Chapter 8:  Food


Food:               Budget for and select food (and caterer for off-site events), coordinate service. The same committee might handle food at both the hotel and off-site events, or a separate Event Committee might deal with off-site caterers.





Cost estimates


Food service is the single largest part of meeting expenses. Therefore it will be necessary early on to try to accurately estimate food costs.


You will have to give your best estimate based on how many people you think will attend. You may want to give two or more scenarios (e.g., cost for 100, cost for 120).


Hotel should be able to pick a date pretty early on by which they will guarantee prices. Use this information in budgets.


Prices for food are usually as listed + +. That is: price of food, plus service charge, plus tax (if applicable).


There should be a written contract with any off-site caterers. Hotel food service may be a part of hotel contract.


The President will need a breakdown of food costs by meal to use in recruiting vendor sponsors.  For example one vendor might donate an amount appropriate to sponsor opening luncheon; a smaller one might sponsor a break.




Having a state tax exemption letter may save hundreds of dollars. MAALL is a not-for-profit corporation but it still may be necessary to apply for state tax exemption. Verify early on that MAALL has a state tax letter in the state of the conference. If not, the Treasurer will need to apply for one ASAP, as this process may take some time.


Some locations may have local taxes that have to be paid even if MAALL is state tax exempt. The tax may be applied to the total price of food plus price of service charge.


Cost variations by meal type


Plated (served) meals are generally cheaper than buffets. Hors d'oeuvres are more expensive than meals!


See if the hotel has a "conference package" that covers several meals, especially for full day of conference (usually Friday). 



In working with off-site caterers, inquire about "usual practice" on tipping of servers. This may vary by location or caterer. Decide whether or not you will tip and, if so, include in cost estimate. Make arrangements to pay the tip at the time of the event unless the caterer wants it done another way. You may need to get cash from the Treasurer for the tip.


Usual Meals


The following are meals typically served at a MAALL conference (assuming Thursday noon start and Saturday noon end):


Thursday          Opening luncheon (formal, sit-down luncheon with speaker)

Afternoon break

Evening off-site reception followed by "on your own" dining

[Note: At some conferences Thursday and Friday evening events have been switched.]


Friday              Breakfast/business meeting

Morning break

Luncheon (formality and presence/absence of speaker varies year to year)

Afternoon break (if programs continuing throughout afternoon)

Evening off-site dinner (formality varies)


Saturday           Light breakfast

Morning break (beverages only)


In planning evening events, avoid having "grazing" (hors d'oeuvres only) both nights. One evening should be a sit down dinner. (Buffet is okay, as long as people sit down to eat.)



Food Selection


Make sure to have vegetarian alternatives. For plated meals you'll need separate vegetarian entrees; for buffets, make sure some selections are appropriate for vegetarians. (If possible, have a vegetarian on the Food Committee or available for advice!) Keep in mind that not all  vegetarians eat dairy products.


When offering a vegetarian alternative during a plated meal, work with the hotel on methods of determining who will be served which meal. Different colored meal tickets usually do the trick. (See Tickets section below in this chapter for more details.)


If there is a separate committee handling evening events, coordinate so that you don=t serve the same item(s) at lunch as are served that night for dinner.

The menus provided by the hotel are often not the only choices available. Work with the hotel staff to learn about alternatives, especially if there are no vegetarian choices on standard menus. The chef may also be available for consultation on alternatives to menu items.


Taste items before selecting them. Know that just because something holds up well and tastes good at a tasting with a small group, it may not be the best thing to serve to 75-100+  people. Ask the hotel staffBhopefully they will know what holds up well.


Avoid having breaks and meals that are too heavy. Provide some "healthy" choicesBfruit, yogurt, granola bars etc.Bnot just cookies and brownies, bacon and eggs.


Include bottled water and plenty of diet soda as break beverage choices. If possible, include some caffeine-free sodas, fruit drinks and/or flavored waters.



Special Dietary Needs


Find out hotel=s willingness to work with special dietary needs. They may be willing to make a special meal for the few people who will need this.


Work with registration committee early on to make sure there is a check-off box on the registration form for people to indicate that they have a special dietary need.


Contact individuals who indicate a special dietary need to find out what their needs are and then communicate them to the hotel.





One of the most difficult aspects of planning a conference is accurately estimating attendees for purposes of guaranteeing food.


The hotel and any off-site caterers will require a number of meals to "guarantee" several days before the conference. Be sure to know the guarantee dates.


MAALL must pay for the number of people guaranteed, regardless of whether they show up.


