All too often catering is one of the last things a busy conference organiser will consider. The result may be a substandard meal. This is unfortunate, because conference lunches can make a favourable impression on delegates.
Most organisers prefer to entrust menu planning to a specialist caterer - a service which is usually available through the conference venue. The first task is, therefore, to choose a venue with good catering facilities and flexible, or custom-designed, menus.
Many delegates sample conference cuisine regularly, and the challenge lies in offering an original selection of dishes while still catering for those who prefer a traditional menu.
Good communication between client and conference centre is essential. The venue will need to understand at the outset the nature of the event, the guest profile and the budgetary restrictions.
The nature of the event will dictate the degree of formality, the appropriate method of service and the type of food. A formal occasion often calls for full silver service. However, a decorated hot and cold buffet can succeed for a prestigious event, too. For less formal occasions, a stand-up fork buffet is often suitable. These are ideal for small conferences where guests will appreciate the chance to mingle.
Formal dinners are made more expensive by the labour-intensive silver service, the greater number of courses and the cost of ingredients for more impressive dishes.
Costs can be reduced through pre-plating courses and serving cold starters and desserts. Buffets can involve a greater selection of cold dishes such as salmon or plated meats which can be prepared and served by a smaller team.
Even with the best organisation in the world, timetables can be thrown out. If your guest speaker overruns by 20 minutes, this can present problems in the kitchen, especially if staff are having to serve a highly demanding dish, such as white fish, to large numbers of guests. An en croûte dish, allows overruns to be more easily absorbed as such dishes retain their heat and optimum presentation for longer.
Avoid pre-dressed salads. Although a tempting choice for buffets, the acids in dressings damage the chemical composition of the leaves and make such salads limp and unappetising very quickly.
Ask about guests' age, nationality, menu preferences and dietary requirements before designing the menu. Do not offer a substandard vegetarian choice and consider religious needs and potential food allergies.
Once both parties have a good mutual understanding of the nature of the event, its formality and the delegates' special requirements, dishes can be selected and menus designed. Venues will normally have a portfolio of conference dishes, from which organisers can create suitable menus within a set budget.
Balance of courses
Although the choice will be left to the organiser's discretion, a good caterer will advise on an appropriate menu for the event. The correct balance of heavy and light courses, which match the occasion, the time of day, the guest profile and the budget, should always be attained.
Accompanying drinks should be considered at the same time as the menu. Many guests will stay off wine or beer at lunch these days, and this helps to reduce costs. Consider the many non-alcoholic alternatives to the rather uninspiring mineral water and orange juice.
Timing is crucial. Conference lunches must be flexible to allow for delays in the agenda. The lunch may be shortened to make up time, for example, and guests will not appreciate being rushed to eat heavy food. Organisers are often advised to choose lighter menus which are digested easily. Sadly this is often achieved at the expense of taste and originality.
There is no value or benefit in substandard quality and presentation of catering, even to cut costs. Catering is an important element of the conference package, and it must not be overlooked.
Carolyn Chatfield is operations manager at One Great George Street Conference Centre, 1 Great George Street, London SWl.