by Lisa Grimaldi | November 01, 2004

Place settingMost of the time, lunch is a respite from a busy day of work. But when it comes to the world of meetings and conventions, it’s not at all unusual for a speaker presentation, a networking conclave, a trade show or simply a work session to run through the traditional midday meal hours.
Therein lies the challenge for planners. How can you get the most bang for your baguette at a working lunch? Following are tips from the pros.

The speaker lunch
There’s more to these events than hiring an appropriate presenter or choosing appetizing dishes, say experts. Among other elements to consider:
    " Preset tables. The preset table has two functions: to expedite the meal and to limit the servers (and hence the disruption) in the room. Accordingly, have drinks, such as water and iced tea, and some courses preset.
    “Seated lunches usually are three courses,” notes Diane Anderson, business development manager for Chicago-based meeting firm Bucom International and formerly catering manager at the Waldorf=Astoria in New York City. Along with waiter-served warm main courses, Anderson says, “I would do a preset cold appetizer and dessert.”
    Some menu considerations for the preset table: no soups, as they’ll get cold, says Kim Bosche, senior conference sales manager at the Dolce Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Wash. “And for dessert, make sure it will hold up well. Stay away from ice cream or pie à la mode; cakes and tortes are better choices,” Bosche advises.
    To prevent preset tables from looking crowded, Anderson recommends asking the banquet manager to use smaller plates than normal  for example, bread plates for dessert.
    " Stage a speedy cleanup. Most pros interviewed for this article prefer the speaker to commence during dessert. Ergo, waitstaff should clear the appetizer and main course plates prior to dessert service, so movement and noise are kept to a minimum during the presentation. It also will help keep the meal moving, notes Susan Perry, CAE, president of The Perry Group, a meeting planning firm in Alexandria, Va., as the slowpokes will notice that “if they don’t finish in time, they simply won’t have their plates cleared” before dessert and the speaker.
    Another way to avoid dishes clattering during the presentation, says Diane Anderson, is to offer coffee preset in thermal carafes that can be poured by either the waitstaff or the guests themselves.
    For very formal lunches, where preset courses are out of the question, be sure to have enough servers on hand at least two per every three tables to quickly deliver and clear the courses, says Annie Boutin King, director of catering at the Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C.
    " Send an appetizing message. When it comes to selecting a lunchtime speaker, Esther Eagles, president of South Orange, N.J.-based Eagles Talent Connection Inc., urges planners to “keep it light.”
    “This is not the time for a high-content speech or heavy-duty keynoter; this is typically a more relaxing time,” says Eagles. “Good speakers particularly sports stars or well-known coaches can tie general business messages on team building or leadership with humor.”
    With typical lunches lasting 60 to 90 minutes, keep the speaker on for no more than 45 minutes, suggests Eagles. She also recommends steering clear of a question-and-answer period, as it can drag on.
    " Keep it loud and clear. A good sound system is essential. Eagles recommends renting upgraded audio equipment if the property’s setup is inadequate. “People start chattering or slipping out when they can’t hear well,” she says.
    " Clear the sight lines. Make sure the speaker can be seen. Don’t keep him or her too far from the audience; if the room does not allow a good view from the majority of seats, have large video screens set up near areas with limited views, recommends Anderson.
    " Build in personal time. If attendees know they’ll have 10 to 15 extra minutes to handle personal matters (rest rooms, e-mail, phone calls) after the speaker finishes and prior to the next round of sessions, they’re more likely to stay put.