Food & Beverage -- Making or Breaking Your Bottom Line

I was chatting with a highly respected franchise consultant recently (contact me if you need a recommendation) and we were discussing the value of collecting data when managing meetings or events. 

Its  importance cannot be overstated!

As I have indicated in previous blogs, you have to track your historical information – whether it be registration fees, hotel room blocks & performance, evaluation scores or F & B guarantees – in order to improve your results. 

For most meetings and events, the accuracy of your food & beverage guarantees can make or break your bottom line.  It is almost certainly your single biggest budget line item. To my initial horror, the executive who would become my greatest mentor,  made a point to walk around the General Session luncheon of 2000 people to scan the open seats or tables.  I knew I had to get better – and fast.  The only way to hone those skills, is to know your history.  Sure, you know how many have paid to attend the event, but that often bears only partial resemblance to how many registrants actually show up.  To take advantage of that difference will make you a hero.

If you have different categories of registration, then you better be monitoring your doors, because inevitably there are those whose level of participation does not entitle them to attend all the food and beverage events.  Sometimes they don’t know and sometimes they have been doing it for years!

Particularly with large, plated meals,  it has become more difficult to provide guarantees often required 72 hours (in business days) before the event – which might fall over a weekend or before on-site registration has opened.   And the percentage the hotel or caterer is prepared to provide over your guarantee may be as little as 2%.  It’s a tough needle to thread.

The best way to be comfortable with your numbers is to track them, year-over-year, for every event.  Record the number guaranteed, the number set and the number fed.  In many cases you can review past hotel or caterer invoices for several years to determine previous performance.  Then see how they track over a five-year period and you will start to see a pattern develop and begin to guarantee with greater confidence. 

If you can’t reconstruct the history of performance against guarantees, start assembling it.   In the case of a reception where you ordered appetizers or canapes by the piece, assign someone to check periodically how the food is holding up.  And at the end of the event, make sure to determine if you over-ordered or if you ran out.  And if you did run out - when did that happen? Fifteen minutes before the event was over or 15 minutes after the doors opened?

Do the same for general coffee breaks or continental breakfasts served in registration or outside meeting rooms.  You may be surprised at how many people have already eaten breakfast before arriving at your event.

Bottles water has become an exceedingly costly line item.  Many venues will provide 5-gallon containers of filtered water.  If you offer individually bottled water, expect to use at least twice what you ordered.  Attendees will take them in bunches including back to their rooms at night.

As to guarantees, there are some cautions. 

  • You may experience totally different statistics in some cities (like Las Vegas) or in cities where your registrants have to walk between a hotel and a convention center (and the distance between the two). 

  • Your numbers might also change in cities where you have a spouse attendance program that includes some of your evening receptions or dinners. 

  • At one association, we saw  our percentage of attendance changed far more dramatically than anticipated when we went to high-profile, big-name speakers.  And I didn’t do very well that first year, when a couple hundred extra people showed up. The caterer and convention center did the best they could and we sent staff around to collect business cards from those who got seats but did not get fed (for partial refunds).  But it was an embarrassment that I would not wish on any of you. 

Remember, meeting planning is an ongoing cycle -- you will assess, plan, train & meet in an overlapping fashion.  The more thorough you are in assessing your event, before-during-after, the more accurate and successful you become.  

F & B is such a crucial element in successful event planning, we will address this often in the months to come

We welcome your questions & input and will try to serve as a "help desk" with any problems you encounter.