“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.”
Think of your most successful events, from a food perspective. Chances are, the most successful meetings were the ones in which you established open communication with the catering team, according to Thomas Maguire, CMP, director of national catering and videoconferencing for Marriott International.
But how did that happen? Were you systematic and intentional about developing that relationship, and have you done the same things since then to encourage rapport?
“The most successful events we ever did for clients had an open rapport between the client and myself,” says Maguire, who spoke at the 2001 RCMA Convention & Exposition in Milwaukee. “The events that didn't go well were events when the client held back information or didn't want to lay all the cards on the table.”
In those situations, Maguire says the catering staff are shooting at a target and hoping that it doesn't move.
If rapport with the catering team at the property level is the goal, then how do you get there?
- Ask for Proposals, not Menus
When a meeting planner asks for proposals, it sends an immediate signal to the catering manager that he or she is dealing with a professional. It means you know what you're doing. Give the hotel your budget range, and ask for three proposals within that range.
“It's very hard to send proposals without knowing what their budget is,” Maguire says. “I would ask for a range of where their budget might be, and some people wouldn't tell me that. 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?’ It gets to a point where, you might have 30, 50, or 100 groups working in a given month, and your time is being sucked away by people who won't give you the information that will allow you to give them what they need.”
- Communicate the Need for Alternative Meals Early
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.
- 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 or is it a social event? “If you have an opening reception for 400 people who never have met each other, the hotel needs to know that,” Maguire says. “It helps shape the proposal.”
- Decide 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.
- Agree on a 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.”
- 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 for people I'd met.”
- Be Open and Honest, and Expect the Same
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.”
- 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 is beginning, have pastries on a tray in the middle of the table, to speed things up and cut down on distractions.
- Insist that the Catering Manager or Banquet Chef Meet with Wait Staff
This is crucial. In good catering operations, a meeting of this sort is held prior to every meal. The meeting's topics include information about the group, what will be happening during the meal, and the timing of the evening; details about the menu; and special issues, such as how many vegetarian meals the chef has available.
- Ask about a Hotel's Special Services
When you're booking a facility, find out the hours of operation for the hotel's room services and restaurants. This is important if you have presenters arriving at varying times. For example, if an afternoon speaker is arriving at 10:30 a.m., it's good to know whether she will be able to get a meal at the hotel before she has to head to the convention center to give her presentation.
National Food and Beverage Trends
Customers are driving hotels' trends regarding food, says Thomas Maguire, CMP, director of national catering and videoconferencing for Marriott International. Customers see something done in restaurants, or they see a food trend overseas, and they want it for their next meeting.
“We see a lot of influences from other countries,” Maguire says. “Cuban and Asian influences are creeping into what hotels are offering, for example.”
But keep in mind that it's not easy for hotels to react to trends.
“It's very difficult for hotels to change banquet menus midstream,” Maguire says. “It's a big deal. It's a long process, 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.”
Having said that, here are a few trends to consider.
- Variety. Consider offering ethnic hors d'oeuvres with more traditional items, so you're giving some variety. If you're doing barbecue for appetizers, throw in some spring rolls, for example.
- Smaller, more attractive portions. “We used to believe that if we gave you more food, we raised the level of value for price paid,” Maguire says. “So we would literally kill you with the amount of food we'd give. It gave us great scores for value for price paid, but people were falling asleep in meetings afterward. It was too much food. We're looking now at presentations and plates that are healthy, good-looking, fresh.”
- Combining textures, colors, shapes. Not everything on the plate should have the same consistency, color, or shape. Some things might be crispy or crunchy, and some might be more tender, for example.
- Architectural foods. “I don't mean things that take forever to plate,” Maguire says. “Foods can be served on terra cotta, or on marble, in different ways to present the same food to make it interesting.”
- Water, water everywhere. “Water is huge,” with attendees and hotels. Health-conscious attendees love having water available at breaks, and it's good for the hotel because it comes in sealed containers.
- Compact food with more flavor. “Choose things that wake people up and say, ‘Wow, that was different,’ without turning them off,” Maguire says.
- Fusion cuisine, if it's done logically. “There's no such thing as Asian-Italian fusion cuisine. It doesn't work,” Maguire says. “If it doesn't make sense logically, it shouldn't be done.”
- Think nutrition. Offer a choice of healthful, alternative items for people who are health-conscious.
- Homemade, homegrown. If you have a multiple-day event, build in a warm and fuzzy meal, such as fried chicken or meatloaf, Maguire advises. People get tired of hotel food, and every once in a while they want something that reminds them of home.
- Variations of service. Did you know that your options include plated, buffet, family style, multiple entree, and meal station? Maguire says offering multiple entree (same appetizer, salad, and dessert, with a choice of three entrees) can make a big impact without significantly increasing your costs. Keep in mind, though, that you must have menus printed and placed at each place setting, so people know that they have to choose.
“You need to make sure that your entrees are significantly different, so the kitchen can prepare,” Maguire says. “For example, in the Midwest, if you give people a choice of a filet, chicken, or fish, the filet will be the most popular choice, followed by chicken, followed by fish. In fact, 80 percent will order filet. The kitchen staff actually begins plating before the selections are made. They'll plate 80 percent filet as the guests are sitting down. The benefit for planners is that you get reactions like this from attendees: ‘Wow, I went to a banquet last night, and they gave me a choice. I actually had a choice.’”
Finally, remember this: 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.