Growing Your Catering Business: How to Meet More Event Professionals

How to meet more event professionals (a.k.a. why associations are your friend)

In our last post, we discussed a variety of event professionals and how to work with them to make your food truck’s catering business more successful. Remember that the key to working well with event professionals is to listen—listen to their needs, and look for ways that you can meet those needs.

Knowing whom to meet is one thing. Actually meeting them in a positive and natural way is another. So, how should you meet event professionals? You could cold-call them, which is just as fun as dipping your hand in the deep fryer. Instead, go to where they gather: association meetings.

It’s no surprise that event professionals love (you guessed it) events. They throw a lot of them for themselves under the name “association meetings.” While there are many event associations, I’m going to focus on the two I think will be most useful to you.

Meeting Professionals International (MPI)

MPI is the broadest of the bunch, encompassing all event planners, from corporate to government to special event planners. Members of this organization are split into two groups: planners (people who plan meetings) and suppliers (people who sell things to planners, like hotels, florists, and caterers like food trucks).

Your goal: If you’re looking to meet a lot of meeting industry professionals, MPI is probably the best choice for you. You’ll be exposed to all aspects of the events industry in your region, and will have the opportunity to meet both people who can book your truck as well as people who can tell their clients to book your truck.

International Special Events Society (ISES)

This association is specifically for the people who produce creative special events (see the definition of special event planner). Association members also include event suppliers.

Your goal: If you want to connect specifically with the people who plan special events, ISES may be the better first choice. The people attending will be focused more specifically on creative events, where as with MPI, many people plan more traditional (and often more boring) corporate meetings for a living.

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Both of these associations have local chapters all over the U.S. and Canada (as well as worldwide), and most local chapters hold monthly meetings, as well as an annual conference and an annual awards event. A typical association meeting has two components: a networking session (i.e. stand around and meet each other) and an education component, which is usually a presentation or panel discussion.

How to get results from attending and/or joining an event association

Associations truly are an example of “you get out what you put in.” Attending MPI or ISES meetings can yield great results, but you need to do far more than show up.

Before I launch into a list of tips and tricks that will help you maximize your attendance, I want to remind you about your message. The clearer you can be when you talk about your business, the better off you’ll be across the board. You’re going to be asked “And what do you do?” again and again. If you can be short and to the point (and perhaps make people laugh), you’ll increase your odds that people will remember you come booking time.

And now, here are those tips and tricks.

Try before you buy

Both MPI and ISES will allow you to attend a few meetings as a non-member guest.

  • After registering to attend a monthly meeting, send a short email to the membership chair. Tell him or her you’re thinking of joining, but you’re not sure if it’s a good use of your limited budget (or limited time). Ask if they have any tips for connecting with your ideal client (decide if that’s a special events planner, a destination management planner, etc.).
  • When you check in to the event, ask the person at the registration desk to point out the chapter president and/or the membership chair. Introduce yourself and tell them that you’re thinking of joining. (They want you to join. If they ask “How can I help you decide?” ask for introductions to your ideal type of client.)
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Maximizing your membership

  • Join only one association to start. They can be a big time commitment.
  • Decide who from your truck will attend meetings and always send the same person. You want to build relationships.
  • Introduce yourself to new people and then listen. Ask what they do. Ask what their catering challenges are. Don’t try too hard to sell anything right away.
  • For any business cards you collect at the meeting, make the effort to follow up with a short email: “It was great to meet you and learn about your job at XYZ Company. I hope I’ll see you at the next meeting; it’s always nice to see a friendly face!” If they asked for information about your catering, send it. If they didn’t, don’t (especially do not send unsolicited attachments like menu PDFs).
  • Talk frankly to the membership chair about your goals for joining (i.e. to connect with people who might book your catering). Ask for introductions to planners. Once you’ve made those introductions, meet with other members one-on-one to get to know one another.
  • Don’t overlook hotel and convention personnel. As we covered in the last post, they may be valuable partners in helping you book catering business.
  • Join a committee, if you can. This is the key to making the most of your membership. MPI and ISES are made up of friendly but driven individuals with high standards. They want to work with you a bit before they’ll recommend you, and committee meetings are a great chance to build deeper friendships.

A few things to know about associations

  • As a supplier, you will be asked to donate your services to benefit a chapter meeting. If you can’t afford to do this, privately explain this to the committee chair or chapter president. Don’t get offended at them for asking (because they will ask).
  • If you can afford to donate your services, make sure that you make the most of the opportunity. Ask the committee chair for a minute or two to speak at the meeting where you’re providing your services, and then make your speech short and funny. A good choice: tell them why you started your truck.
  • There will be a few chapter members who are “event planners” but don’t really know what they’re doing and/or haven’t planned any events. Don’t put all your efforts into building a single relationship. Committee meetings are an excellent way to connect with the truly motivated professionals in your town.
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If you can’t join an association

To truly make the most of an association membership, you need to put in a lot of time—that may be asking more than you can give right now. You can still get some benefit by staying tuned into association. Here’s how:

  • Offer to give something away to the chapter, if you can manage it. Talk to the sponsorship chair (or the chapter president, if there’s no sponsorship chair), to see if you can get some exposure for your truck. Be honest about your goal, and they’ll be happy to work with you. Think of these giveaways as marketing to your ideal clients.
  • Attend their big annual party as a guest, and then network the cheese out of it! Meet as many people as you can. For some chapters it’s their holiday party, or others it’s an annual awards party. Follow the suggestions above for making the most of the event.

Have you attended any association meetings? Have you found one to be useful that I didn’t mention? We’d love to hear about your experiences, leave them in the comments below.

image from North Charleston

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