The Art of the Working Lunch

Keeping the meeting moving through mealtime

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.

Lunches served on the trade show floor should be easy (no cutting; little mess) for participants to consume while negotiating the aisles. But choices don’t have to be limited to ham and Swiss or turkey on rye.
    The aim should be to please all in the crowd, including carb-cutters and vegans. Following are some flavorful suggestions from Nancy Murgillo, director of catering at the San Diego Convention Center. When served with veggie crudites (green salads can be a challenge to handle here, although potato or macaroni salads are manageable) and easy-to-eat desserts (like brownies and cookies), these meals will prove perfect for diners on the run.

" Grilled vegetable wraps: Zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, sprouts, roasted tomatoes and Romaine lettuce rolled up in a whole wheat tortilla

" High-protein chicken wraps: Grilled marinated chicken breast with roasted tomatoes, sprouts, shredded Swiss cheese and Romaine lettuce rolled up in a whole wheat tortilla

" Low-carb antipasto for two: A selection of rolled sliced meats, rolled strips of smoked salmon, herbed boiled eggs and bite-size grilled vegetables

" Steak sandwich: New York strip steak on low-carb hoagie roll, split in half, with lettuce and tomato

" Mushroom wrap: Marinated grilled portobello mushroom with sun-dried tomato, black olive spread and smoked chicken in an herbed tortilla. - L.G.

The trade show lunch
Once attendees are at the show, the objectives are to keep them there and keep them moving along the aisles and booths. Lunches, if done right, can help planners achieve these goals.
    " Plot the floor plan. Typically, food is set up in a designated F&B area on the perimeter of the show. But to increase flow through the booths, place buffets strategically throughout the floor, with one for drinks, one for cold foods, one for hot foods and one for desserts, advises Anderson.
    To help a firm promote traffic at one recent show, Nancy Murgillo, director of catering for the San Diego Convention Center, recommended themed stations with different types of food spread through the aisles. And for an added touch: “The attendees each got passports, which were stamped at each station; when they got all the stamps, they were eligible for a prize drawing at the end of the lunch,” Murgillo says. 
    " Go for quality. Good food presented well can drive business, even when delegates are paying for their own lunches. For an annual conference of the Reston, Va.-based International Technology Education Association, planner Susan Perry worked with Aramark, the in-house caterer for the Albuquerque (N.M.) Convention Center, to present a delicious, reasonably priced ($8.50) Southwestern theme buffet on the trade show floor that would keep her teachers from leaving the hall to “go across street to a Subway,” she says. The meal was so successful, Perry is trying to arrange a similar plan for next year’s program.
    " Limit seating. Most pros agree the best arrangement for trade show lunches are standing cocktail rounds with just a few stools. “You don’t want people sitting down,” says Susan Perry. Limiting seating, she adds, “forces people to grab something quick and then see who they want to” at the booths.
    " Stretch the clock. Extend the lunch hour to accommodate exhibitors as well as attendees, says Perry. For example, if attendees are in sessions until 11:45 a.m., start the lunch at 11:30; if sessions start again at 1 p.m., have food served through 1:30. Otherwise, Perry says, the exhibitors won’t be able to get away from their booths to grab a bite.

The networking lunch
For events where attendees are meant to mingle, create an atmosphere conducive to interaction.
    " Line up. Bucom’s Diane Anderson prefers informal buffets when networking is on the agenda. “The guests can move around and sit with whomever they want,” she notes.
    " Serve family-style. Nancy Murgillo of the San Diego Convention Center says family-style lunches, where platters of food such as fried chicken, corn on the cob and mashed potatoes have to be shared, are excellent for networking. And Ritz-Carlton’s Annie Boutin King says even formal meals can be made more sociable with a family-style dessert. “Put a platter of miniature pastries or some other type of dessert that has to be passed from guest to guest, and people really get social with their fellow tablemates,” she says.
    " First talk, then listen. When speakers or awards are on the agenda, Diane Anderson recommends adding a prelunch reception, so attendees who need to catch up can chat first and then be attentive during the presentation.
    " Pick a topic. Other times, planners might want attendees to talk throughout the meal, but on a particular subject. In those instances, points out Skamania Lodge’s Kim Bosche, be sure to have signs on the table that spell out the discussion topic. “Otherwise, they might forget why they are there and start drifting into other conversations,” she says.

The working lunch
When every second counts and there’s little time to break for a midday meal, many groups opt for a working lunch.
    " Stay simple. Don’t serve three-course meals in a meeting room. In general, it’s best to set up food outside the meeting room. This gives attendees the chance to stretch their legs and helps keeps food smells out of the workroom, notes Diane Anderson.
    " Keep the door closed. For confidential meetings, food may have to be set up early in the day in the meeting room to prevent interruptions later on. Best bets are a cold deli buffet or a variety of cold sandwiches. Anderson suggests putting a service stand in the room, where participants can put their used plates. Planners also can request a server to wait outside to take care of any last-minute needs.
    " Box it up. Boxed lunches are a good low-cost alternative to buffets for working lunches, says Bosche. She recommends that several types be available i.e., meat, low-fat, veggie to accommodate different eating styles.