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Winning with full-service catering

Hotel catering pros share tips to boost the bottom line.
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Photograph: Shutterstock

Many full-service restaurants rely on private dining rooms (PDRs) to host catered events for groups. But as hotels have learned over the years, catering outside their primary event space—typically a ballroom—can create additional revenue streams. Restaurants can follow suit by looking beyond the PDR to host groups of up to 150 people with a buyout or partial buyout of the venue. We asked three longtime hotel catering pros to share the best practices that allowed them to maximize their catering programs.

Strategic staffing

Dedicated staff selling events is crucial to any operation looking to do a large volume of catering. In addition to finding sales, they are the primary contact for client requests and handle catering-specific contract details and billing. “Hiring a full-time catering salesperson—not just asking your managers to respond to event requests—will pay off immensely because they’re reaching out daily to the community and selling the space ahead of your competition,” says Don Falgoust, VP of food and beverage at Bethesda, Md.-based RLJ Lodging Trust, which operates more than 100 hotels. “Waiting for groups to contact your restaurant is not a strategy to grow group business.”

Calculated buyout metrics

Some groups want a complete buyout of a restaurant for their event, but operators need to make sure it’s a fiscally sound decision before closing the doors to regular customers. One way to find out is calculating the average revenue from the 10 highest-grossing days in a year at a restaurant, then multiply that number by four. The resulting dollar amount should be what you charge a group to buy out your restaurant.

“We have a huge local customer base for our Finch & Fork restaurant, so buyouts always require careful consideration before a contract is signed,” says Marybeth Gilliland, director of catering and conference services for the Kimpton Canary Hotel in Santa Barbara, Calif. Recent buyouts at Finch & Fork include a rehearsal dinner for 150 people.

Alternate option: Partial buyouts to keep the vibe

Partial buyouts can generate more consistent catering business, since only a portion of the restaurant is sectioned off, so regular customers can be accommodated at the same time. “Partial buyouts also retain the natural energy of the restaurant, which is what many groups want today. They pick a particular restaurant because of the music, decor and overall vibe, as well as the menu,” Falgoust says.

Limited menus

Speaking of menus, hotel experts say a limited selection of “greatest hits” from the kitchen is the best way to ensure groups receive a signature experience, delivered on time. A limited catering menu is easier for cooks to execute in volume as well. Specialty diet requests (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, etc.) should be identified far in advance, and not during service.

Hotel operators also suggest avoiding buffets when possible. There’s often not enough space to use anything but chafing dishes, they say. But “chafing dishes have no place in a restaurant,” says Tiffany Rea, director of meetings and events at La Cantera Resort & Spa in San Antonio. “If you must offer a buffet, use smaller, Le Creuset-style vessels for a better look.”

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