Even for some internal meetings and conferences, attendee arrivals can be staggered. There can be delays in flight arrivals. Even if a lot of participants are local, there can be significant delays due to traffic jams, problems on the subway system, accidents that block roads, flooding or, in the winter, blizzards.
Interactive Food Stations
One of the most creative solutions is to opt for interactive food stations instead of a sit-down dinner or buffet. They add the fun factor and ensure early arrivals don't have to wait around for dinner and that there is sufficient food for late arrivals. Still provide tables for guest to be seated after they have made their selections.
Lunch stations can include:
- mini pizzas
- sandwich bar
- build your own fajitas
- build your on tacos
- gourmet mini hot dogs or hot dogs wrapped in crescent roll dough
- a salad bar
- desert station
For hearty appetites, these options may be perceived as too light even for lunch. (I have attended events in which food stations are perceived as "appetizers" and some guests are disappointed.) For stations with heartier fare:
- replace sliders with a build your own burger station
- upgrade the sandwich bar to a deli station with a variety of cold cuts, cheese bread selections like baguettes and kaisers that are filling (cold cuts should be chunky or thick cuts)
- falafel or shish kebab in pita bread can be filling
- add a hearty soup or chowder
- upgrade to salad station that includes heartier options like potato or pasta salads
For dinner, select stations with menu selections one typically finds at buffets:
- carving stations with beef or turkey
- roast chicken
- seafood station
- pasta station
Managing Staggered Arrivals for Buffets or Sit-Down Dinners
Interactive food stations simply won't appeal to some clients who associate them with stations with reception rather than meals. For some groups, it may be important for dispersed or virtual teams to bond informally before the meeting begins.
If late arrivals are expected, the client will likely opt for a later start time (e.g. 1:00 pm or 1:30 pm for lunch and 8:00 pm or 8:30 pm for dinner. Be sure to have a hospitality suite with a microwave to meet the needs of early arrivals. Serve some hearty items at the time participants would normally expect to eat:
- lamb or beef skewers
- mini beef Wellingtons
- chicken nuggets
- sausage rolls
- mini-chicken pot pies
To accommodate the needs of participants who arrive early, consider serving afternoon tea, providing boxed lunches or snacks, or pre-arranging for room service to deliver light refreshments about 30 minutes after guests go to their rooms.
Under this scenario, it is extremely important for event planners to work very closely with the hotel or resort. Provide an accurate count of how many guests have checked in about half an hour before dining service is scheduled. To ensure that food stretches further, always put the bread and salad at the beginning of the buffet line followed by the vegetables. People will take less of the meat if their plates are not empty. Be sure to hold back enough food for late arrivals.
Be prepared in advance for room deliveries in case some guests are seriously delayed and too exhausted to join the group. This should never be a surprise. Discuss the possibility during the pre-con. A dedicated check-in counter for the group is of great value. After the reception (or dinner) begins, staff confirm if late arrivals will be joining the group. Baggage can be delivered directly to the guest rooms. The check-in team can alert the event planner and banquet captain immediately if guests require room delivery.
For more dining options that work for staggered arrivals read Making Working Lunches Healthy, Interactive and Fun and Event Catering: 10 Tips for Avoiding Food Shortages.