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Ask any event organiser what aspect of events gets the most complaints and you could well be surprised by the answer.
Does the lack of parking spaces score high on the list? Does the London Underground’s closing the Piccadilly Line shoot up the gripe-metre? What about toilets and ‘comfort areas’ or the quality of the seminar programme?
What most people complain about is actually the catering. A delegate or guest can have a nightmarish journey to the event and spend all day having a thoroughly miserable time and say nothing. But, if they think the coffee’s over priced or not hot enough they’ll be along to the organiser’s office straight away.
As an organiser you have various choices about what sort of catering, if any, you are going to have at your event.
You can simply provide tea, coffee, soft drinks and biscuits, you could hold an informal buffet or drinks reception, if you want privacy you can hire a room in the venue and invite special guests along to enjoy a buffet or sit-down lunch. If you are really wanting to push the boat out you can have a banquet for several hundred guests.
Coffee and sandwiches, buffet or banquet, there are certain things to think about, here are some of the important considerations:
Know your budget
Catering for your visitors, clients and other contacts is quite similar to any of the other aspects of setting up your event. You need to have a clear idea of why you are doing it and what you are wanting to achieve. Catering can be expensive so you need to decide if you are simply wanting to give your guests a cup of tea or a sandwich or treat them to a three course.
It’s really no different to using promotional merchandise. If you think that giving people some kind of branded gift justifies the expense then you should go ahead and do it. If you think that feeding your guests or treating key contacts to a fine lunch is a good way of furthering relationships then you should contact the caterers straight away. Like everything though, unless you have unlimited financial resources you shouldn’t do it simply for the sake of it.
Do your research, there are plenty of catering firms out there and so it will pay you to shop around because prices can vary greatly from company to company and from one part of the country to another.
A very important point is to compare your venue’s own in-house prices to those you are given by outside caterers. The outside caterers will often be much cheaper but once the venue has added on corkage and other hire charges it could very easily work out more expensive.
Whoever you decide to use you should ask to meet the team so you can get an idea of whether or not you’re going to work well together, like all business deals it is a relationship and it always pays to do business with people you like.
Check the venue’s in house catering requirements
This is a very important consideration. Most venues in the UK have their own in-house caterer who is, naturally enough, the organisation that the venue would prefer you use. To that end, you will find that there will probably be some kind of surcharge added to your bill by the venue if you decide to go elsewhere.
This includes obvious charges like corkage on alcohol bought outside the venue but extends to hire charges for the kitchens if you are bringing in outside caterers.
This is an argument that carries on in the events industry and many people complain about the lack of choice that organisers are offered by venues. To a certain extent this is true but most in-house caterers are used to cooking for all kinds of events and should be able to handle yours.
If you are wanting something more specialised, such as Asian food or a specifically themed menu, you’ll find that many venues will have a preferred list of caterers who can provide this service. It’s always worth asking
Decide where you are going to hold the event
You should decide as soon as possible where you are going to hold your food event. This will give the caterer plenty of time to assess the logistics of feeding your guests in as efficient a way as possible.
This is especially true if you are using outside caterers because they will want to have a good idea of where they can set up serving areas, cooking areas and cleaning areas. Even knowing where they can park the van can save hassle on the day. Most caterers will work this into their package but it’s always worth making sure that they plan to have a site visit.
In-house caterers will obviously know their venue well but you should still liase with them about how you will be setting up tables, where people will be sitting, timings etc.
Make sure your guests will be able to find the room you are eating in, there is nothing worse than your waiting for people to arrive and their stumbling around a venue looking for the place. Make sure there will be adequate signage up on the day.
Don’t be shy
If you are wanting something innovative or unusual that isn’t on the caterer’s standard menu, you shouldn’t be frightened to ask. Like any professional they will just love to be creative and to do something different for a change. Most chefs relish the opportunity to really show off their skills.
Don’t forget to leave plenty of time for this, there is no point calling the caterer with a week to go and asking them for a fish that can only be found in the South Pacific and which is only delivered to a fishmonger in Mayfair once a week.
Listen to advice from the catering team
Both in-house and outside caterers will have wide ranging experience of running events similar to yours and it’s worth listening to what they have to say.
It may be that you have a vision of how you see the meal progressing. They will be able to tell you if this is achievable within the constraints of time and budget. Good caterers, like any reputable service provider, will be happy to tell you if they think you are spending too much money on something that should be a reasonably simple affair. They will be happy to question why you want the most expensive caviar or a huge ice sculpture in the middle of the table.
Ultimately, of course, it’s your money and your decision but an experienced caterer has seen it all before and will have a good knowledge of what works and what doesn’t – use this knowledge.
The caterer will also have a good diary full of other organisations whose help you may need to enlist. This includes furniture hire, entertainment and flowers. Again, you can use whomever you want but many of these other suppliers will be venue-preferred and ought to be relied upon to do a good job.
Make sure you know what you’re paying for
Don’t be frightened to ask for a fully itemised quote that shows you exactly what you’re getting for your money. This applies to whatever you may be doing from the simplest coffee and biscuits service up to an 800-seater banquet.
If you are having a finger buffet, ask how many times the waiting staff go around the guests, one London venue charges over £30 a head and the waiters go round once.
Are tables and chairs included in the price? One would assume that the venue would provide furniture but this is not always the case. Similarly, if you are in a big hall, will the venue provide drapes or some kind of decoration to make the situation a little more appealing? Many will but many don’t.
Make sure you know how long the caterer’s staff are going to be on-site, you don’t want to have an extra bill for overtime if the event overruns.
Never be frightened of querying the bill, after all, you will be paying a significant amount of money and you will expect things to be right.