Plan ahead to make culinary events and receptions safe, comfortable and enjoyable for all attendees.

Integral parts of any event is dining and receptions. Not only are they terrific ways to network, but to relax after a day filled with meetings. The last year has made us pivot and change how event attendees mingle, but that is not to say it cannot be done safely and with integrity.

For some, the new protocols equate to an improved and even more elegant overall experience.

"I realized that by sitting with four people at the table, you actually have a chance to talk to more people than with rounds of 10, where you usually only talk to one or two people," one attendee recently shared in a post-event survey after ALHI's Leadership Summit event at The Cloister at Sea Island. "I also realized that the cafeteria-style that has taken over buffet is actually more elegant!"

When she was planning and executing events across the U.S., Katie Bohrer, CMP, ALHI Vice President, Meeting Design & Experience kept attendees' health and safety, as well as experiences, top of mind. First and foremost, she urges planners to utilize open air and outdoor spaces as much as possible. With the winter months settling in, time outdoors may be limited, but there are still ways to host attendees safely and comfortably.

As we continue to navigate COVID-19, here are two rules of thumb to keep in mind for every event:

  • Ensure a minimum of six feet of distance in all furniture set ups, meal functions, session designs, line queues and elevators
  • Provide signage throughout the venue and in meeting spaces that reminds the group of guidelines, mask protocols and a minimum of six feet distancing

Food Service

Make it easy: Consider programming more plated meals into your event rather than stations, and remove shared condiments from all tables at every meal period.

Limited Numbers: If you are hosting a group meal, there are several considerations to keep in mind. First, limit seating at rounds to three per 66-inch tables, or four to 72-inch tables. Next, use assigned seating and strategic organization to rotate the group around at different events and to allow the group to meet different attendees at each function.  

May I Have Your Attention, Please: Appointing a host or emcee is a terrific way to talk to attendees through the service style to ensure they understand what's happening. For instance, the emcee can release tables to buffets to minimize the number of attendees standing and moving at once. Or, she can direct the attendees to be seated before placing and receiving their drink orders. Starting an event with a dining host or emcee will simplify the process, and following the same format at each dining event will "train" groups to easily experience each.

Quiet On The Set: If you are providing entertainment at dining events, Katie suggests keeping the volume lower than usual to discourage raised voices at the dinner table while masks are off.


The traditional reception event is challenging to host keeping all safety measures in mind. Serving butler-passed trays of food and drinks creates a situation wherein attendees must be responsible for their own distancing and observing pre-set protocols, and it adds pressure to the attendees to police themselves. In these situations, oftentimes attendees will revert to habit and stop being distanced, take masks off, and some attendees will start to feel uncomfortable.

Katie says that as event organizers, any situation where the responsibility is fully on the attendee is a signal that planners should replace or readjust the design of that event, like receptions. "When it doubt, take it out," she said. "Or even better, design something innovative and new that allows your guests to network and relax knowing that they are within safety protocols."

Here are some of her socially distanced networking and reception ideas: 

Stay Seated: Rather than mingling and moving around a room like we have done in the past, she suggests alternative opportunities for smaller groups to network through assigned seating and tableside food and drink. Or, consider programming that changes rooms between service to provide an opportunity for attendees to meet and network with other attendees. A food service idea for this type of reception may be an individual plate of a selection of hors d'oeuvres that would have previously been butler passed, served with a drink.

Open Air: If a reception is hosted, it should be held outside if possible, and the rules of engagement should be adjusted. An increase in the number of bars and food stations beyond what would be standard for the group size should be set up to eliminate lines. And, for a better flow, add ropes, stanchions and floor markers to direct attendees and encourage distancing.

Keep Your Distance: Rather than mingling with a plate in one hand and a drink in the other - quite the juggling act anyway - ask guests to distance themselves and be seated when enjoying their food and drinks. Katie advises all set ups should be distanced (at least six feet) so that attendees can comfortably sit down without the worry of if they are distanced enough. You will also want to ensure that there is enough seating for everyone so that attendees don't find themselves having to wander around to find a seat.

Additional planning resources, some of which we have referenced here in Safe Meetings, are available through the Events Industry Council, which has curated event protocol resources from across the industry. Review them here.

We are committed to updating these guidelines as CDC and WHO guidelines evolve so we can maintain the highest level of compliance and safety considerations in our meetings.

photo credit @Clint Brewer