Building Your Catering Business: How to Work with Event Professionals

One of the strongest messages we heard from food truck owners in our recent post 50 Food Truck Owners Speak Out: “What I Wish I’d Known Before Starting My Food Truck is that catering special events can be the key to building a thriving food truck business. After all, catering for special events like weddings and company picnics give you a guaranteed headcount before you even pull into your parking space.

This brings us to a big question: how do you find more special event bookings? The answer: connect with event professionals.

In this two part series, I’ll draw upon my decade of experience in the meetings and events industry to help you understand who event professionals are and how you can help them (help them bring you business!), as well as to understand a few universal truths about the events industry.

In the second post in our series, I’ll offer tips for using industry associations to meet more event professionals and build deeper relationships.

Who are event professionals?

The term event professional covers a fairly wide range of careers. Wedding planners probably spring immediately to mind, but the term also includes corporate meeting planners and a wide range of hotel personnel. All of these people help produce special events in some capacity, and all of them have the ability to influence catering and/or entertainment decisions, even if they aren’t the ones ultimately signing the check.

Let’s take a look at the different types of event professionals you may encounter and how you can help them make it easy to hire you.

Special event planners

These are often independent contractors or workers for smaller organizations that help plan “special” events, including social events like weddings, bar mitzvahs, and proms as well as much larger events such as entertainment festivals, concerts, political fundraisers, and corporate galas. Their clients may be needier and/or prone to making lots of changes.

How to help them: Make options clear and simple. The more decisions their clients have to make, the more they’ll get overwhelmed. Ask the planner, “What type of packages are easiest for you to sell?” Listen, and then create a few simple packages the planner can present to their clients. Make it clear to the planner that you are able to work with special requests as needed, but you want to provide them with a simple starting point that they provide to their clients as soon as the client expresses interest in hiring a food truck.

Corporate event planners

These individuals work within an organization (usually a large corporation), planning everything from small executive meetings to large training meetings to big corporate product launches. They may have a large budget but it can take a while for purchasing decisions to be approved.

How to help them: Be unquestionably reliable. To them (and especially to their boss), you are a risky choice versus their usual caterer. Provide testimonials and references to other corporate events planners, if you have them. Always return phone calls and emails in a timely manner. The first time you work with a corporation, you may have to jump through a lot of hoops (see the section on preferred vendors below).

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Destination management companies

These organizations help out-of-town clients (particularly corporate clients) plan events. They love to showcase the best their city has to offer and can be a great partner if you can get on their preferred vendor list. Their standards should be very high and many of their clients will have very deep pockets.

How to help them: Always be on time to every interaction with them. Even more so than with corporate clients, reliability is paramount, especially sticking to a precise schedule. Help them see (and then tell their clients) how you fit into the overall story of your city.

Convention center sales and banquet managers

They run the biggest venues in town. They can have tens of thousands of people in their facilities on a given day, and while they provide their own catering, their clients may wish to hire food trucks to create a wow factor for their attendees. Also, if you get to be friendly with these individuals, they may be able to give you tips on especially busy events and/or help you get parking in front of their venue. Get to be buds with these folks.

How to help them: Provide large event and entertainment solutions. While you can’t handle their volume on your own, if they know that you can help them connect with several food trucks (you plus some of your friends’ trucks), you can become a good resource. Also, think of ways to present yourself as an outdoor entertainment add-on.

Hotel/conference center sales and banquet managers

These folks run the hotels and smaller conference centers. As with the convention center, they will have their own on-site catering, but their clients may wish to bring in a food truck or two to liven up a special occasion.

How to help them: Provide entertainment solutions. Show them how your services will impress their clientele as well as spice up multi-day events. See if you can become a resource for conferences where lunch is not officially provided by the client (i.e. guaranteed on-site parking in exchange for a profit-share). Let them know you’re willing to be creative.

Special event spaces

These are the theaters, museums, art galleries, and other smaller venues in your city. They often do not have on-site catering, which means that they have to find an outside caterer for every booking. Usually, they have a preferred vendor list of 3-10 caterers.

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How to help them: Provide packages. Their needs are similar to the needs of special event professionals, in that they need catering packages to sell to their clients.

