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Banqueting – a balancing act

30 November 2012
Banqueting – a balancing act

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.

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For event caterer Chamberlain's of London, although it was only catering for 90 guests, this location presented quite a challenge. "A ship launched in 1765 was, with the possible exception of the captain's table, certainly not designed for the gastronomic high life," says director of operations Alessio Bascherini. "Delivering equipment through a 5ft by 4ft hatch, plating up between two 3.75 tonne cannons in limited space on deck and watching your head on the overhead beams, ropes and lanthorns during service presents understandable challenges!" However, there were some benefits to the unconventional site. "The close proximity of the service area to the guests was good logistically as it was easy for front of house and kitchen staff to work as one team," Bascherini notes. "Less walking to and from the kitchen made it easier to top up wine, and ensure that food was served hot. Overall, it was a great experience for staff as well as guests." 10 tips for a successful large scale event1 Planning is everything Not only does your team need to be briefed to the hilt before each event; you should also have regular training days, test events and run-throughs and ensure you are constantly up to date with your equipment. 2 Allow for special diets A good rule of thumb is to always prepare at least 10% vegetarian meals. But pay attention to other special diets too. These meals should always be part of the initial plan to avoid those with special dietary requirements dining last and with a bland option. 3 Streamline your dishes When designing a menu for a large scale event, always consider how many "hits to the plate" chefs will need to prepare a dish. The fewer hits or finishing touches, the better; this will maximise the efficiency of the delivery team. 4 Use food technology Choose cheaper or unusual cuts of meat, and even when you're working with prime cuts, use food technology to cook them at a lower temperature, for a longer period of time. This will save you money and give perceived value for money for the guest. 5 Break down the party A banquet for 2,000 should be broken down into 10 parties of 200. That way, the majority of the team doesn't have to fret about the enormity of the scale. 6 Think informal The three-course dinner is on its way out, even in the banqueting space. Corporate clients want to be able to work the room as much as possible and you can facilitate this by providing a more relaxed dining environment. 7 Create an experience Guests are increasingly keen to learn how their dishes were put together and where the ingredients came from. Bring out your chef or sommelier to enlighten them. Those little touches can make a big difference. 8 Make sure the price is right Clients don't want any grey areas when it comes to cost. Either offer a very simplistic all-inclusive package, or, for bigger bookers, a truly transparent cost model. 9 Work together Working in partnership with your customer will mean you can use the available budget to its best effect. Make sure you have an event organiser with the client from the first enquiry to the moment the last guest departs. 10 Innovate with your menus Recently there has been a decrease in the number of British menus. Try a different cuisine like South American or Japanese. Brewing a successful relationship Heathcotes Outside, a division of the Lindley Group, recently delivered a beer-themed event for 1,100 executives at Molson Coors' national conference at the Arena & Convention Centre in Liverpool. The event caterer was asked to educate managers about selecting different beers to serve with different food so that they were able to sell on the concept of beer and food matching. To achieve this, Heathcotes Outside chefs spent a couple of days with Molson Coors' development team, creating a "brew menu". "Delegates could sample for themselves complementary flavour combinations for beers as diverse as Blue Moon, an unfiltered wheat beer from North America, served with a slice of orange (paired with chocolate and orange mousse)," says Gary Bates, creative director at the Lindley Group. A total of 15 dishes were prepared and 9,900 tasting glasses were used during the meal. The result? An extremely satisfied client, Molson Coors, and event organiser, Involve UK. "Both parties were so wowed by the event that Molson Coors has said it will return and Involve UK is seeking opportunities to work with Heathcotes Outside on other client projects in the future," Bates says.
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