05 Jul But what about dinner?
So you’ve found your venue, the meeting space is perfect and you’ve made sure you’ve got enough bedrooms and break out rooms to keep everyone happy, including some space for you to manage all the day to day bits & bobs throughout the conference yes? And you’ve worked out the best place for the conference dinner – whether that’s in the venue or a fab place close by. But what about the dinner itself? Have you thought about that. Great conference dinners don’t just happen.
Last year I organised three large conferences for different clients and one senior executive for a major aerospace company told me that the conference dinner is the hi-light of the event and one he always remembers. People may forget the snippets of conversation, the hi-lights of the presentations but you can guarantee if the evening dinner event is good they will never forget that conference dinner.
It’s a time to come together, a time to relax and spend time truly getting to know the people who are your ‘tribe’; whether the purpose of the dinner is to just make sure that everyone has a good time or if there’s a more strategic objective of gathering speakers, sponsors and delegates together over good food and drink, we believe that time spent planning the actual meal is time well spent. Bonds that are founded on good conversation, great wine and even better food are the best!
First things first, you’ll need to consider logistics of the venue before planning a conference dinner.
Make sure the room is a suitable size and that it can accommodate an increase/decrease in numbers. Does the venue have a minimum number requirement and are there any extra charges for room hire, linen, service or extended hours? Don’t forget that chair covers cost very little but can change the whole look of a room.
What is the purpose of the dinner? Is networking a priority or are the speeches more important? If speeches take precedence, ask about AV, microphones and sound limitations and so on.
Go and see the room for yourself and meet the people who will be your point of contact on the evening. Meet the catering team and ask for a tasting if you can before you decide on the menu. Make sure you meet and brief the person who will be looking after you on the day as this can prevent last minute hiccups; we once had a vegan served parmesan cheese owing to a last minute change of staff we hadn’t been told about. It happens, she was lovely, no-one’s world ended!
As well as the many allergen and dietary requirements, consider the nationality of your delegates and any cultural or religious needs they may have. Whilst you can’t cater for everyone there are some valuable things to remember:
Duck for some Scandinavian delegates can be reminiscent of Christmas, likewise turkey for British guests or Thanksgiving for US delegates
Japan, China, India, Korea, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia – Asian food tends to be predominantly spicy food, fruit, rice with most things and lots of vegetables. Alcohol is not normally used in cooking and Chinese guests will probably not wish for cold water – they might like jasmine tea or warm water instead.
South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia African cuisine features a variety of beans, pulses, grains, cous cous and potatoes, together with meat stews, spicy food, local fish, and a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables and Halal chicken. Many venues now cater for Halal needs but remember to ask.
Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela – South American food is often based around a lot of different vegetables and nuts, as well as beef, pork, lamb and fish dishes and tropical fruit.
UK, Germany, France, Italy – European cooking still tends to be meat-heavy, with lots of seasoning, dairy, pasta, dumplings, pastries and potatoes – all with a lot of different sauces and alcohol in cooking.
It can also be helpful to consider that if you’re organising an international event many guests may wish to try something typical of the location during their visit so don’t dismiss local produce or specialities. Depending on your budget it can be helpful provide a choice to show that you have considered everyone!
When ordering wine, a good guide is an arrival drink per person, two glasses of wine with the meal and a glass of port and/or dessert wine to finish. Work out your numbers – and ask the venue for a drinks calculator if you don’t have one – then ask the venue to limit the bottles to the numbers you need, and to consult with you or a designated delegate if they are asked for more (trust me people will!) – or better still ask them to pour and manage it for you if you want to keep this under control!
Make sure you take into account those people who do not drink alcohol. Consider possibly having a signature cocktail that can be prepared both with and without alcohol so all guests can experience it alongside a selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
Passing the Port is an age-old tradition but if you’re planning to serve it, consider asking the venue to pour to ensure that the decanter isn’t empty by the time it reaches the last guest! Nobody likes crunchy port!
Most venues have a sommelier in the team so if you’re unsure ask for advice on pairing dishes with wines and don’t be afraid to ask book a tasting too.
I always take great care to choose speakers I know can bring a mix of the following:
Humour – as long as the speaker does not try too hard.
Empathy – with the conference community.
Don’t waffle and present for more than 10-15 minutes. After a dinner with full tummies, people will want to relax and may be sleepy and no-one wants anyone nodding off!
Make the venue aware of any speeches, so that timings can be coordinated with service. Decide whether you want your speeches before or after dessert or coffee. You’ll need to ensure that front of house staff don’t interrupt the speaker, and vice versa.
Seating Plans and Name Badges
As much as everyone dislikes name tags, at large conferences they really help people mingle and eliminate the awkwardness of not remembering someone’s name, and are essential at the dinner table!
I don’t like to work with a ‘top table’ seating plan, and prefer to use a cabaret setting with round tables well spaced and no more than 10 per table (actually I much prefer 8 but sometimes the need is there for bigger) but for more formal events a top table is worth considering. Other important things to consider include:
Who should sit next to whom can often be quite a political decision. Think this over carefully. And work closely with your client if you’re unsure.
For dietary requirements consider putting a code, such as a discreet symbol or different coloured sticker, on name cards at the table to help servers identify people. At the last event I organised we used different coloured ribbons on the cutlery and discreetly advised guests with dietary requirements to leave the ribbons in view. We also covered our backs by ensuring the master seating plan held by the venue had the guests seats hilighted in the same colour.
We hope these simple tips to manage your Conference Dinner, help you along your way but if you still need some help, give us a call and we can work with you to plan your event, manage it from conception to delivery and be as hands-on or hands-off as you like!
Alison is the owner and Director of Serenity VA providing marketing and business support services to clients across the globe. For more information see www.serenityva.co.uk Or give us a call! We are always happy to discuss how we can support your business!