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F&B Problems: Waiting for Waitstaff

Attendees expect a satisfying food-and-beverage experience regardless of labor issues. The solution for planners: longer lead times, creative workarounds, and frequent communication with F&B teams.

While a meeting’s destination, education, and networking opportunities generally drive attendee interest, post-event surveys consistently show that food-and-beverage elements color the impression attendees have of an event’s success.

However, this nourishing component of meetings has been especially impacted by the labor crisis. Many hotel restaurants have closed or slashed hours, breakfast buffets largely are gone, and banquet-waitstaff teams at many properties have been gutted.

Fortunately, meeting planners and hotel executives alike have tips and tricks to navigate the present situation. First, “plan F&B closer to two months out,” advises meeting planner and nutritional consultant Tracy Stuckrath, founder and chief food officer at Thrive! Meetings and Events. “If you have enough time, you should probably start three months out. Planners need to discuss staffing levels with hotels as soon as they can and stay on top of it along the way. The number of staff they have available will impact the options they can fulfill.

CS0322Stuckrath.pngTo help the chefs on property make things work with a small staff, Stuckrath (in photo) also recommends that planners do local-sourcing research. “Find that area’s farmers and brand purveyors who can supply as much of your food and beverage as possible. Maybe the property’s chefs have a relationship with local suppliers—and if they don’t, ask them to build one.” And if those locals could staff a few food or beverage stations during the event while explaining how their products are grown and prepared, all the better.

Another idea: “Ask the hotel how you can be creative with menus so that if they don’t have enough staff for a seated dinner, you can do what the Oscars do,” Stuckrath says. What’s that? “Host a cocktail reception before the main event with hors d'oeuvres and a buffet. And after moving on to the staged event, return for an after-party” with self-serve dessert stations. 

Additionally, planners can adapt set-ups to reduce service requirements for seated meal events, advises Christine Erickson, senior vice president of global supplier relations and partner network, BCD Meetings & Events. For instance, “have pre-set salads and wine at each table.” Another idea: A family-style meal where the main course and sides are pre-set in large portions so that attendees help themselves, then pass along those larger plates to others.

Sometimes the key issue isn’t the number of servers available but rather their level of experience, notes Linda McNairy, vice president of the Americas for American Express Meetings and Events. As a result, “we’ve added a request to some contracts for proof of enough adequately trained employees three months prior to the group’s arrival.”

Hotels themselves have found ways to simplify service to get through the labor crisis. At Marriott International, “we have canned cocktails at some events so we don’t need a bartender, and we can have self-service stations with packaged food or come up with other solutions rather than answering an F&B request with, ‘We can’t do that,’ says Petr Raba, vice president, meetings and events, global operations.

Sonesta is adding pre-set coffee breaks that are “always on,’ adds Blair McSheffrey, vice president of global & hotel sales. “Rather than having the service person go into the meeting space every 15 minutes to make sure that the coffee is full and the break inventory is refreshed, we chose to look at different options that that are more of a full-day approach, which are easier for us and where the planner has flexibility on food offerings.”

CS0322Jardine.jpgLastly, even after the contracting is done for F&B events, “keep talking to the property about the specific numbers—if what you were initially planning can’t be done due to labor issues, adjustments need to be made to the meeting’s contractual commitments,” says Therese Jardine, principal and founder of Strategic Event Procurement (in photo). For instance, “if you’ve planned a 250-person meal with a $25,000 budget but the hotel says they can’t support that, going to a smaller event that only costs $20,000 means that the penalty should be waived if that change causes a miss on the food-and-beverage minimum.”

Other articles in this series on the supplier-labor crisis:
Help Wanted: Can Supplier-Staff Shortages Derail Events?
Labor Pains: How Bad Are They?

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