After a post-recession lull in lavish corporate entertainment, things are picking up. Yet, while clients' expectations are higher than ever, many no longer have the budgets to match. Elly Earls finds out how caterers can meet these ever-rising demands while maintaining healthy margins
When the recession hit in 2008, large-scale, high-end banqueting dropped right down the priority list of many of the UK's biggest companies. Splashing out on gallons of Champagne for thousands of guests, after all, just wasn't appropriate for a banking giant weeks after a recession triggered by the banking crisis.
"There was a lot of desire to be seen as low key," says Jo Westbrook, business director at Levy Restaurants, part of Compass Group. "Big clients didn't want to be seen as extravagant and spending their money flamboyantly."
But four years on, things are a bit different. "They still want to retain the high-end banqueting," Westbrook explains. "They're just doing it for a smaller number of people."
"Moreover, people want both value for money and quality, so we've got a difficult task in hand, trying to meet all those customer expectations, while at the same time retaining some integrity in our margins," adds Gary Bates, creative director at the Lindley Group.
So, how have caterers and hospitality venues coped? For Vincent Madden, director of hotel operations at the Arora Group, who is responsible for the operation of Sofitel London Heathrow, which won conference and banqueting team of the year 2011 at the Hotel Cateys, working closely with the client has been absolutely key.
"The way to overcome these obstacles is to really understand the customer, what they need, what is important to them and what message they need to get across," he says. "Once you truly work in partnership with your customer, together you use the budget to its best effect."
Gaining a better yield
Innovation has also become a much higher priority for caterers. At the Lindley Group, for example, the team has had to be much more inventive with its menus, using food technology and cheaper, more unusual cuts of meat or fish. And even with top end cuts of meat, such as sirloin, chefs are increasingly cooking them slower and at a lower temperature, to get a better yield. "We'll cut out about 20% of shrinkage," Bates notes. "For large functions, that makes a huge difference."
Partnering higher end proteins with some cheaper cuts of meat also allows the caterer to save money, but keeps the customer happy at the same time. "If you create a trio of lamb, for example, two items would be relatively cheap, but one would be prime," Bates remarks. "It gives perceived value for money."
But innovation is by no means limited to menus; the entire experience of the day needs to be much more memorable than in the past.
"We've moved from being traditional caterers to almost hosting the evening," Westbrook says. "That experiential piece has become more prevalent than it was before. And because of that, I don't think maintaining a margin percentage is the right model to have. Our view is that you need to build a long-term relationship with the client so you're more focused on repeat business than maximising the percent margin out of every single deal."
The experience of the day might involve bringing out the chef to talk about the local ingredients they've used in their menu, or the sommelier to explain their wine selection.
"People are more interested in food and drink as an activity than just a good meal," says Westbrook. "They want to know not only about how the food has been created on the plate, but also where it's come from. And it's those little touches that really matter to people."
But offering a memorable experience for guests is a roundabout way of maintaining business relationships; corporate clients also increasingly want to use banqueting events to do this much more directly. "If you're going to invite people now, when money is tighter, you need to work the room harder," Westbrook notes. "You need a more informal environment so you can get round more clients."
People are moving away from the tradition of the three-course meal, Bates adds. "It's more about having a relaxed dining experience so we're seeing more grazing food, bowl food and picking food, as opposed to a sit-down meal in a formal setting," he says. "However, that doesn't mean the quality should be diluted in any way. It still has to be at an extremely high level, but in a relaxed environment."
A different relationship
For Westbrook, the relationship between guests and catering staff has also become more relaxed in recent years. "That relationship between the guests and the people creating the food is closer than it ever has been," she says. "Some of the most expensive seats in a restaurant are those where you can see the chefs working in the kitchen. It's probably quite an old-fashioned notion to think there's a back-of-house and front-of-house team."
Yet while dining trends may evolve, logistics will never change. "Planning is everything," Madden says. "We have run-throughs, test events, and permanent and casual staff training days in advance, and we always ensure that we have the correct equipment."
Excellent communication channels and a well considered logistical plan are essential to minimise problems during an event. Gavin Gooddy, head of marketing at Rhubarb, says the caterer always prepares an additional 10% of all dishes in case of last-minute requests.
Bite-sized pieces When it comes to catering for banquets of hundreds or thousands of guests, it is also crucial to break the party down. "If you are doing dinner for 2,000, it's 10 parties of 200," Westbrook explains. "The head chef will see it as 2,000, but individual chefs will view it as parties of 200. That way, they don't have to worry about the enormity of the scale."
While the banqueting market may have contracted, largely because companies have downsized guest numbers at corporate events, caterers have more than responded to the challenge to deliver top quality on slightly lower budgets. In fact, many in the industry have never been more excited to be there. "If you're fanatical about food and drink, which we are, creating an amazing, bespoke experience is just lots of fun," Westbrook concludes.
Getting the team on board for military precision
The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Children's Fund charity recently held their black tie dinner on board HMS Victory in Portsmouth, the ship from which Admiral Nelson defeated the French and Spanish fleets and secured victory for Britain at the Battle of Trafalgar.
The event involved a Champagne and canapé reception in the National Museum of the Royal Navy, followed by a three-course banquet served to military dignitaries and guests at traditional mess tables. The tables were situated between 32-pounder guns, where in the past the crew of the Victory would have eaten their rations.