Food for Thought

How important are food and beverage to your event?  When the budget is tight and you’re forced to look for ways to cut the budget, do you sacrifice quality for savings?

Many years ago, I attended a meeting where it was rumored that the sponsorship sales had not gone as well as expected.  Boxed lunches were served at lunchtime, and from the presentation and food selection, it left me wondering what exactly they were trying to achieve.  Instead of serving the lunches in plain white boxes, they had the boxes branded with the meeting logo on 2 sides and in 4 colors. Inside the box, I found a vegetarian sandwich, a sandwich with meat, a seafood salad, a fruit salad, a pudding cup and a candy bar. Canned soft drinks were served on the side.

Here are some interesting points about this “cost saving” measure”:

  1. Boxed lunches are often no less expensive than a modified buffet lunch. They are labor intensive, so venues end up charging a bit more to make up for this.
  2. Branding a box is expensive (Especially when printing in 4-color on glossy white paper).
  3. Combining the vegetarian and meat selections in each box certainly does not seem to be cost effective. A better cost cutting method would be to separate the items and simply label the boxes, or place a label on the table in front of each selection, denoting what is in the boxes.
  4. The items included in a box lunch need to be well thought out. Remember, boxed lunches are usually put out in advance of the meal time, and can be left sitting without refrigeration for the duration of the lunch hour. Foods that should be kept cold can become a health hazard when left at room temperature. Inevitably, some of the delegates complained of upset stomachs after lunch. Could it have been the “warm seafood salad”?

For the rest of the afternoon, most discussions ended with mention of the terrible luncheon that everyone had suffered through. Needless to say, there was so much food wasted and the beautiful logoed boxes lined clear plastic trash bags throughout the hall.

It should be fairly obvious that the food and beverage service at a meeting is important. Attendees are also demanding more special requests to satisfy special diets (i.e., vegetarian, low salt, vegan, kosher, halal, etc.).  Despite tight budgets, we must always try to accommodate our audience.  Cost-saving measures should still be carefully considered, but be creative.  Here are some tips to consider the next time that you find your food and beverage budget is lacking:

  • Eliminate breakfast and ask the venue to ensure the food shops are open, or if you have an exhibition area allow them to sell coffee and breakfast foods there
  • Negotiate room rates that provide a full or limited breakfast for the delegates in the restaurant
  • Reduce the timing of cocktail receptions
  • In lieu of a welcome reception, provide vouchers for a meal in the bar/lounge area, and encourage your delegates to attend a “meet and greet” in this area after check-in
  • Always modify and negotiate banquet menus
  • Solicit local restaurants to provide discounts for attendees, and provide ample time for delegates to get out and enjoy the local flavors

If a boxed lunch is the only solution, try these tips for happier meeting attendees:

  • Remember to select foods that keep well, such as whole fruit instead of fruit salad, and please no seafood!
  • You can reduce the “per box” cost by going with a plain box
  • Separate dietary options and label the boxes, or place a sign on the table that denotes what is in each box

Thoughtful food and beverage selection at a meeting makes the delegates feel special. Your food and beverage set up should create an atmosphere that encourages networking opportunities for new connections or even reconnection with old friends, not provide a platform for them to discuss how terrible lunch was. As planners, we are always looking for creative ideas to keep food and beverage costs in line with the budget, while still maintaining quality.  Let’s hear some of your ideas.


**Special thanks to Lynne Pryor, Senior Conference Manager at Integress, for her significant contribution to this post.

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