Getting the food and drink ‘right’ for your event can open the door to better connections, explains Lisa Gareau
My mom was one of the most consistent and caring everyday event planners I’ve ever known. If you’d go for a visit – even now that she’s in her nineties – she’d probably serve you a piece of angel food cake and want to start a deep conversation. And, if you know what’s good for you, you won’t say “no” to either!
I heard the term “radical hospitality” years after experiencing the hospitality my mom showed in our home, and I started to understand. She didn’t just welcome those we knew and loved into our home. She threw the door wide open to those with a different experience of life. The meal served became a way of breaking down barriers and building bridges.
Hospitality Isn’t an Inside Job
The idea of welcoming strangers into a family home isn’t new.
In fact, it’s one of the oldest, most precious practices that helps a society suspend its own needs and agenda for something more basic and beautiful. In our fast-paced world, the idea of an unexpected phone call can be an unwelcome disruption – let alone the thought of an unexpected guest at our door looking for food, drink, and shelter for the night.
I traveled the world in my younger years and experienced the warm welcome of open-hearted hosts ready to open their doors to a weary, wide-eyed, 20-something me.
What struck me was that their ability to make me feel welcome wasn’t based on their socioeconomic status, their ability to provide the “perfect” meal, or their culinary prowess in the kitchen. Rich conversation and real connection were on the menu, and it was baked into my memory of the whole meal!
Over the years I grew in my understanding of hospitality and that it goes far beyond the food, drink, and table settings we choose. Hospitality isn’t an inside job. It’s an opportunity to reach out to our teams, guests, or participants so they feel seen, heard, and considered in our event plans.
Now, as an event coach, it’s essential for me to join others on their journey – wherever they are at. The type of hospitality I now subscribe to focuses on the fact that events can become a way to serve our teams, clients, customers, or community and create connections.
This perspective became a key ingredient in the support I choose to offer those planning events for their businesses, organizations, or groups. It is this passion that led me to add “with you on the planning journey” to my email signature – and I mean it!
Catering’s Not My Cup of Tea
Confession: Handling the food and beverage aspect of an event is one of my least favourite and most stressful tasks on my to-do list.
I recently launched an online mastermind for event planners called the REDI Room. As part of this important initiative, I created Candy’s 12 Event Elements of Event Planning and Promotion, which has become a “reality check” list for members looking to get real on where their event planning strengths and sore spots lie.
In one of our first meetings, I asked the members to choose their top 3 areas of strength. Doing this exercise feels great, as it helps us own where we feel confident in our work, and we get affirmation from our peers.
The second part of the exercise is to identify 3 areas that we find challenging. I joined the group in the exercise and checked off both my areas of strength and those where I felt challenged.
Element #7 on the list is “Food & Beverage with a Flair”. The words were jumping off the page, and I decided to do my own “reality check”. I checked off #7, feeling a little sheepish that something so important would be an area of weakness for me – especially with a mother who personified what it looked like to prepare and present a beautiful meal.
Sharing this reality with the group was both frightening and freeing. What would they think of me and my ability to lead the discussion? What assumptions would they make about my background and event expertise?
What I found was the group was happy to discuss their experience planning the food and drink aspects for their meetings, events, conferences, and gatherings. There was no judgement; rather, a discussion bloomed around how important it is to learn and grow in the areas we find challenging.
Creative teacher and author of The Artist’s Way Julia Cameron shares, “It is self-expression, not self-scrutiny and ‘correction’, that brings healing and happiness.” I believe when we give voice to our areas of weakness, we can shed the shame and start solution-finding through the challenges we face in our planning.
Embracing the Impact of Food and Drink
Even if arranging catering isn’t your cup of tea, getting the food and drink “right” for your event can open the door to better connections. And what planner wouldn’t want to create better connections within their team, with special guests, or among their conference participants?
Here are some connection-worthy catering considerations that will help you create meaningful “connection points” at your next meeting, event, conference, or gathering!
Imagine where your guests might linger to refresh their drink, recharge with food, or reconnect with colleagues. Set your surfaces up for food and drink service in areas that will feel like natural gathering places for your guests.
Understand your audience and apply your budget to create food or drink experiences they’ll love! Make sure to save some money to accommodate interactive food displays or rotating stations.
Get creative with your tables or food stations by integrating elements from your theme into the food presentation. Even a small meeting can have a key focus area where the lunch transforms into a conversation piece!
Imagine what will satisfy your guests – a fun snack station or a full buffet set-up. Be sure to explore local producers and in-season menu options, and consider any dietary restrictions or preferences that will help your guests feel considered.
If the way to your team’s heart is through their stomachs…splurge! It might be worth cutting costs on other elements to show your team that you care through your catering choices. To avoid menu missteps for a meeting, send out a message to see what kind of entrees or options would entice them to attend.
Even affordable food options can be plated on interesting trays or presented on lovely linens. Even if the quantity of food is the goal (just fill them up!), be sure to ground your food presentation in the quality of the experience. Our guests need to eat, but as a planner, you can also design the experience so your guests can enjoy the food in new ways!
If your event starts early, strong coffee might be the drink of choice. If your event is in the evening, getting creative with cocktails – or mocktails – might be the perfect way to wake your guests up to the experience! Just be sure when they arrive at your drink station, they feel like someone cared enough to make them feel at home.
Consider what drinks will pair well with both the food and the experience you’ve created. Then invest in enhancing the experience first, and the enjoyment of the drinks will follow. Map out your consumption and manage your spending with staggered drink service if your budget is tight.
Even a coffee station can become an interactive space for connection when thoughtfully designed. Imprint quotes on drink napkins, embed giveaway codes under cup lids, or add trivia to the tea station. No effort to “beautify” their experience of your beverage station will go unnoticed!
Events are “connection points” where our communities can gather and grow. Like kids, our guests are motivated to gather around food and will grow in their knowledge of others as they wait for the food to be served or for the buffet line to advance.
It doesn’t take more money to have a positive impact. It takes a commitment to be more intentional in your planning. Make a list of your catering “non-negotiables”; then allow yourself to add high-impact food and drink items like locally made truffles (yes, that’s on my wish list for every event) or an entertaining bar attendant who will make your guests feel welcome.
When you see your guests excited to gather and consistently growing through the events you plan, you will also become more excited and motivated to keep planning more meaningful connections. And that’s a beautiful thing!
Hospitality That Shines for Everyone
Arranging the food and drink for your events may not be your cup of tea, or it may be what gets you up in the morning and excited for work!
Either way, taking on the role of planner means embracing the role hospitality can play in creating better connections with our teams, guests, or conference participants.
The events you are planning might be a fun way to put your project management skills to work or showcase your creativity, but always remember that your event can’t breathe behind closed doors.
It’s time to lay out the welcome mat, swing open the doors, and show the guests we care through the food and drink we choose to serve!