Changing the Menu
Editor’s note: This article first published in the June 2023 State of the Industry Special Edition of Beyond the Meeting Room, ALHI’s printed magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication focused on sharing compelling, inspirational and educational stories from beyond the four walls of a meeting room.
Sandy Rasque, a meeting planner in Anaheim, California, has gotten creative with menu planning as high food prices are hiking the cost of events.
These days, she gravitates to make-your-own-plate style menus, with a variety of hot and cold dishes, to simplify menus and keep costs down. And when she does so, she’s choosing “super clean” menu items, keeping vegetables separate from meat and meat separate from sauces, and eliminating dairy entirely, so those with special dietary needs and preferences can easily make a meal to accommodate them.
“It puts the control back in the hands of the attendee,” Rasque said.
Her budget-consciousness extends to planning refreshments at breaks. With the cost of coffee very high, Rasque tries to avoid serving it altogether when she can.
“Many people aren’t drinking coffee now, and we can go with bottled sparkling water at most of the events we do now,” she said. “We don’t even add sodas anymore when we do group events because that adds a lot of costs, and you have to have a number of different kinds. You’re really guessing how many people will be drinking sodas, and that number has dwindled so much that no one blinks when we don’t bring anything other than water and iced tea.”
Hospitality professionals looking for ways to trim food and beverage costs at events are simplifying menus, keepings items separate to better allow for dietary needs and avoiding plated meals when they can.
A Shifting Market
Rasque is far from alone among hospitality professionals in finding creative ways to stretch tight budgets at a time the cost of eggs, butter, meat and other staples remains daunting—and, at the same time, many organizers and attendees are following trends that may add to their overhead, like buying local, sustainable food and catering to special diets.
“I consistently get the question, ‘How do I lower pricing?’” said Michael Dominguez, President and CEO of Associated Luxury Hotels International.
The good news, Dominguez said, is that inflation, while running at a 20-year high, is slowing down. But there’s another factor keeping food and beverage costs high that hasn’t yet abated.
“Our industry has grown wages by 24% over the last three years, while all industries have grown wages by only 12%,” Dominguez said. “The number one cost of food and beverage is labor, not the food and beverage. Add that to the pricing of the food, and this is why you’re seeing higher food and beverage costs.”
It’s putting pressure on meeting professionals. Many find their stakeholders, expecting prices to return to 2019 levels, don’t fully understand the reasons they need to budget more.
24% / 12%
Hospitality industry increase in wages over the past three years compared with all industries.
Focus on Quality
“This is forcing everyone to ask themselves, ‘What is my value proposition?’” said Dominguez. “People will pay more for quality. We have to focus on the quality of the event itself. What are we delivering? What are the outcomes and objectives?”
In the meantime, many meeting professionals are looking hard for savings, scrutinizing daily menus. While many groups opt for a full breakfast on day one, said Dominguez, “by the time you get to day three, you’ve been fed every two hours and probably had a final gala. You can have some savings if you serve a lighter breakfast on the final day.”
Some associations are keeping costs down by opting to serve appetizers, rather than a full dinner.
“I’ve attended more receptions that don’t go as long or as late and just have some passed food and that’s it,” Dominguez said. “If you want more to eat or dinner, that’s when people are going on their own. I’m seeing that to be much more common.”
However, this approach won’t necessarily bring savings for corporate events. “A corporate group, even if they go out on their own, will still be putting it on corporate credit cards,” he said. “There’s no shift from a cost perspective.”
“What I see going on is the meeting and event industry is trying to go back to what it was and how they operated it. They’re ignoring there was such a massive change (and) they will have to keep adapting.”
Richard Parker, CEO, Plannernet
Finding Other Options
Organizers of larger meetings are sometimes opting for venues in second-tier cities to offset the high cost of food, according to Richard Parker, CEO of Plannernet, a provider of on-demand meeting and event professionals based in Princeton, New Jersey, that is seeing heightened demand as many turn to freelance labor to keep costs down. Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; Tampa, Florida; and San Antonio, Texas; are seeing rising demand, he said.
Most are avoiding plated meals when they can. “Plate costs are up tremendously,” Parker said.
They are also saving money by piggybacking on the menus of other organizations that are holding events at the same time. “It allows you to leverage your buying power,” Parker said. “It also reduces waste and contributes to sustainability.”
But many are struggling to cope with the new realities of the post-pandemic environment.
“What I see going on is the meeting and event industry is trying to go back to what it was and how they operated it,” Parker said. “They’re ignoring there was such a massive change they will have to keep adapting.”