Food & Beverage

Food and beverage is one of the most important aspects of the program… attendees will remember an outstanding meal for a while but a bad meal forever!

Planning food and beverage that meets your attendees’ expectations is crucial to the success of your meeting

  • Know your group’s preferences, idiosyncrasies and special needs
  • Know the facility’s capabilities and specialties

Food and beverage events are used to manage the minds and moods of the participants

  • The food you select will have an effect on the mental alertness of the delegates
  • Meeting attendees are far more health conscious now than they used to be
  • However, when away from home at a conference, many lose site of their healthy eating habits
  • Regardless of the reasoning, the meeting planner is challenged to provide interesting and healthy menus, that are conducive to the entire meeting experience.

Benefits of Organized Meal Functions

  • Often facility’s outlets can’t handle the numbers within the time available for breakfast or lunch (around the program timing)
  • An organized lunch helps keep the attendees there.  They don’t wander off at noon and not return for the afternoon sessions
  • Breaks in the morning and afternoon are need just for that reason – a break – allowing them to get more out of the program content
  • Some food and beverage events can be located in the exhibit hall to increase traffic flow
  • They allow for social interaction and networking which is part of the leaning and professional development process
  • You may need a luncheon to get all the organization business done
  • A lunch with a key note speaker adds to the program content
  • Some attendees in some meetings may not be reimbursed for add on social events.  If it is included in the overall conference fee, the employer doesn’t have a problem
  • Special events are often used to honour dignitaries and present social awards in a social setting

Negotiating Food and Beverage

  • Most facilities are reluctant to quote menu prices more than 3-6 months out  Their concern is varying food costs.  Negotiate for the best arrangement
  • Most facilities want guarantees 72 hours in advance of the function.  Alternatively you can often arrange a guarantee of 72 hours in advance with an adjustment – upwards, at 48 hours

This allows you to guarantee low and increase if necessary

Be sure to confirm how many seats they set over the guarantee

EG:  if you have a banquet for 1000 people.  Will they set 2% over or 5% over?  Is there a maximum they will agree to set over the guarantee number?

Food and Beverage Events:


  • Begin the day in a positive manner
  • Helps to have a cheerful location
  • Types of breakfast service to be considered

Full Service

  • Guests are seated and served at the same time
  • Often a combination of pre-set items and plated service
  • Juice, breakfast rolls fruit platter, etc. can be on the table when the attendee arrives
  • Hot items, main course served
  • This type of breakfast can include a speaker or program as part of the event


  • Often used if time, space and/or budget are limited
  • 1 waiter and separate buffet stations are needed for ever 100 attendees
  • It is important to keep the tables away from traffic areas, entrances and exits
  • Although a continental type breakfast is usually set up one hour approximately in advance of the meeting or session, most guests arrive 15 – 20 minutes before the start of the meeting
  • Juices, fruit, muffins and breakfast rolls, coffee and tea are the usual continental fare although you can include or interchange such things as individual yogurt cups, bagels, granola bars, etc
  • Many of your attendees will arrive just prior to the meeting start, choosing to have a full breakfast in their room before coming to the session or deciding to just grab a coffee instead to spending extra time to eat at a continental breakfast.
  • Past history will help the planner identify attendee habits and allow for more accurate guarantees for food.


  • A buffet breakfast allows the planner to serve more variety or a more elaborate breakfast than a continental service
  • It allows seating for the attendees but still allow for a staggered arrival at the function


Refreshment Breaks

  • As discussed when developing the meeting pattern, breaks allow attendees to relax, network, and renew their energy
  • Theme and healthy breaks are good alternatives to the coffee, juice and soft drinks
  • It is a good time to be creative


  • Ensure the break is set up about 15 minutes prior to the scheduled start
  • Ask the facility to put the cream, sugar, spoons, etc on a separate table away from the beverages – this helps the flow by moving people out of the way
  • The layout for a refreshment break is the same as for a continental breakfast
  • Morning breaks tend to be more for relaxation and networking
  • Expect about 60% to drink hot beverage (coffee or tea) in the morning
  • Afternoon breaks tend to be more of a rejuvenation break, to help attendees focus on the rest of the day
  • Expect about 35% to drink hot and 65% cold beverages in the afternoon
  • Individual juice and soft drinks work well because you can ask the facility to “charge on consumption”  reducing waste
  • Be creative – many facilities have a wide assortment of break options



  • Don’t over use buffets
  • They are slower service than plated meals – people need time to select what food they want
  • They are more expensive because more variety is requires;  portion sizes can not be controlled easily and surpluses need to be built into the cost to ensure adequate supply
  • Buffet set up takes some thought to make sure it flows smoothly
  • Buffet tables should never be placed close to the entrance
  • Sufficient space is required for service lines to accommodate the variety of food and the number of people to be served
  • For large groups, it helps to have people at the door directing people to various buffet lines
  • Multiple stations and lines on both sides of the buffet tables, helps service move faster
  • Put desserts on a separate table away from the rest of the buffet


Served Functions

  • Meal selection for a sit down function will depend on budget as well as the creativity of the catering manager and chef
  • Feel free to ask for a full explanation for how items are prepared
  • Ask for alternatives and suggestions if the selections available do not meet your expectations
  • Some foods can be better prepared for large numbers than others – get feedback from the catering manager or chef
  • If you are programming around a lunch or dinner, make sure the catering manager and banquet captains have an agenda for the event with precise timing:  running late can cause disaster in the kitchen for some foods


Meal Functions in General

  • There are a variety of serving options for various occasions
  • Pre-plated is common for most sit down events
  • Russian service might be used for a formal banquet
  • Family style for a more casual atmosphere
  • Watch what you serve!
  • Soup of the day – what is it ?
  • Fresh Market Vegetables… ensure the fresh market vegetables served at Monday’s luncheon are not the same as you had at Sunday’s dinner!!!
  • When selecting menus, you are looking for healthy varieties… different textures, different flavours, different presentations
  • Remember special needs!  Vegetarian; diabetic, gluten free, allergies and other dietary restrictions must be considered.  Discuss this with the facility to see what they can do.

