by Louise M. Felsher, CMP, CMM | April 01, 2007

Organizing memorable and practical meals requires a lot more thought and effort than simply selecting food and beverage. Cutting-edge planners break away from the comfort traps -- round tables in the dining area, mind-numbing buffet offerings, rigid time schedules -- to make meals an enhancement to the event, rather than a feeding frenzy.

Stretch Timing

Many attendees have to call in to their offices during lunch breaks or have been up so early that by 11 a.m. and again at 5 p.m., they are starving. If lunch or dinner doesn’t include specific content or entertainment -- and the ballroom or dining area is not being used for functions other than meals -- try stretching the lunch period from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

For times when a session will be held or a speaker will give a presentation during a meal, make sure attendees know in advance the specific time of the event to allow them to eat before or after at their own discretion. (Note: Stretching meal hours is not as costly as one would imagine; labor costs should not change, as they are generally calculated by type of service and number of attendees.)

Pros: Fewer crowds, more opportunity to network. Your vendors/exhibitors, busy attendees and all the early birds in the group will thank you.

Cons: Keeping food fresh, hot and restocked will be more of a challenge for the banqueting staff.

Shift Seating

The look and setup of the dining area can enhance the goals and objectives of an event. If the conference is meant to generate sales leads, consider creating mini-office lunch rooms scattered about a ballroom. These areas can be set up with desks, computers and swivel chairs instead of traditional rounds (be aware that this will bump your budget up by about 10 percent, but if you factor in a working lunch, you are essentially merging content and meal costs).

When the purpose of the event is to promote socializing, creativity and the exchange of ideas, a more relaxed meal vibe is called for. Mix it up by furnishing club-style seating: couches, ottomans and cocktail tables (again, this will cost more than traditional room setups).

For events with larger budgets, theme the lunch or dinner. One idea: a lakeside picnic, created by decorating a ballroom with a faux pond, faux grass and checkered tablecloths; serve picnic foods (sandwiches, chips, brownies) from colorful picnic baskets. Or create several themed areas throughout the rooms with beach cabanas, tropical tiki huts, igloos made out of foam or tents. All these items can be sourced through event decor or production firms; rental costs typically run from $50 (tents) to $500 (luxury cabanas). Besides decor, these themed events require more labor and more time to set up.

Pros: Ambience will help you reach and exceed your goals by influencing how attendees react and feel within their surroundings.

Cons: If you get the ambience wrong, it could have a negative effect on your goals and objectives. And, as noted, it will increase costs.

Tweak Cuisine

Jump-start a meal by putting chefs in the middle of the room in an open kitchen and have them cook up crowd-friendly, fresh fare, such as tapas (Spanish snacks like mini tortilla omelets, empa-nadas and paella) or panini.
Be sure to offer traditional foods to sate the fussy eaters in your group. Don’t forget to include options that address specific dietary requirements, such as low-sodium and vegetarian dishes.

Pros: You’ll have happy, impressed, alert attendees.

Cons: There are always a few who are never happy with food, regardless of choices.

Louise M. Felsher, CMP, CMM,is a marketing event consultant based in California’s Silicon Valley.