Generally, the hotel or caterer can accommodate some last minute additions. Ask how many or what percent. Accommodating additional diners is more difficult for plated meals than for buffets. This is especially critical for opening luncheonBhave Registration inform you right away of unexpected late registrations.

The "safe" approach in meal counting is to assume that everyone will show up at a meal that is included in his/her registration costs. Inevitably, some people don't show up at some meals, but including them may help cover unexpected attendees.


Some MAALL meetings have asked people to mark which events they will attend. This is successful only if everyone marks and if people are held to their choices. Doing so is problematic if the cost is covered in the registration fee. Probably the only way to rely on pre-meeting choices would be to change the approach to registration fees by offering Afull" and "program" registrations the way AALL is now doing.


Meal count factors to consider


Consider whether a lot of late, on-site registrations are expected. (See Registration chapter for suggestions for encouraging pre-registration.)


Find out whether there are a lot of local participants who may be less likely to attend breakfasts or evening events. (Don't assumeBask people and try to get a good estimate.)


People may be more likely to attend meal events that are in the hotel than off-site events, since they are convenient.


If you have a reception without a dinner, some people may treat the hors d'oeuvres as dinner.


Some people may be leaving the conference early. Typically, Saturday morning attendance is substantially lower than the rest of the conference. Therefore Saturday breakfast count might be reduced, even though it is included in the registration fee.


Coordination with Registration Committee


Communicate with the Registration Committee to get the best possible counts.


Let Registration Committee know what information will be needed for food planning (e.g. number of vegetarian meals, number attending full conference) so that Registration can record the information you need in a useful manner.



Scheduling Meal Service


Find out early on how long the hotel needs for a meal. (This will vary by buffet or Aplated@ meal and by how many people are served.) Pass this information on to the Program Chair for scheduling purposes.


Avoid having meal rushed to get to speaker, but it is also undesirable to have lengthy "dead time" between meal and program, or after the event and before next activity in conference schedule. 

Be aware of whether there will be speakers at particular meals and how long they will need. This may affect decisions about plated versus buffet as well as room setup and scheduling. Make sure people aren't trying to serve or get meal from a buffet while a speech or meeting is going on.


Ask the hotel to serve all diners at the same table as close together as possible; ask them not to  serve all non-vegetarian meals to everyone in room first and then all vegetarian, or vice versa. This practice can result in some people left sitting unserved for a long time.





Walk through the meeting areas before the conference and come to agreement with hotel on where food will be served.


Ask to have buffet lines go on both sides of tables, or have more than one serving station. This avoids long lines.


If possible, place break food near the vendors so that they are visited during breaks. However, balance this against amount of space available. If it would be too congested, break may be better off elsewhere.


Someone will have to review the food bill daily and sign for it. Make sure someone from the Food Committee has been authorized by MAALL to sign at the hotel.


Make sure in advance meal room setups and times are known by the hotel.


Check with Program Chair on need for risers for head table, podium for speaker, and audio for speakers. President should determine seating for head table; Publications Committee should prepare name plates.


If the meal or break has a vendor sponsor, Publications Committee should make signs acknowledging sponsorship.


Make sure Equipment and Meeting Rooms Committee knows about any equipment needs for speakers at meals.


Consider whether or not there will be centerpieces on tables and who will make or pay for them. These are nice, but optional. Souvenir centerpieces with a local theme are often popular, though large, bulky ones can be a problem for air travelers. If used, there should be a method planned to determine who wins the centerpiece.





Decide which meals/events will require tickets, and who will collect them.


Coordinate with Registration to be sure tickets are provided for meals/events that need them.


It is especially important to provide and use tickets for plated meals which have both vegetarian and non-vegetarian choices. Diners should place their tickets on the table so servers will know who gets which entree. Switching at the last minute cannot be allowed, as the hotel may run out of one of the entrees!


Vegetarian and non-vegetarian tickets should be different colors.



During the Conference




Notify hotel contact immediately if there is a problem.


Make sure that all items that were supposed to be served get served. Little things can go wrong. Was ice served with the soda? Was hot tea put out with the coffee and decaf coffee?


Is the break being set up in the proper location and at the proper time?


Are the meal rooms properly set up? For example, is head table needed for the Thursday luncheon taken down the next day?





Food Samples


           Catering contracts, 2001 St. Louis
                Thursday Reception                      (PDF)
                Friday Dinner                                (PDF)
           Hotel banquet billing, 2001 St. Louis  (PDF)



Return to the Table of Contents