Planner's Workshop: Pre-Event: How to Avoid Bloated F&B Budgets

The culinary arts have never looked so easy, thanks to the efforts of Emeril Lagasse and Rachel Ray. Cookbooks, classes, and television programs focused on the fine art of food preparation are inescapable. Everyone, it seems, wants to be a chef. So how does this relate to the planning of your next meeting?

For starters, meeting attendees are more knowledgeable about food. It wasn't long ago that few people had ever heard of foie gras or knew what to do with a pomegranate. There wasn't as much emphasis on color, balance, and the importance of presentation. Today, we look at food with far greater scrutiny, and thus, the culinary bar at meetings and events has been raised.

As the trend continues, the hotel industry is taking notice by creating solutions to ensure exciting menu choices that won't break the bank. After all, creating a memorable dining experience while staying on budget is a top objective for meeting planners—and the ultimate one for food service professionals.

Communicate, Don't Negotiate
The recipe for keeping a food and beverage budget in check begins with open communication. When you're discussing the budget is not the time for negotiations. Lay the budget on the table and explain exactly what it will cover, from breakfast to coffee breaks, cocktail receptions to dinners. Then request three proposals from the hotel. Consider them a partner in the success of the event, and let their culinary experts create menus that fit within the budget.

Communicating detailed information about the event up front is equally important to keeping food and beverage costs in line. Considerations for unique dietary needs or menus that meet religious requirements, for example, should be addressed. Don't wait until the day before the meeting to make special requests. Hotels have set schedules for the procurement and delivery of food and supplies, and in most cases, short notice can lead to added costs.

Culinary Expertise
In addition to working with a catering or service manager, always request a meeting with the property's banquet chef to prevent costly miscommunications. A face-to-face discussion creates a feeling of ownership over the event. Explain the overall vision for the event, and let the banquet chef be your guide. These culinary professionals can save on the bottom line by knowing what items are in season, and hence, make recommendations for the most cost-effective menu items.

While filet mignon might be the ideal choice, for example, a New York strip steak or sliced sirloin are reliable options. Also, instead of U.S.D.A. Prime cuts use Choice or Select meats to make an impact without sacrificing the budget. Another way to convey the perception of a gourmet meal while staying on budget is to focus on side items such as fresh, grilled seasonal vegetables creatively presented in stacked layers Napoleon-style. Also, serving a spectacular dessert is an inexpensive way to leave a lasting impression.

Service Factors
Another potential budget issue to consider is the style of service required for the event. The most labor-intensive style is synchronized service, a presentation that requires a one-to-one, staff-to-patron ratio. The industry standard for seated lunch and dinner service is typically one server to 20 attendees, compared to a ratio of one to 30 for a buffet-style event. If several meal functions are planned, vary the service style. Not only will it keep attendees engaged, it keeps the budget in check.

From simple coffee breaks to elaborate dinners, meal functions are an integral part of the meeting planning process. Food is not just about nourishment; it's about bringing people together for a common goal. By heeding the advice of culinary professionals, meeting planners can rest assured their food and beverage choices will be on target and on budget.

Gary Baumann, an award-winning member of the National Association of Catering Executives (NACE), is director of catering for the AAA Four Diamond InterContinental Houston. He can be reached at [email protected]

Originally published November 01, 2007

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