• Lauralee Shapiro

Save Money On Conference Catering Costs

Think about the last conference or event you attended.  What do you remember most about the experience?  Most people will say it was the food. The room can be nice, the golfing great but if the food was good, you will remember that the most. If the food was horrible, you will tell everyone you know about it. 

In many cases, the food and beverage portion of a conference budget is in the top three expenditures, along with room and audio-visual.  Here are some suggestions on how to get the most value for your food and beverage dollars and create a positive and memorable experience for your attendees.

Meals – Buffet and Plated

As a general rule, buffet menus are more expensive than plated menus.  The reason for this is that every item on the buffet is prepared as if every attendee will eat that dish. For example, if you have 100 people in your group and there are five items on the buffet menu, the quantities prepared assume that all 100 people will eat all five items.  Many times, the planner will ask the kitchen to take off some of the items in an attempt to reduce the costs only to learn that the cost really does not change significantly.  That is because, you are still feeding 100 people; they are not going to eat less, just fewer choices.  To save money, see if you can substitute a higher priced item for a more economical item. 

This substitution rule holds true for plated menus.  If you want to serve surf and turf, change the filet and lobster tail for a skirt steak and shrimps on a skewer.

The set up of the buffet can make or break an experience.  Always try to have it set double-sided if the room size will permit this.  No one likes to wait in line for 20 minutes to fill their plate when it is single sided.  Also try to have the utensils rolled up in the napkins so that there is less clutter on the table. This works especially well when the attendees will come on a flow basis as opposed to all at one time.  Again, if the location size will allow for the meal to be spread out set up the plates and utensils at one table, the salads at another, the entrees and side dishes on the main line and then have a separate station for coffee and desserts.  This makes the experience feel more interactive for the guests. It will also alleviate long lines at any one station.

Should you add more to the menu?  The answer is quite simply…that depends!  Trust the chefs and catering managers on their recommendations.  They are professionals and do this ALL THE TIME.  However, it is also important to know your group.  Are they light eaters or heavy eater?  Are they real “meat and potato” kind of folks or are they health conscious?  If you know you have a number of vegetarians or vegans, be sure you have options for them. Food allergies are also becoming more and more prevalent and should always be asked about early on in the registration process so you can plan accordingly. 

If you want to add an extra dish, an action station is usually the best bet.  Try to add something that will offer a food group that is not already on the main menu.  Stations such as a pasta station (be sure to offer both a red and cream sauce for those who are lactose intolerant), or carving a roast, turkey or ham.  An Asian Stir-Fry station preparing veggies, rice and / or noodle dishes is also nice. For breakfasts, an omelet stations is always a hit. One of the best things about adding a “station” is that it engages the guests and the hotel associate; makes them feel like more than just a cook or chef. They are now helping to create an experience for the guest and they like that.  Stations also add to the atmosphere of the event and can be decorated to incorporate a theme if one is used for the meal.

Don’t be afraid to add an action station for a plated dinner.  Have a coffee station set up so the guests will get up and stretch and mingle, then head over to an interactive dessert station.  How about offering a variety of fresh fruit for the healthy people, mini donuts for those less health conscious and then to top it off, have a chocolate fountain to cover your fruit with?  Having a chef fire up some Crème Brûlée is also a great interactive dessert station.  Again, consult your catering manager; they know what has been successful at their property and can make great suggestions.  Chefs by nature are creative people.  They really do like it when a planner says they don’t want the regular banquet menus.


As a general guideline, plan on serving 3-4 pieces per person, per hour for a reception.  You have a variety of both hot and cold choices for canapés and hors D’oeuvres.  If the reception is going to be their dinner, add on some items with substance or maybe a pasta or stir fry station.  If you have expensive items like jumbo shrimp or mini lamb chops, have them passed to avoid “campers” who stand in front of the food and eat it all.  Having some of the items passed will help keep your costs down because you won’t run out and have to order more, everyone theoretically will have the opportunity to have some and the passing service adds a touch of elegance to the event.

The Bar

Should you provide a hosted bar by the hour, a cash bar or be billed on consumption?

1. Best bet is most generally consumption. This means you are paying for exactly what was served. Which by the way, you can limit what is offered at the bar. You can set it up to be just beer, wine, and sodas.

2. By-The-Hour is only good if you know that the majority of your group members will order the higher priced cocktails and wine or if they are heavy drinkers.  (Some companies do not consider this to be socially responsible anymore.)

3. Another good control is to offer the first hour as paid by the company/organization/etc and then change to a cash bar for the remaining hour(s). Or, if it is a casual affair, give your guests drink tickets to use. Agree before hand with the hotel/caterer on the price for each turned in ticket. For example, if the highest price of a drink is $9.00 and the lowest one is $4.00, suggest that the “flat ticket” price be $5.00 to $5.50. Thus you control the bar cost and after the tickets are used, the guests can pay as they go.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my good friend, a conference service manager extraordinaire, Ms. Torre Newman.  Torre and I worked together many years ago (I was in sales and she serviced my groups.)  She has worked at seven hotels in her career over a geographic area that covers the Caribbean, Florida and Washington DC.  She is a true professional and my “go to” person when I have catering questions. Every planner needs a “Torre” in their life and I am grateful to have mine!


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