Reinventing your food and beverage strategy is going to be a critical aspect to designing your guest experience post COVID-19. The health and safety of guests remains the top priority for hotels, restaurants and meeting planners alike.
Gone are the days of double-sided self-serve buffets and elaborate break displays. It’s going to be a challenge for planners at both the corporate and venue level to collaborate and think outside of the box to provide an exciting food and beverage experience for guests, while maintaining new safety measures.
As concerns of COVID-19 loomed in February, we were tasked with completely redesigning the menu for a 3-day, 650 person event and feel more prepared than ever to emerge post-quarantine and put some of these ideas into practice for future events.
In lieu of traditional full breakfast buffets, opt for small coffee shop style stations featuring grab and go and pre-wrapped items. For those looking for a heartier breakfast option, reduce the variety and utilize your banquet staff behind partitions to serve. Consider allocating designated time slots for those that opt for a full breakfast and utilize strategic queue systems and human arrows to keep lines minimized and traffic flowing. For those that prefer “breakfast in bed” offer guests an in-room dining alternative with pre-selected items and designated delivery time slots.
Limited time and the task of serving hundreds of guests in a 15 or 20 minute time period without creating lines and crowds can be a challenge in and of itself! While it may not be “chef forward”, now is the time to consider packaged goods. On-consumption items like trail mix, chips & granola bars will allow planners to display snack choices in various areas of the conference foyer in large quantities, while maintaining budget. Specialty items could be tray passed, pre-packaged for easy taking, or distributed at each seat in the meeting rooms to avoid self-service.
If space allows, consider assigned “break zones” to keep crowds under control for your beverages and break stations. Make sure guests know that all break stations have the same offerings and create easy ingress and egress at each zone. Consider having servers pour and prepare coffee to avoid guest contact with urn handles and coffee “condiments”.
While a boxed lunch can be an easy alternative that conference go-ers are familiar with, it can also be an opportunity to think “outside of the box”. Allow guests to make their own “lunch” and feature a market style grab and go. Purchase mini cooler bags that guests can take home and logo with your brand or allow a sponsor to provide.
Go retro or cafeteria “chic”- work with the hotel to procure trays and feature a variety of pre-packaged grab and go items that fit well on your tray. Work with the venue chef on a fun theme or some throwback items.
Bento boxes can be another fun way to offer variety beyond grab and go sandwiches and salad. Develop a menu with various proteins and sides so attendees have a choice but in an easy to grab and take away package.
Your evening receptions and dinner may prove to be the trickiest to re-imagine! Often the most interactive and important for networking; cocktail and dinner parties will likely look a little different in the coming months.
Bars will require more staff, equipment will require sanitation between use and garnishing will likely be limited. More clients may opt for tray passed drinks to keep crowds more spread out throughout a conference space.
It’s likely that clients will lean towards plated dinners initially to encourage crowd control, social distancing and minimal cross contamination. As a planner, how can you elevate the seated dinner experience? What’s seasonal? What’s local? Does their onsite restaurant have a signature dish? Can you incorporate a chef specialty and feature a demo during the dinner? Is there a twist to a traditional surf and turf or dual plate that might surprise your guests? I love to go right to the source and work with the chef directly and often times, they love the challenge of creating custom menus outside of what’s reflected in the banquet menu.
But what about buffets? Server staffed buffets can’t be the only option, right? This is where creativity is key! A great way to satisfy the diversity of a buffet without chaffing dishes is with the use of vessels. Things like shakers, mini crates, and caviar & sardine cans can elevate your menu item and intrigue guests. Showcase offerings both tray passed by servers and in protected server stations to help guests grab and move on quickly.
Food trucks, while on trend for the last decade, can be another good option to ensure safe cooking and service. This is another opportunity to be innovative with presentation. Mini pizza boxes, Asian take out containers, and bamboo steamer baskets can be a safe and interesting way to serve several different menu items.
Nonetheless, it will likely be some time before we can allow 600 guests to hit a buffet at one time. While we all continue to look to the experts at the CDC for guidance, it’s up to our industry to brainstorm ways to implement these guidelines in fun ways as we look ahead at the resurgence of live events.
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