One lesson every event planner should learn on day one is that the term “final count” has a very loose definition. The probability of your guest numbers holding steady from your RSVP deadline through to the day of your event is well, slim to none. The fact is there will always be late registrations and unannounced guests that appear unexpectedly. You can either drive yourself crazy trying to prevent it, or you can simply prepare for it as part of the job. If you choose the latter, then the tips below should help you survive the most common last minute food challenges.
Choose In-House Catering
There are several advantages to working with an in-house food provider, not the least of which is their ability to source, cook and serve food quickly. The resources that an in-house caterer has at their disposal make them the clear choice for groups who are notorious for spur of the moment needs. Sure, you can save a few bucks by bringing food into venues that allow it, but what happens when you need to setup a round table of 10 a few minutes before your event begins?
Include a Reserved Table
Speaking of setting up tables in a jiffy, it makes a lot more sense to have an additional table set specifically for unanticipated guests. Some venues charge an overset fee per table to do this, but the cost is usually well worth the amount of sanity it provides. Make sure you place a reserved sign on the table to prevent roaming guests from disturbing the place settings. The back row is the most obvious choice for an extra table, but be sure to place it on the same side of the room as the entrance. This will allow late comers to quickly find their seat.
Know Your Venue’s Food Policy
Every catering operation has a formula they use for preparing food over and above the contracted quantities. Typically this is a percentage number in or around 3% of the final count. Keep in mind though; this formula includes catering’s allowance for spills and accidents. That means you are only one dropped tray away from exhausting the “extra food.” Because of this, the safer option is to order a few meals over your count instead of playing with fate.
Be proactive when it comes to understanding the meal count policies of your venue. Make sure you know when the counts are due, and what the ramifications are for changing numbers after the cutoff date. Every venue has a different deadline structure, and by contract, it is up to the planner to submit the proper information. The best approach is to be as transparent as possible with your site coordinator. More often than not, they will be flexible if you at least try to work within the system.
Use Surcharges to Offset Fees
One way to deflect the fees associated with last minute orders is to pass them off to your attendees. Obviously this can be a slippery slope depending on your event’s audience, but you might be surprised at how effective fees can be for spurring on-time registrations. Think of this concept as being similar to concert ticket pricing. Purchase your ticket before the event (RSVP date) for a discounted price, or buy tickets at the door (after the RSVP date) and pay more. A 20% surcharge is a good starting point. This would increase the price of a $50 ticket to $60, which will help cover any fees you incur.
Last Minute Menu Changes
Another food-related predicament everyone encounters in their meeting planning career is the sudden request for a substitute entrée. This usually comes from an attendee with a food allergy or special diet restriction. Assuming the incident is limited to only a few guests, any in-house catering provider should be able to provide a quick solution. Thinking in terms of prevention though, the majority of these cases can be avoided by providing clear instructions in the event invitation on where to submit special diet needs.
Late registrations and food request are as predictable as they are erratic. The key is to control the things you can, and investigate all of your options before you need them. You can’t always predict the unexpected, but you should always prepare for it!