Cocktail parties and Receptions

  • Today alcohol is limited – for the most part – to evening events
  • It is not a good idea to serve wine or alcohol during the day, when you want participants alert and attentive for program speakers
  • Many organizations do not offer complimentary alcoholic beverages at all, based on the belief that if someone wants to drink they can pay for it themselves
  • This can be a challenge when working with facilities as most facilities place a minimum on drinks sold per bar or bartender.  If the minimum dollar amount is not reached the organization must pay bartender time
  • Unless otherwise specified house brands will normally be used on the bar(s)
  • As the meeting planner, you must clarify what will be served and what the price includes

Having said this, host bars still do exist and as a meeting professional it is important to know the methods available to plan and pay for social events in which liquor is served

Cash Bar:               participant pays for his/her own beverage

                              Use ticket purchase or pays bartender directly

Host Bar:                the organization or sponsor pays for the beverages

                              Host bars can be charged a number of different ways

1.     On a per person basis

  • The organization pays a flat amount per person regardless whether the attendee drinks liquor, wine, beer or soft drinks.  The price is usually established for the duration of the event
  • The per person price may include snacks or hors d’oeuvres as well
  • Organization may be charged per guest based on a guarantee or the number of tickets collected at the door

2.     On a per drink basis

  • The organization pays for the drinks served including tax and gratuities
  • For larger events arrange to have tickets for drinks and only pay for the number of tickets collected by the bar staff – this avoids any question as to amount served
  • Some facilities charge for the number of drink tickets you take to use instead of those actually used.  They do this because they believe they can be used at a later date at some other function and want to avoid this.  To solve this problem, many organizations make their own drink ticket (with their conference theme and logo). 

3.     On a per bottle basis

  • The organization pays for the bottles opened whether or not any beverage has been poured from the bottle or not
  • The meeting planner controls the inventory of the number of bottles present before the party and the number remaining at the close
  • The stubs or partial bottles become the property of the organization at the end of the event but local liquor laws may govern what use can be made of them
  • This method is usually less expensive than per drink but also more work for the planner

Of course, you can also have a combination of Cash and Host Bar. Attendees may receive 1 or 2 complimentary drink tickets and then pay cash for any additional beverages.

Needless to say liquor consumption is generally higher at a host bar than a cash bar set up

Entertainment and Décor

Special touches round out the program in an effort to make it a truly memorable experience

There are a number of considerations when planning entertainment and décor

  • What type of entertainment will suit the variety of delegates at the conference??
  • Where do you want and need to use entertainment to give the overall program a lift?
  • How much can you spend on entertainment and décor = set a budget?
  • How do you go about finding the right entertainment and décor for you meeting?

Entertainment and Décor can be found in a variety ways

  • Destination management companies
  • Local event planners
  • Entertainment agencies
  • Show display companies
  • Convention bureaus
  • Hotels and other facilities
  • Local arts groups

Ask around – you may be surprised at what you find

It is important to remember that every destination has local entertainers, good entertainers and these people are less expensive that entertainment brought in from somewhere else

Every destination also has festivals, and events that their region is noted for.  It is also very likely they have props and decorations to compliment these festivals.  They can often be rented or borrowed very economically.

The key is to tie everything together to make the conference memorable

Entertainment is also very important in less obvious ways

  • Sight acts – clowns, buskers, etc wandering the trade show floor create interest in quiet areas which benefit the exhibitors in that area

Décor does not have to be elaborate and expensive

In a large room you can spend a fortune on décor or you can create a comparative effect in an economic manner

For example:

  • AV is often already available from previous sessions and pictures or graphics  can cover a lot of area and create a lot of atmosphere
  • Lighting alone can also enhance the space and the use of coloured gels and gobos is very effective
  • Table décor does not have to be flowers or balloons – it can be just about anything.
  • At one of my conferences we did a space odyssey theme:  we put galaxies on the large screens;  used gobos of stars on coloured lights focused on the walls and dance floor, used black table cloths; had the wait staff all in black and used long glow necklaces of all different colours in bud vases supplied by the hotel as the centre pieces… very inexpensive but stunning and effective.
  • All it takes is a little creativity and imagination

Special Events

Special events can be held within the property you are using or off site

  • Getting out of the property and going to a different venue can be exciting and memorable for the attendee
  • An outside event is also time consuming and more complicated
  • You may have to worry about the facility, the catering, transportation to and from the venue, extra equipment maybe be required (tables, chairs, even electrical generators, refrigeration, portable washrooms etc.)

In the end, it is important to decide if it is worth the extra work involved – and in many cases it is