Catering for functions and events involves a high level of organisation but in my experience, when it comes to accessibility and dietary requirements, basic procedures that would ensure all guests are cared for are all too often overlooked.
As Christmas approaches and the party season gets in full swing, there are likely to be guests that have particular needs among the groups you host. By putting in place some simple measures you can ensure they return all-year round.
The following are examples of scenarios that have all happened to me, but what would you do if they happened in your hotel this weekend?
The first was at a wedding of a close family member and there were five steps down into the function room and no handrail. There was also no accessible toilet anywhere in the hotel.
I arrived for the wedding breakfast and could not get into the function room. Eventually I managed it by going down the stairs on my bottom. I also had to ask someone to stay outside the toilet while I used it - which was obviously very embarrassing.
Now imagine it was the bride's elderly grandmother. What would she have done and how would the bride and other members of the family have reacted? A lot of feelings would be badly damaged and if it could not be solved, then an expensive court case may follow, adverse PR or, at best, a substantial refund would have to be offered.
The second involved an event I was organising. I had arranged that all dietary notes were carefully taken in advance and given in exact detail to the venue. This included details of the allergy and where that person was sitting - this included marking the location of the person on the venue's copy of the table plan with their name.
I thought this was foolproof but I was wrong as a coeliac was given the wrong dish. Having been so thorough covering the issue in my letter of confirmation, I had assumed nothing had been left to chance. This is why I was so dismayed that the morning after the event I received a telephone call from a very angry partner of a guest that had been poisoned by the food they had been wrongly given.
The venue had prepared a dish correctly but the procedures were not in place to deliver it to the right person. The person concerned was sick for three days and the hotel was fortunate that she was not working - she could show pain and suffering but no real financial loss. Nowadays, with litigation on the increase, I am not sure that venue would be so fortunate.
Both of these situations caused a number of issues that could so easily have been avoided.
Accessibility checklist for function teams
1 Make sure dietary requirements are taken in advance with name, allergy and seat location, and brief the chef and staff pre-service.
On the day, check that the person has turned up and is sitting in the right place. The duty manager should introduce themselves.
2 Make sure what you have prepared is suitable and interesting for the guest. It should not be an easy option such as melon to start, plain chicken with salad or vegetables and a fresh fruit salad for a coeliac, as that is what they have to put up with most times they go out.
3 Ensure staff know in the function office what dishes can be served to people with different allergies so that they can advise organisers well in advance. Avoid the need for having to check back every time with the kitchen staff as this can get very annoying.
4 Sales staff must also be aware of all the accessibility issues for each of the function rooms and then ask if there is likely to be a person with a disability attending. If so, make notes on the booking form.
5 Have a procedure for dealing with late requests with regard to allergies.
A vegetarian can be satisfied with a suitable meal when they make a late request so why can't others that have an illness rather than have made a life choice.
6 Make sure anyone with a disability can find their seat easily. This may require discussing with the organiser about putting a wheelchair user at the side of the room in a place where their chair will not be continually kicked by passing staff.
Check that, if it is a wheelchair user, the chair has been removed and that nobody has altered the places before the dinner.
7 If guests with an impairment are expected, make sure they can find a seat for the pre-dinner drinks or somewhere that has sufficient light for a visually impaired person.
Also, delegate a member of staff to look after them, ask what they need and provide top-up drinks if necessary.
8 It should not be necessary to take guests behind the scenes to get them into a function suite. I have lost count of the times I have been taken back of house in lifts that are meant for goods. If this is unavoidable then make sure they are clean and that kitchen debris is not in the way or visible.
If a security key is required then ensure the person in charge knows where it is or, better still, has it in their possession. There is nothing worse than sitting by a lift waiting for 10 minutes while security is called. This often happens, including at London five-star hotels at major industry functions.
9 See if the guest with the impairment would like to avoid the rush and take their seat early. It should be their choice and, if they go in early, make sure they have a drink while they wait for everyone else.
10 Staff should be able to audio describe the meal for a visually impaired person as it is unlikely you will be able to afford Braille menus.
11 Keep the passageway clear to the accessible toilets, especially for a wheelchair user. This works for the hotel as it will save time clearing a passage in the busy function period and be very helpful to the guest with a disability.
Learn how to capture the £2b accessibility market
A free conference is being held on Tuesday 24 January 2012, offering insight and advice into understanding and attracting a share of the £2b accessibility market.
Chaired by Caterer and Hotelkeeper editor Mark Lewis, the A Market to Win conference will feature a panel of experts sharing their tips for pulling in this lucrative market.
Speakers at the free conference, which will be held at the BT Centre, St Paul's, London, include Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, Loyd Grossman and Magnus Berglund of Scandic Hotels.
email@example.com if interested.
Arnold Fewell is a director of AVF Marketing and a permanent wheelchair user