Make the Menu Count! Five Conference Catering Ideas to Help Your Event Stand Out

Posted by on Thursday, December 5th, 2013 with 4 Comments

I recently attended a technology conference in Orlando, Florida. I met amazing people and learned extraordinary things. My lasting impression of the conference is that it was worth every penny and more. On our way to the airport to return home, my colleague stated, “That was wonderful.  They didn’t cut any corners.  Everything was top notch…even the food.”  At that moment it occurred to me that we were both impressed with the food provided at the conference primarily because so many of the conferences we had attended before fell short when it came to catering meals and refreshments.

Buffet lines are common. Why not be different?

Buffet lines are common. Why not be different?
Photo courtesy Grant Wickes

Planning a meeting or a conference can be stressful. An unfortunate byproduct of the enormity of conference planning is that food and snacks are often an afterthought when putting together a meeting of coworkers or professional colleagues.  Perhaps an assistant is directed to “order in food” for a specific number of people if the event is smaller.  For larger events, a conference center kitchen coordinator is given an attendee count and told to offer a beef dish, a chicken dish, and a vegetarian alternative.

Talk about a missed opportunity.

People that attend professional networking events and conferences are investing not only their money but also their time to take part in your event.  Time away from working.  Time away from family.  Time that they might rather be spending doing something more productive or more fun.  With that kind of commitment from attendees, is it really a good idea to cut corners?

Choose Your Own Pizza Toppings Personalize Lunches

Choose Your Own Pizza Toppings Personalize Lunches
Photo by George Grinsted

Here are five conference food Ideas sure to leave your conference or meeting attendees raving and eager to return for your next event:

  1. Local Flavor – If attendees of your conference or meeting are traveling a great distance to join you, try inviting a caterer or vendor who provides popular local fare.  For example, offering BBQ at a conference in Texas, crab cakes in Maryland, or deep dish pizza in Chicago is an excellent way to give guests a unique (and great tasting) experience.

  2. Hearty and Healthy – Instead of offering a line of chaffing dishes with the standard “chicken, beef, vegetable, and starch” options, why not try new, healthier options, such as a robust salad and risotto bar?  Offer a choice of hearty greens or risotto at the beginning of a the line followed by choices of toppings like carrots, sautéed onions, cheese and tomatoes.   Give guests the option of adding sliced skirt steak or sirloin, sliced chicken breast, or boiled shrimp to top things off.   A customizable offering will make attendees feel more comfortable.

  3. Fun finger foods – Not every meal needs to feel formal with china and fine cutlery.   If time is of the essence, consider offering your guests an assortment of simple finger foods like chicken strips with dipping sauces, grilled shrimp skewers, and hamburger “sliders.”  These also make it easy for conference-goers to mix and mingle while they snack, allowing for more networking time.

  4. Sweet and Savory – So often, afternoon snacks at a conference or meeting are limited to a tray of stale cookies and mixed fruit.  How boring.  Why not offer a sweet and savory bar of pretzels and different flavors of popcorn supplemented by toppings like marshmallows, white chocolate chips, and melted milk chocolate?   This offers a unique snack that is tasty and allows attendees to have some fun while putting their food together.

  5. Get off to a great start – Despite the increase in popularity of coffee shops in the last twenty years, most meetings and conferences treat coffee and tea offerings as an afterthought.   Typically there is a carafe of regular coffee, a carafe of decaf, and a pot of hot water greeting guests in the morning.   Surprise your attendees with multiple flavors of coffee (such as a bold flavor to complement a mild offering) and real condiments.  For very little extra expense you can offer things like ground cinnamon, honey, flavored syrups, and fresh cream instead of powdered creamer and artificial sweetener packets.

Hamburger sliders make a great finger food offering.

Hamburger sliders make a great finger food offering. Image source:

Offering attendees high quality refreshments and food choices should be high on the list of important details when organizing a conference. While presentations and networking are at the core of any meeting of professional colleagues, the hospitality offered those that attend goes a long way not only in their decision on whether or not to attend in subsequent years but also in their enjoyment of the present event.  Offering good food and snacks is a direct way to thank each attendee for being there and lets them know that you value their complete satisfaction.

Much to the surprise of many conference planners and office managers, services like exist for the sole purpose of helping organizations of all sizes plan and deliver meals and refreshments.   Whether you are responsible for organizing lunch for a small office staff or planning an entire menu for a three day conference, providing excellent food and drink choices doesn’t have to be a chore. can help make food planning for your next corporate event or office meeting less of a burden and more of an advantage. Click here to learn more about!

When it comes to feeding employees and coworkers, make your company's food program really count! If your workplace dining plan needs to take it up a notch — or if you don't have one at all — is here to help. From Virtual Cafeteria Service to diverse menus to local takeout & offers customizable dining solutions for every business and budget. Contact us today to get started!

4 responses to “Make the Menu Count! Five Conference Catering Ideas to Help Your Event Stand Out”

  1. Yaffa Hanouna says:

    Thank you for all the suggestions, very informative, food for thoughts.

    • Richard S. says:

      You are very welcome, Yaffa. We’re glad we could give you some catering ideas for your next event. If you end up using any of these suggestions, please feel free to follow up with us and let us know how it goes!

  2. Dominic Jones says:

    Great tips. It’s a good idea to choose the main course and then build the other choices of dishes around it, including the finger food and drinks. Also, balance the dishes between rich and light foods.