Think of your most successful event — from an F&B perspective. Chances are, it was the one in which you established strong communication with the catering team.

“The best events we ever did for clients had an open rapport between the client and myself,” says Thomas Maguire, CMP, director of national catering and video-conferencing for Marriott International. “The events that didn't go well tended to be events when the client held back information or didn't lay all the cards on the table.” In those situations, Maguire says, the catering staff is shooting at a target hoping it doesn't move.

  1. Ask for proposals, not menus

    When meeting planners ask for proposals, they send an immediate signal to the catering manager that they are professionals. Give the hotel your budget range, and ask for three proposals within the range.

    “It's very hard to send proposals without knowing what the budget is,” Maguire says. “I would ask for a range of where their budget might be, and some people wouldn't tell me. Then I'd send out proposals, and the client would call back and say, ‘You know what? You're way high.’ What's way high?”

  2. Communicate alternate meal needs early in the process

    Maguire recently worked with a group that, two days before a simultaneous meeting at 97 locations, requested a specific number of kosher meals at each site. A request like that is a recipe for a disaster. If people have dietary restrictions, let the hotel know well in advance.

  3. Share your history and purpose

    What is your group's taste? What was served at past programs? Keep track of past events, what was served, and how it was received. This can help the caterer head off problems or come up with ideas.

    “Your history is very important to us,” Maguire says. “The more you share with us, the more we can do to make the meeting successful.”

    Also, communicate the purpose of the event. Is it a business meeting? A social event? “If you have an opening reception for 400 people who have never met each other, the hotel needs to know that,” Maguire says. “It helps shape the proposal.”

  4. Determine right away how you're going to be billed

    “Is it consumption? Is it guarantee? Piece-by-piece, person-by-person? Is it inclusive pricing, or will an 18 percent service charge be added, plus an 8 percent sales tax?” Maguire asks. If he were a meeting planner, Maguire would ask for inclusive pricing for all events, because taxes and other fees can be very confusing to calculate on your own.

  5. Agree on a final cutoff date for guarantee numbers

    “Don't play games with the guarantee numbers,” Maguire says. “You don't want to run out of food. And remember that hotels generally can handle 5 percent above the guarantee.”

  6. Meet the banquet chef

    This is a big one. “Ask to meet the chef. Not the executive chef. You want the banquet chef,” Maguire says. “When I was a banquet chef and had to meet with the client, I immediately had to take ownership. It wasn't just meals flying across my kitchen. I always went the extra mile with people I had met.”

  7. Be open and honest, and expect the same in return

    Your event will be better if you're open with the catering staff. Tell them your challenges, your budget, your hot buttons, what has worked in the past and what hasn't.

    Ask for candid assessments of the hotel staff's ability in return. “You've got to keep in mind the level of service and experience at the property,” Maguire says. “Ask: ‘What are the limitations of your staff?’ You have to know that. That will help you know what the experience will be like for your guests.”

  8. Communicate your time budget

    How much time do your guests have to eat? That is a direct link to what a hotel should be serving. “If you have an hour-and-a-half program after a five-course dinner, you're in for a long night,” says Maguire, who adds that alternatives can speed up your courses. For example, an appetizer can be served with the salad, and instead of serving cheesecake while the program starts, have pastries on a tray in the middle of the table.

  9. Inquire about a hotel's special services

    When booking, know the hours of operation for room services and restaurants. If you have an afternoon speaker arriving at 10:30 a.m., for example, it's good to know whether she will be able to get a meal at the hotel before she has to leave for the convention center.

  10. Demand that the catering manager or banquet chef hold meetings with the wait staff

    This is request crucial. In good catering operations, a meeting of this sort takes place before every meal. The meeting topics include information about the group; what will be happening during the meal and timing of the evening; details about the menu; and special issues, such as how many vegetarian meals the chef has available.

  11. Leave no evidence

    Hors d'oeuvres that leave you with a pile of debris on your napkin — sticks, picks, tails — are out. “Leaving people with a handful of garbage is probably not a good idea,” Maguire says.

  12. Keep in mind, it's not easy for hotels to react to trends

    Customers are driving trends in hotels regarding food, says Maguire. Customers see something done in restaurants, or they see a food trend overseas, and they want it offered at their next meeting.

“We see a lot of influences from other countries,” Maguire says. “Cuban, Asian influences are creeping into what hotels are offering, for example.

“It's very difficult for hotels to change over banquet menus midstream. It takes a long time to do, and it's very expensive. When you see a freestanding restaurant doing fusion cooking, it's easy for them to do it. We (hotels) are usually the last to catch the curve because of the expense associated with it.”

Larry Keltto is editor of CMI's sister publication, Religious Conference Manager.