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Food for thought: why event catering matters

Catering is a highly under-rated element of delivering a successful event. It’s not always top of mind for the client, since the content of the meeting and the ability to deliver return on objectives and investment are typically the headline priorities. But food is so much more than fuel: it signals the breaks and welcome downtime to meeting participants. It’s a way for destinations to showcase regional cuisine to international audiences. And catering can really set the tone and atmosphere for a themed event, whether fun or formal.

An appetite for choice

As a society, our relationship with food, health, wellbeing and ethics is shifting, and today we have an increasingly diverse landscape of dietary requirements to meet. Typically, around a quarter of event audiences now have some form of dietary specification, whether through lifestyle choices, intolerances and allergies or religious proscriptions. Failing to cater to their needs risks leaving participants hungry and lacking in focus and energy. A flagging mind and growling stomach can undermine their contribution to and the value they get from the event, and can result in negative feedback for the venue.

Hitting the brief

Whether catering is in-house or outsourced, venues and agencies can really elevate the event experience through a considered, on-brief approach to dining and refreshments. For example, an indulgent treat can be a delightful pick-me-up, but it would be more than a little insensitive to serve sugar-laden brownies and cookies to healthcare professionals attending a diabetes conference!

That’s why, when we delivered this year’s Shine Connect conference for young adults living with a cancer diagnosis, we were mindful that participants might be battling fatigue and diminished appetite among other physiological challenges on the day. We worked with our venue partner to provide a delicious, tempting and nutritious menu, clearly labelled for specific dietary requirements and exclusions, that was totally in sync with the programme’s theme of maximising wellness.

A slightly different flavour of challenge was a branded reward programme we delivered in South Africa for a private equity firm. Reflecting the client’s commitment to CSR, we were briefed to include creative dining experiences that met stringent animal welfare and sustainable farming criteria. This required us to obtain a signed declaration from all venues, hotels and caterers relating to the provenance of their produce.

A thirst for flexibility

As our lives become less structured, and we become accustomed to drinking and snacking on the go, scheduled refreshment breaks may no longer create the best participant experience. Who wants to interrupt their boss’s presentation mid-flow to ensure breaks run to time? And if a session finishes early, or the opportunity arises for a one-to-one, people want to be able to grab a coffee or a piece of fruit from a constant supply that is replenished throughout the day, instead of waiting for a designated break.

While rolling coffee breaks are expensive, many venues are now providing capsule coffee machines so attendees can simply help themselves on demand. And as many people look to cut down on caffeine consumption, a “hydration station” with choice of fruit juice, infused waters or herbal teas is a welcome way to help participants stay alert and refreshed without relying on rocket fuel.

It’s often the subliminal things that make a huge difference to participant feedback and influence venue re-bookings. We’re a social species and breaking bread (even if it’s artisanal and gluten-free) is one of the greatest joys of communal experiences. Thankfully, the days of the beige buffet look to be numbered!  

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