Before you can organize a function with food for a big meeting or event, you need to meet with the catering manager (CM) at the facility you've rented or your outside caterer or party planner if you hold your event at a venue without in-house facilities. Be prepared to build a good working relationship with this person. Share as many of your event details as appropriate — goals and objectives, programming, timing, number of guests (approximate if you're not sure of exact numbers, alternative venue arrangements, any specific menu requests, your participants' likes and dislikes, and so on.
If you don't already have historical information from past events, definitely start compiling a dossier for future reference. This document should include information on previous dealings with your food function catering; use it as a reference guide for all future communications. Why reinvent the wheel?
Set an appointment with the CM, letting her know beforehand what you expect to discuss so she, too, is prepared. If you want to see a meeting room or refreshment area or discuss sample menu ideas, let her know. Inform her if you're interested in meeting with the chef, head waiter/captain, or any other staff members. You maximize time when everyone's prepared.
Make sure that you come to your first meeting prepared and knowing your budget and limitations. Like any good salesperson, a skillful CM wants to sell you as much as possible. Don't waste her time exploring wonderfully creative ideas when your purse strings don't stretch that far.
Avoid disclosing your budget too early in the discussions. Give the CM ballpark figures to work with rather than specific amounts. If you reveal a specific amount, then that's what the CM will quote you. If you just give a budgetary range, then you could get a quote for less. However, don't waste time looking at caviar if you only have a hamburger budget.
Use your first meeting to constructively discuss any prior food function problems or concerns, especially if you've used the facility for previous events. In addition:
- Discuss options for participants with special dietary needs, such as low-fat, low-salt, vegan, vegetarian, and kosher. Request that no peanuts or peanut oil be used, as peanuts are the cause of many allergic reactions.
- Inform the CM of other specifics, such as what meals are needed on which days, whether your various meals necessitate separate rooms, whether you want plated or buffet-style food service, where you want to have the refreshment breaks (in or out of the meeting room), and what extras you may need for a mealtime speaker/entertainer (a raised platform and/or lectern).
- The more the CM understands the essence of your event, the more she can help you plan. Remember, it's in her best interest to help you achieve a successful event. She wants repeat business, and she wants you to give great word-of-mouth recommendations to your meeting and event planner colleagues.
- Discuss complete meeting package (CMP) prices. Many facilities offer an all-inclusive package to help the meeting planner save money and budget for the event. A typical package may include the room rental, basic refreshment breaks, and minimally priced meals. Know exactly what is and isn't included in the CMP price.
- You want to avoid any hidden surprises. For example, are soft drinks included in your refreshment breaks or is that an extra? What audiovisual equipment is provided? A great question to ask is, "What specifically is included in that price?" Verify if tax and gratuity are included.
- Establish the extras that you'll be paying, such as tax and service charge/gratuity. Also find out if the service charge/gratuity is taxed.
- Ask about any conflicting events being held at the same time as your event, and find out if the hotel will be renovating at the same time as your event.
Don't underestimate the value of your business. Persuade the CM to give you what you want, but know your limits. You may win the battle, but doing so in an overly thoughtless or aggressive manner could jeopardize a relationship. And remember, you need the CM's support and cooperation for your event.
In addition, you'll want to put on your food critic hat and get into the nitty-gritty of the menu and presentation. Realize the significant role the food and beverage arrangement can make to the success of your event. You want everyone to have a memorable experience. Together with the CM, plan well-balanced, nutritional menus that offer variety and are visually appealing. Remember that people eat with their eyes, and cover the following points:
- Consider doing a food tasting beforehand, and, if you serve wine, definitely sample the CM's recommendations for both red and white wines. Always remember for whom you are catering — it's not yourself!
- Match the wine to the menu. If you feel intimidated at the prospect of choosing a wine, ask for help. The CM or chef will gladly come to your aid.
- Avoid choosing a standard set menu and then asking for it at a lower price. This won't make you popular. Instead, ask the CM to develop a similar menu at a reduced cost. It's best to give the chef an inclusive, per person budget and ask him to create a menu, as you're more likely to get better food and more creative options.
- Ask to see a sample refreshment break station setup. Look for creativity and design. Do they use disposable or real crockery? Is there a selection of herbal as well as regular teas? Is soymilk available as a dairy alternative?
- Find out if the chef has any specialties and look into local/regional/national dishes that would be appropriate for your group. Using seasonal locally produced foods can often equal a cost savings.
- Find out if the foods served are purchased fresh, or whether they are canned or frozen. Also inquire if they have an in-house bakery.
- When doing a taste test, remember that what you're sampling now may not be in season at the time of your event. Review this with the chef.
- Ask about the portion sizes of each meal.
- Discuss whether the luncheon dessert could be served at the afternoon refreshment break or whether the dinner dessert could be served in another location on the premises.