to your desk). Also, let the vendors know whom they are competing against; chances are they will find out if they don't already know. Honesty demonstrates respect.
If you are going to ask for the allocations of the food, let the caterer know in advance so that she or he can design and price the menu accordingly. Finally, clearly define the criteria and what the process and timing are for your decision-making.
ASK AND LISTEN
Now is the time to learn more about your caterer — their values, what makes them unique and what you can realistically expect from them with your budget.
Ask your contact person or account manager what they consider their signature dishes, then ask what the three most exciting things are that they have seen come out of the kitchen in the last month.
Ask the prospective caterer to identify three things that make them a successful firm.
Ask for references from clients who have done a comparable event.
Find out how many events they already have booked on the day of your event and the day before. This information can tip you off to potential service challenges and purchasing opportunities. You may like something they are already preparing for another event; consequently you can help lower your own food and labor costs.
Ask about their preferred service styles (for example, French service versus plated in the back of house), container options, uniform options, style of buffet presentation (i.e., theme props or a simple layout that showcases the food itself). All these items can be viewed as opportunities to support the guest experience or branded marketing effort if one exists.
Ask what foods will be in season during your event and what foods are the best values in the marketplace. Ask how you can buy cost-effectively from them.
Ask if the hotel, convention center or caterer will be providing any overage (food prepared in addition to the amount provided for the specified guest guarantee). Some hotels and convention centers still offer this service and it usually ranges from 1 percent to 5 percent, the average being 3 percent. Off-premise caterers rarely offer this service, especially in this day of tight budgets. This is important to know from the get-go so that you know how to determine your final guaranteed guest count.
Discuss with your caterer when the final guarantee is due. The standard is 72 business hours prior to the event, but some companies are now asking for a week in advance and others will negotiate down to 24 hours depending upon the size of the group and day of the week.
THE SECRETS TO GOOD SERVICE
Since service varies greatly by the time of day, type of event, type of facility and region of the country, it is important to ask questions. Once the flow and menu are set, ask your caterer to tell you how many wait staff per number of guests you will have for each event (it changes from breakfast, lunch and dinner). Discuss what responsibilities they will assume and make sure the service level will meet your standards.
In a nonunion facility you commonly add extra waiters for an additional charge (assuming they are available) if you feel this is necessary. In a union situation you will need to find out the terms and conditions of the service staff's union contract, as this directly correlates to the number of waiters allowed on a given event.
Most catering companies have a core group of full-time waiters (A list) and then a group of part-time waiters (B list) who work with them on a regular basis; during the holiday season there is often a C and D list. Once you know how many events are running on the day of your event, inquire how many waiters from each list it is reasonable to expect for your event. One note to remember: More bodies on an event doesn't necessarily translate to better service, nor does having all A-list waiters.
Just as the days of huge budgets are long gone, so are the afternoons filled with four-hour tastings, especially at the caterer's expense. Caterers, hotels, convention centers and restaurants do tastings (somewhat reluctantly), but on an “as needed” basis and usually for a price. Costs range from complimentary to $250 per person.
It is critical that you wait to conduct the tasting until your menu is narrowed down so that you taste with a specific menu, audience and event in mind. Taste tests (where a tasting is provided so you can decide which caterer you want to hire, rather than the dishes you want to serve with your pre-selected vendor) are a thing of the past, at least in the corporate arena.
Teaming with the right food & beverage partner can make all the difference in helping you bring your event and vision to life. After all, no one knows your client better than you, and no one knows how to best maximize their culinary talents, services and equipment than your preferred catering partner.
Claire Jolley Stroope is president/owner of San Francisco-based Pro Vision Resources, offering event planning and catering consulting. She can be reached at 415/626-2452; www.provinc.com. She will present sessions on effective collaborations between planners and caterers at The Special Event, Jan. 5-8 in Miami. To learn more, visit www.thespecialeventshow.com. For the complete text of this article, see our Web site at www.specialevents.com.