Planners are from Mars, chefs are from Venus (or in this case, Venues!)
I recently sat down with Toronto meeting and event manager Tina Aprile, CMP, who works in a popular downtown Toronto hotel. Wanting perspective from the venue side, I hoped to discuss some of my grievances when it comes to food and beverage.
ML: What is the main disconnect that you experience between planners and venues when it comes to F+B?
TA: It comes down to priorities and expectations. Many of the decisions that planners (and clients) see as coming from the venue are really made by the chef. An executive chef at a hotel has a huge mandate, often overseeing both banquet and restaurant kitchens, managing labour operations, constantly tracking food costs and remaining flexible to modify due to environmental factors. Most of all, chefs regard themselves as artists that value their creative expression over logistics. Planners, on the other hand, prioritize logistics, attendee experience and client preferences. When goals align, it’s wonderful. However most of the time this is not the case, and frustration is experienced.
ML: Sometimes menu items are selected and the client has approved. Then when you get to the actual event, the chef has made substitutions. To the client, it looks like neither the planner nor the catering contact has communicated clearly.
TA: At times when the chef comes up with a menu, it is in concept only and is presented to the client before the chef has tested it. The chef will then make the dish and realize that the concept doesn’t translate as they hoped, and they try to elevate the dish. Another reason can be once the event approaches, the chef will often make substitutions based on locality of product as well as seasonality. The chef would rather serve something that tastes better than serve what was originally proposed. My advice would be to communicate to your catering contact beforehand that you don’t want the menu to vary from what is agreed upon. Ask them to communicate this to the chef when asking for a menu to ensure the chef is providing ingredients that don’t often run into the problems of seasonality.
ML: I can get frustrated at the way dishes are described on menus. The descriptions are written in gourmet language. However, if I have to look up every third word to explain the dish to the client, it gets annoying.
TA: There are many people who attend functions that consider themselves “foodies.” They want to eat with their eyes first, and that starts with the wording on the menu. “Mayo” does not sound as impressive or appetizing as “aioli.” Again, it speaks to the chef’s creative expression. Requests to simplify their menus or wording are insulting to a chef. Here, a catering manager can help to bridge the communication, balancing the chef’s feelings with the planner or client’s expectations.
ML: When I’m planning a multi-day program, the published themed breaks seem restrictive. There are not enough options and not as many healthy options.
TA: Meeting packages are usually designed for one to three days of meetings. Five-day meetings are no longer the norm. If you want different options, ask. Catering managers and chefs usually have more options than are published in banquet menus and will gladly share those if requested. Knowing how much you can spend on breaks is a great starting point for making more options available. Don’t be restricted by the printed menu. The sky (and your budget) is the limit.
ML: It bugs me when banquet menus for certain venues that are posted online are either out of date or don’t show pricing. Planners often look at those to build preliminary budgets or sometimes even to select a property.
TA: I can see how that could happen. From a banquet perspective, food costs fluctuate so frequently (sometimes every day!). If online menu updates had to be made with every change, updating menus could easily become a full-time job. However, venues that don’t publish costing or venues that don’t post their seasonal updates can improve on that front. They need to appreciate that it is important to a planner and can influence buying and budget decisions.
ML: On a related note, some online menus don’t publish vegetarian options – especially for plated meals. I think they should be published.
TA: I agree with you! Catering to dietary preferences has become the industry norm, and it should be reflected in banquet menus. As a planner, if you’re not seeing vegetarian options, tell the venue! By not posting, timelines are impacted because there’s more back-and-forth discussion that needs to happen to create the menu than if the information was readily available for selection.
ML: Any final thoughts that you think planners should take away?
- If you are providing printed menu cards on the tables for the attendees, don’t print the vegetarian options. Don’t! Please! In a kitchen, it’s a banquet’s worst nightmare if suddenly people suddenly decide to be vegetarian for the night.
- If you want the planning stage to be quicker, and easier, be upfront with your budget. Tell the catering manager how much you have to spend per meal, and it saves a lot of headache and time.
- Appreciate the chef’s talent and expertise, but communicate your expectations in terms of level of comfort with menu changes, attendee tastes and client preferences.