According to a September 2013 article in Convene Magazine from the Professional Convention Management Association, one third of your conference budget should be spent on food and beverage. This is a significant cost and it can be a challenge to provide enjoyable meals to your attendees without blowing your budget on something that is secondary to the content.

The challenge in explaining why food costs are as high as they are when meetings are held in convention centres or hotels is tricky. Not only are these costs fixed at whatever rate the facility charges, but you also need to account for taxes and gratuity amounts on top of that price tag, which on average ranges from 15-30% (when taxes and gratuities are combined). Once you understand these costs, you can assess what food and beverage are required for your conference and which would fall under the category of ‘nice to have’.

Here are a few thoughts that will help you make better decisions about your event’s catering:

  • Don’t skimp on the coffee! Availability of coffee and water are really important to keep attendees well fueled and happy. Ensure that there are enough beverages available through the run of your event, especially if you chose not to serve food during a break. Another suggestion to reduce costs associated with beverages is to remove bottled or canned beverages from your food order and make pitchers of water and juice available instead. While canned drinks, on average, can run around $4 apiece, a pitcher of juice or iced tea can break down to less than half the cost per person.
  • Try to balance costs with nutrition. While it is less expensive to provide cookies for a nutrition break than it is to provide fresh fruit, you don’t want to leave attendees feeling like they have no attention span for sessions because their bodies are too full of junk. Everything in moderation: if you are working with a multi-day event you can offer fruit or veggie options on one day and maybe something more sugar-laden the next.
  • If the conference event that you are planning food for is one that the delegate has paid for separately from their convention costs (i.e. a gala dinner) ensure that you are providing value for their dollars. Serving wine with a dinner or a plated meal versus a buffet are decisions you will have to weigh. This is another opportunity to review past events and expectations: if wine has been served at every gala dinner in the history of your event, you will want to think hard before removing it from your budget.
  • Some conferences choose not to offer breakfast or nutrition breaks based on time available in the schedule or availability of places to eat nearby. Is there a food court attached to your venue or other options for quick meals? If you choose not to supply something during breakfast or a break you will need to ensure that your attendees can access food and get back to their sessions in the allotted amount of time. Consider all of these options carefully. A good resource for making this decision is to look at past evaluations completed by delegates for information on food service that at past events and how that was received.  One caveat: ensure that there is clear communication to attendees beforehand about any meals that will not be provided so that the expectation is there and any preparations required can be made in advance.
  • Lastly, remember that the number of attendees you guarantee to the facility for each meal are more flexible than just quoting the number of attendees that you have. While lunches and gala dinners are likely fixed to the number of confirmed attendees, breakfasts and nutrition breaks have a level of attrition (people sleep in or spend their breaks on a phone call). Consider confirming numbers for these two meals at 85% of your attendees.

Your conference content is paramount and should always be the main focus of your budget dollars.

However, attendees will always remember how well they were fed in relation to how well they feel they were taken care of overall. Don’t discount the physical needs of the attendee and you will be able to find the happy place in your budget that will keep your attendees returning for years to come.