Sodexo Prestige's food innovations director, who manages catering for large-scale events including the Royal Ascot and Chelsea Flower Show, tells Caroline Baldwin how planning for these summer events has changed.
What's changed with events like Royal Ascot and the Chelsea Flower Show this year?
The biggest difference is the numbers – at Royal Ascot we normally have around 60,000 visitors a day, and with the restrictions we would have been down to 4,000. But we've entered into the Events Research Programme, which is being run by the government to understand how events can open up safely without social distancing, so we were allowed 12,000.
How was Royal Ascot last week?
It's amazing to see guests back after nearly 18 months of racing behind closed doors. Everything went really well: lots of happy staff turned up and guests were very happy too – even the weather was kind to us. All staff have been doing the lateral flow testing and taking on the extra security measures; they seemed as pleased as we were to be open again. All of the Covid procedures we had in place – extra cleaning and sanitising – worked brilliantly. There was also a good take-up of the luxury hampers we delivered to people's homes – these were for all of the guests who couldn't be at the event this year but wanted to join in with the celebrations from their own homes and gardens.
What challenges are you facing with your summer events?
We're trying to be as cashless as possible, with the help of app ordering and click and collect, which we've rolled out this year. It also means we won't have hordes of people queuing – the technology is adding to the guest experience, rather than taking things away because of Covid. Somebody said to me, "we have to sanitise the venue, but not the experience", and that's exactly what we're trying to do.
For instance, at the Chelsea Flower Show in September, we normally serve 60,000 canapés on the first evening, but this year we're offering mini individual picnics. And at Ascot two-thirds of guests who came through the door chose to have an afternoon tea, but as they couldn't share this year we've had to source 30,000 individual afternoon tea stands, which was difficult!
Are you seeing any changes in dining trends?
Regardless of Covid, we're seeing guests move towards a more informal level of hospitality – less of the sitting down for five courses on a white tablecloth, and a bit more cool and casual.
At events like Royal Ascot, there's only about 19 minutes of sport in the whole day; the rest of the day is about eating, drinking and socialising. For the past few years we've tailored a lot of our offerings to an all-day event, but extending that flexibility to 400 covers a day, rather than a box, is quite difficult to manage.
I don't think fine dining will ever disappear completely. At Royal Ascot and the Chelsea Flower Show we're the solo caterers, so we can set out the restaurant strategy. In the past where we might have had 20 restaurants, 15 would have been formal; it's more the other way around now. The mark-up isn't too different – fine dining probably has a slightly higher margin, but the overall strategy is that you'd rather people have an amazing time.
How about food trends?
Well, Chelsea Flower Show normally kicks off the events season in May, but it is being delayed until September. We are collaborating with Raymond Blanc for the sixth year, and he focuses on seasonality and home-grown vegetables at his Jardin Blanc. It's been interesting to do this with autumn in mind instead of spring – it's usually a lot of asparagus and morels. I suppose the same will go for the gardens displaying different plants.
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