A few things to know about event professionals

Here are a few tips that are consistent across all types of special event professionals.

Universal Truth #1: You will be asked to kick back a percentage of your profits and/or they will mark up your cost

This is how event planners make money. Don’t get mad about it; just understand how it works.

  • In venues that offer their own catering (hotels and conference centers), every sandwich you sell is one fewer they have the opportunity to sell. Therefore, they will not allow you into their facility unless they can reclaim some of that lost profit. They reclaim this by charging you for the privilege to sell in their space.
  • For special events planners, all their vendors (like florists, musicians) either kick back a percentage of the profit or the planner marks up their costs before presenting them to the client.
  • An example: the client and the hotel agree upon a small jazz combo to perform during a reception. The jazz combo presents the hotel with a bill for $2000. The hotel adds the jazz combo to the client’s final bill, charging the client $2200.
    Why? The hotel staff spent time contracting the jazz band, staff time spent setting up the space and helping the musicians carry in their equipment, time cleaning up after the band.

This doesn’t mean that you have to lose your profit margin.

Universal Truth #2: Catered food is always more expensive

The chicken dinner that costs $25 in the hotel restaurant costs $49 upstairs in the banquet room. You are allowed to mark up the cost of your food for catered events. Just be smart about how you do it. When working with an event planner or with a hotel, understand what they intend to do before you have a price conversation with the end client. Many planners and facilities will prefer that you not discuss price with the client at all, but rather let them handle the conversation.

  • For weddings and special events, you will likely provide the event planner with two menus: an internal menu with the prices you will charge the planner, and a menu with no prices that the planner can fill in.
  • For a case when a facility expects a kick-back (usually 10-20% of your revenue), it’s perfectly acceptable to mark up your prices to cover this margin.

Just know that you shouldn’t tell the end client (the bride, or the guest of the hotel’s) that you are marking up the product. This is the quickest way to ruin a relationship with a meeting planner or an event facility. A savvy corporate meeting planner knows it happens, but a bride may not.

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The exceptions: the one time when you can insist that a facility or a special event planner not mark up your food is if you brought the business to them. For example, if the bride books you to cater her wedding and you introduce her to the sales manager at her wedding venue, you can insist that the venue not mark up your food. They would not have received the bride’s business without you. The same goes if you introduce the bride to an event planner she later hires to coordinate the event. Tread lightly here—your long-term goal should be preserving the relationship with the hotel or planner.

The other time you will not be asked to mark up your food cost is when you are working with a corporate event planner at their own site, such as their corporate headquarters. Because you are working directly with the end client, you likely will not be asked to mark up or kick back a percentage.

Universal Truth #3: Preferred vendor lists are your best friend (when you’re on them)

Almost all event professionals you meet will have “preferred vendor lists.” There are two types of preferred vendor lists: formal and informal. The formal lists are kept by their organization (like a hotel), and include vendors who have worked with the organization before, have met specific criteria (like insurance requirements) and have performed adequately in the past.

Most event professionals also have an informal list, a set of vendors that they love to work with because the vendor makes their job easier and/or consistently impresses their clients. These are the first people they call when they need to book a service.

Do: After you’ve been talking with an event professional, you should ask, “Do you have a preferred vendor list? How can I get on your preferred vendor list?” If you’re feeling spunky, ask “What do I need to do to become your favorite caterer (or entertainment option) on that list?”

Don’t: Do not ask this question right away. This is not an appetizer question, this is an entree question. You need to get to know the needs of the event professional first, before trying to sell to them. Think about it like a date—you shouldn’t jump to the question “how many kids to you want to have?” too soon.

If you have any questions about event professionals and how to work with them, ask in the comments below. I’d also love to hear any success stories you’ve had in partnering with event professionals.

Next time: How to Meet More Event Professionals (a.k.a. Why Associations Are Your Friend)

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FoodTruckr

FoodTruckr is the #1 online destination for current and aspiring food truck owners looking to succeed in the mobile food industry. Self described “food truck devotees,” the FoodTruckr team enjoys reading about successful entrepreneurs, salivating over photos of burritos on Twitter, and long walks through food truck parks. Chat with FoodTruckr on Facebook or check out the FoodTruckr School podcast for more awesome tips to level up your business.

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