I have found that when I ask colleagues why they are attending a meeting, I get answers like, networking, education, etc. But when they return and I ask how the meeting was, they usually start describing the food and beverage events.
Ergo, food and beverage is important to the success of your meeting.
People generally remember only the very bad or the excellent events they have attended. You don’t want to be remembered for bad events (skimpy food, cheap booze, tacky theme, etc.). You don’t want to be in the middle where the event is promptly forgotten. You want to be remembered for the fabulous events that attendees talk about for years.
I can still remember the incredible Indiana Jones and the Lost Temple of Doom event that was held in Boston at a PCMA conference in the early 90s. And, I still shudder when I remember a certain conference with an outside buffet in the direct sun in Miami – with mayonnaise-based salads and cream pies – and where the waiters were actually eating off of the back of the buffet as we were selecting our items from the front.
Catering is usually the largest budget item for most meetings. Yet, it often comes last in the planning process. I have had planners tell me that catering is a "black hole." They don’t know what is negotiable or how to negotiate. Catering is not one-size-fits-all. Everything about each event is unique.
One thing to consider is soft costs vs hard costs. A hotel cannot sell you a bottle of wine for $20 if they paid $25 for it, but they can usually recommend a less expensive wine. Soft costs can be rental charges, because the hotel does not have to outlay cash.
I asked James Filtz, a Convention Service Manager at the Sheraton New York (Starwood), what is most negotiable in catering. His answer: "The contents of a menu. Often times if a customer comes to me and wants to swap out items, or create a custom menu I am happy to oblige. It is much easier for me to get approval from leadership to do this than discount a menu."
Cheryl Sgovio, Director of Catering and Convention Sales at the Thomas & Mack Center/Cox Pavilion/Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas agrees. Cheryl says, “Menu selections. We will work with every client to customize a menu that best suits their event.”
So, what is least negotiable? Sgovio says, “Minimums. We have to be sure and protect the space we are holding and ensure it will be offset with either a high enough food and beverage purchase and/or rental.”
Filtz says it is, “Labor fees and service charges. I work in a unionized property and our collective bargaining agreement drives these fees. I have no way not to pay for them.”
To learn more about negotiation, read 7 Points to Ponder for Conference Event Budget Talks.