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Holding a successful external meeting or conference…is it all about the food, the food, the food?

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Tony Shotton Fthree

Companies and organisations invest a significant amount of time and money into holding meetings and conferences. It is a well established fact that both the venue and the food that an event planner selects for their event is a significant contributor in the overall evaluation by the delegates on their experience. Whilst evening and lunchtime dining at venues has always pushed boundaries of creativity the last few years has seen a significant increase in the expectations of food and beverage served at daytime conferences, meetings and events.

So why is this?  Without a doubt this is partly due to the continued prevalence and visibility of prime time cooking programmes which has ensured that hospitality providers must continue to push the boundaries and provide high quality, ethically sourced ingredients and highly creative visual products not only for evening dining but also for daytime conferences. Consumers are clearly far more educated about food than ever before and without a doubt they expect more from a personal and business perspective when attending an event.

Unlike 5 years ago, and unless the event planner is working on a very tight budget, you will very rarely attend a daytime meeting or conference and find three coffee breaks served purely with biscuits. Even if biscuits are served the expectation is that they need to be quirky, homemade and not be repeated at every break. Over 10 years ago the (general) deep fried lunchtime finger buffet disappeared at most venues so you will find the lunchtime offering healthier and cover for far more dietary requirements than ever before. Vegetarians are now being overtaken by gluten free, vegan and pescatarian requirements (to name a few) as the general public become far more aware of what they consume and how it affects them.

Therefore, arguably more than ever before, the pressure is now on for event planners to simply meet their delegate’s expectations, never mind wowing them or offering them something truly different. However, the good news is that venues have had to react to this change and provide packages that meet this change in consumer demand. Also, when event planners are looking to book a venue they should definitely challenge the venue on their food and beverage offering, their expertise in this area, how flexible they are with what they offer and how much support they can provide as they plan their event.

This does not necessarily see you paying more, however, like in all fields of expertise, the more you expect in levels of service, creativity and quality, the slightly more you should expect to pay BUT be reassured by this. Again, like many industries, the more you pressure the venue to keep costs low, the more you can expect levels of creativity and quality to reduce which, arguably, almost defeats the purpose. Larger hotel groups, or venues which have high levels of turnover, will have stronger purchasing power but may be more restricted on the provenance and the use of more local, independent producers. They may also be further restricted by brand guidelines and standards, both of which can definitely bring reassurance but at the same time potentially stifle creativity and providing something truly new and different.

This is partly why, certainly for higher impact events, independent and unique venues are now being preferred. Along with the uniqueness of the venue itself, such venues often work with highly specialised food and beverage providers which may have a far larger degrees of flexibility and therefore creativity. Event planners are also likely to find that unique venues are not driven to the same degree by their corporate margins. If the venue partly sets itself apart by being a specialist in food and beverage then it is far more likely to stick to this core value and, for example, give a wider percentage of the day delegate rate towards the food and beverage it provides in relation to the room hire.

For event planners, getting the right venue is the main challenger to food and beverage when trying to ensure delegates are fully engaged and energised during the event. It is a fine balance between the uniqueness of the space and ensuring its practical application to effectively engage your delegates. In theory, the more unique the space, the more interesting it will be for the delegates, it can reflect the level of importance, or theme, you have placed on the event and ultimately the event is more likely to be remembered. Where the venue is located is very important, if you can arrange your event at a venue with good access (air, train, metro, car) then you can significantly reduce the need for overnight accommodation which is more than likely to be the largest per head cost an event planner will see. This element of the budget can then give you a little more towards the actual event day (especially the food and beverage) which is surely the main reason an event planner is bringing everyone together? When event planners have their options lined up the overall delegate experience offered by a venue should be the deciding factor. What is the point in bringing colleagues, and especially customers, together unless you will give them an event to remember?

Like everyday life, integrating technology is another area where delegate expectations are extremely high but also offer a very good opportunity to increase engagement and be able to evaluate that engagement in real time. Again, like the food, this is another area where expertise will cost more but reasonable levels of technology are more accessible than previously so the costs offer far greater ROI potential.

Professional experiential event agencies have a significant role to offer event planners by bringing the venue, the food and beverage, and the technology all together in line with the event planners content and purpose.  Therefore, this will significantly increase the possibility of higher engagement and ROI.  Such agencies have venues that they know, have held events with previously and they can draw upon a wide range of experience in delivering something different for other clients by adapting this to make it unique to each event.  This relationship can also ensure a measuring of the event planners expectations on what can be expected of the venue for the price being paid, confidence in having being offered a fair deal and also, crucially, what will work logistically. Serving some types of food and beverage for 200 people is vastly different, in most cases, to serving smaller numbers. They can also re-assure the event planner that what the venue is offering is fair, reflective of the price being paid, and any extravagances with product quality, seasonality, service and presentation that may command a higher price are justified.

To wrap this up a little; event planners should place a significant amount of time looking at the food and beverage element of their event before deciding which venue to use. They should have realistic expectations from the venue, especially if pushing on price, consider variety and quality not necessarily volume of the food and beverage served. If one venue is more expensive then event planners should ask themselves why before ruling it out – maybe the cost reflects the level of expertise and the quality and creativity of the products they serve at that venue. Utilising that level of expertise can help guide the planner towards something a little nearer to the budget by being more creative with what is offered. Ruling it out immediately could be counter-productive. Certainly don’t be afraid to ask the venue where they source their food and how they split down the delegate rate allocation, the higher the allocation to food and beverage the more the venue may have to play with when designing coffee breaks and lunches.

There is no doubt that a colourful, creative and fun food and beverage offering will significantly increase delegate engagement, as will an easily accessible  unique venue and engaging technology. Without getting into deep psychology, generally speaking, linking the mind to a positive, or unique, experience should enhance recall on the content of that event and it will stick in the delegates mind for longer.


A bit about the expert……


Tony offers extensive conference and events sales, and operations, experience with premium brands including City Inn Hotels, Mint Hotels, IHG, Hilton International, DoubleTree, Accor and The Midland Hotel. Tony’s sole personal objective is to identify the right high specification event space at the stadium that can be perfectly matched with your event requirements.

September 12th, 2017

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