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exhibiting 101

Candy Adams,
"The Booth Mom,"
is an independent exhibit-management
consultant, trainer, speaker, writer, and an Exhibitor conference
faculty member.

f there's one thing that's always true about serving food and beverages in a trade show exhibit, it's that we exhibit managers can't do it by ourselves. Not that we aren't capable of doing it; we aren't allowed to.

Convention-center catering is one of the exclusive services generally mandated in the contract between the convention center and the show organizer. Convention centers have found it to be both efficient and profitable for them to grant an exclusive contract to a catering company in exchange for a share of the profit. For everything we serve, from press breakfasts to snacks in our meeting rooms, we have no choice but to use the exclusive caterer.

This policy actually makes a lot of sense. Catering is part of the infrastructure of a convention center, just like electrical or telecom. It wouldn't be practical to expect a different caterer to move into the convention center kitchen each week with kitchen and food-service equipment, hire staff, and stock the food.

However, the monopoly created by these exclusive contracts causes what many exhibit managers believe to be extortionary pricing; e.g. $4 for a bottle of water. Even though the convention centers blame high overhead and staffing costs, I still wonder why I can buy 12 cans of soda outside the convention center for the price of one inside.

Regardless of the sky-high prices, we still order food and beverage at trade shows to entertain our clients and prospects and keep our staff alive. So here are 12 tips to help you minimize costs and hassles when you serve food and beverages in your next exhibit.

1. Negotiate catering fees. Even though you get a printed price sheet with your exhibitor-services manual that lists typical items and prices, you can always ask if any of the pricing is negotiable, especially if you're ordering a large quantity of food. If pricing isn't negotiable, ask what other services or perks the caterer can provide.

Also check to see if other exhibitors have ordered special foods that you may be able to piggyback on to achieve more cost savings. For example, if you would like to serve hors d'oeuvres in your booth and another exhibitor has already special ordered hors d'oeuvres, you may be able to get a better deal if you choose the same items rather than asking the caterer to make different ones.

2. Watch out for "extras." Even though the base pricing seems high, it's the footnotes on the price list that will eat up your budget. Those footnotes include sales tax and an 18- to 25-percent gratuity. You may also have to pay a hefty delivery fee if your order doesn't meet the convention center's per-delivery minimum.

3. Don't bring your own items. While some caterers will allow you to bring in branded water bottles or snacks to give away, they will charge you high prices to do so. Unless the consumable item you're giving away at a show is your company's product (in which case you may only be allowed to serve 1 oz. of solid food and 2 oz. of liquid - a standard trade show restriction), the exclusive caterer will likely charge you for what it perceives as a threat to its income stream. Bottom line, if you bring in bottled water and give it away for free, attendees are theoretically less likely to buy $4 bottles of water at convention-center food courts.

In my experience, I've found most (but not all) catering managers are reasonable when negotiating the amount you have to pay for bringing in your own food or beverages. So if you do choose to bring in your own items, try to negotiate with the exclusive caterer to minimize any associated fees.

4. Don't forget electricity. Remember to order additional electricity for your catering, if necessary. If you have food that needs to be heated or refrigerated, or if you have fountains or coffee carts, these can substantially increase your electrical requirements and your electrical bill. A recent espresso-cart rental that required 60 amp, 208 volt, 3-phase power and the labor to install it added almost $1,000 to my client's electrical invoice.

5. Avoid last-minute orders. Things get hectic for everyone before a show, including the official caterer. So plan ahead - especially if you have special requests such as specialty carts or hors d'oeuvres. Place your catering order as early as possible, and try not to make on-site changes. Depending on the size of the show, it can take hours to get additional food or beverage, even if caterers have it available, so don't count on last-minute rush orders to supplement your food and beverage requirements.

6. Order on consumption. If you are unsure of how many people you'll need to feed, ask the catering manager what items you can order on consumption, which means you only have to pay for what you use. This works well with canned and bottled beverages and individually packaged food items that do not need to be refrigerated.

7. Ask for what you want. Just because something isn't on the basic menu in your exhibitor-services manual doesn't mean you can't get it. I have one client who always wants Diet Dr Pepper in her pressroom; it's not a stock item, but for $.25 more per can, the caterer can order it.

Another common non-standard item is a specialty cart. For example, I've hosted a hot-dog cart with a ballpark theme, an espresso cart for a bistro theme, and even an ice-cream-sundae cart. You can even rent an Otis Spunkmeyer bake-'em-in-your-booth cart complete with a portable oven and pre-portioned frozen chocolate-chip cookie dough; the smell attracts people from aisles away. If the convention center's exclusive caterer doesn't have the equipment you need, it may be willing to subcontract it or let you locate your own cart through a local caterer.

8. Audit your catering invoices. I can't tell you how many times I've found significant errors (once in the tens of thousands of dollars) that have been mistakenly charged to my credit card on file by the catering company. If you find a discrepancy, don't attempt to resolve it with the person who delivered the food. Call the catering number on your order form right away and ask to talk to a catering manager. Also, if you're disappointed with the quality or service you've received, asking for a reduction on your bill before you leave the show increases your likelihood of getting the discount.

9. Play it safe. Avoid perishable items, such as mayonnaise and meats. I caught a horrific case of food poisoning eating egg-laden lemon bars that had probably been left unrefrigerated too long on the show floor. Baked cookies or granola bars are definitely a better choice and have less of a chance of spoiling. If you're serving sandwiches, order them without mayonnaise and provide packets of mayo, ketchup, and mustard instead so they won't get soggy or make anyone ill.

I also prefer to serve individually wrapped snacks like chips or nuts when in a public setting. With trays of cookies, for example, you never know who's touched them or how stale they may be.

10. Order in for staff meals. I've found that ordering box lunches from the caterer and setting aside a meeting room over the lunch hour is not as costly as losing your staff to go to concession stand or outside venue to eat. By the time they get from your booth to the concession stand, wait in line, order their food, eat it, and return to your booth, it could take hours. Weigh the price of that downtime against the cost of catering and decide what's best for you. But make sure you have a plan - whether it's scheduled lunch breaks or box lunches in the meeting room - or you risk losing staffers mentally as their stomachs growl and their minds wander.

11. Don't forget about cleanup. Some show managers now charge an up-front cleanup fee to exhibitors who want to order food, for cleaning carpets and handling the extra trash generated. If you're only ordering beverages, you might be able to avoid this fee - but only if you ask.

Besides the costs of cleanup, serving messy food can have other repercussions. For example, if there's one food I hate to see on the show floor, it's popcorn. Even though it's one of the least expensive snacks an exhibitor can give away, it's also the messiest. Serving messy food items means you either spend a lot of time cleaning up during show hours or you make a bad impression with attendees because of your mess. If you do choose a food that requires a lot of cleanup, you can hire a porter during the hours you're serving food to keep your exhibit picked up and your trash cans emptied.

12. Be ready to micromanage. I can't explain why, but catered food never seems to make it to the booth when you expect it. Always plan to be in the booth to supervise when your order is supposed to come in, and double-check everything in your order.

Remember, the folks who deliver and/or serve the food are often temporary workers with no radios or phones to contact their management when things go wrong like missing items, missing serving pieces, or incorrect orders. If you have a problem, get on the phone with a catering manager immediately.

So while convention center catering can cause myriad nightmares, heeding the preceding advice - and being prepared to micromanage your caterer - will help you get your just desserts as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.
Bon appétit. e

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