Food service in your trade show exhibit and wondering what to do? Well look no further. Kathleen Gunderson, AVP, Trade Shows & Exhibits Manager, at Wells Fargo Meetings & Events has seen it all.

During Kathleen’s long tenure in the industry, she’s been responsible for dozens of events—that required hospitality services on the show floor—both in the U.S. and internationally. Here is a complete guide of Kathleen’s tips for achieving no-drama food service in your trade show exhibit:

Pull Together a Plan

  • Order everything earlier than you need it. “Whatever response time you are accustomed to getting in a hotel—the response time you get from catering at a convention center will be significantly slower,” says Gunderson. She suggests, for instance, that if you want something delivered at 7:00 a.m. the first day, you schedule it for 6:15 a.m. –then schedule it for 6:30 a.m. on subsequent days.
  • Meet face-to-face ahead of time. Gunderson recommends that you schedule an appointment with the catering manager assigned to your booth a day or two before your event. Use this time establish a relationship and to plan your serving strategy, get your serving-ware and utensils, and stage your serving area. “You’ll want to do a trial set-up to make sure you—and they—have everything you need. This includes staging some items by elevating them, which makes the display more appealing. You want to claim everything you need early because at big shows, they will run out,” says Gunderson.
  • Ask the center to provide menu cards. Protect guests who have dietary restrictions such as vegan or nut, dairy, seafood, or gluten allergies by having the convention center provide label cards for every dish that spell out what the ingredients are.
  • Check your eating utensils options. Gunderson says metal silverware is a lot to deal with in terms of collecting and getting back to the kitchen. If you don’t want to use plastic, ask the center if they can get you eco-friendly bamboo silverware.
  • Don’t be afraid of custom items. “Oddly, when I’ve asked for something that isn’t on the convention center’s menu—it’s often been done better than their standard offerings. I think it’s because they put more care into special orders,” says Gunderson.
  • Know the convention center’s hold policy. Every facility has a policy driven by local health department regulations that governs how long they will let food sit out before they take it away. Know what this policy is so you don’t be surprised when they show up to take away your food. You can also ask if you can hold items over in your refrigerator for the next day.
  • If you are exhibiting internationally, ask about EVERYTHING. For instance, ice is a standard in the U.S. but not in Europe. You need to know this up front so you can order appropriately.
  • Plan for trash. “Don’t count on the convention center’s trash receptacles,” says Gunderson. Bring your own bags and bins to hide in your storage area. And plan to have your catering staff periodically haul the trash out of the booth. Make sure the bags are heavy duty—you don’t want any leaks when you’re walking out of the booth with a bag full of discarded beverages.

Work With Your Staff

  • Order staff to work food service. You’ll want someone in your booth throughout your entire service to refresh the displays and keep the tables clean. And ask for experienced staff that are familiar with the facility.
  • Brand your staff. “Get branded aprons for your serving staff so they look like part of your team,” says Gunderson.
  • Incentivize your servers. In Gunderson’s experience, giving your servers their gratuity daily helps keep them motivated for days two and three of your show. She also compliments her catering mangers to their bosses when they do a good job.

Consider Your Presentation

  • Consider platter size. “Smaller platters look fresher and fuller than larger platters with the same amount of food,” says Gunderson. This is especially true for fruit, charcuterie, and cheese.
  • Replenish often to keep things looking fresh and plentiful. Gunderson prefers to put out smaller platters and then have her staff replenish. “It doesn’t benefit your brand to have a picked-over buffet,” says Gunderson.
  • Select foods that make a strong visual presentation. For instance, Gunderson prefers to serve fruit skewers rather than fruit platters because the skewer presentation continues to look good even after half has been eaten. Plus, it’s easy for staff to replenish.
  • Go for smaller portions. Many people don’t want to take a large amount of food—or take more than they plan to eat. Gunderson recommends that you serve smaller items—or cut things like sandwiches into smaller pieces. The same goes for beverages. Some people would prefer a cup to an entire can or bottle.

Think Through Beverage Service

  • Compare beverage costs. Gunderson has found that in some centers, it’s less expensive to bring in her own Wells Fargo-branded water than to buy water bottles from the convention center. On occasion, she’s also found it more affordable to bring in specialty beers and pay a corkage fee than to purchase from catering. And just an FYI—you may need to pay a corkage fee on water too.
  • Think local. If there is a local beverage of choice, offer it in your exhibit. For example craft beers, ciders or fun sodas.
  • Have your own ice bucket and tongs. This a) ensures you’ll have what you need and b) makes sure you’re covered if you have to send one of your staff for more ice—especially since the ice machine can be a half-mile walk. Internationally, ice is not a given so beware—it may come with an additional charge.
  • BYO PERIOD. “You never know what will be in short supply at the show,” says Gunderson. She suggests having your own wine and beer openers, insulated cooling tubs (so you don’t end up with water all over your storage room), dish cloths, towels—maybe even serving platters, bowls, and utensils. A quick trip to a superstore and a few dollars could very well make your life easier.
  • Anticipate barista lines. People love having custom coffee drinks—but this can often result in a line. Gunderson keeps things moving by having an insulated thermos with hot water available as a self-serve option for tea drinkers. Also, you can save the barista time by placing a small refrigerator with the standard assortment of milks right near the expresso machine.
  • Get a bucket. You’ll need a way to quickly get rid of liquids from partially consumed beverages. A bucket works—or splurge on a sink and plumbing. Having a drain and running water helps with clean-up—and can be worth the expense if you have a lot of catering.

Attend to the Details

  • Allocate adequate storage area. Think it through in detail. Do you need enough space to stock for the entire show—or just one day at a time? If you want to replenish/restock continually, you’ll likely need storage with shelves and possibly counters and refrigerators adjacent to your serving area. If you have glassware, you’ll need racks for that, too. And you also need areas for your extra silver, plates, and napkins—and a separate area for your used glassware and china. Gunderson suggests using the metal racks that are designed for retail displays. They are more stable than their plastic counterparts, and available as a rental.
  • Know what can be returned/is being paid for by consumption.
  • Defeat the clutter. Don’t leave cups and things everywhere—it looks cluttered and takes away from your brand image. “Think hotel, not convenience store,” says Gunderson.
  • If your hospitality is for clients only, don’t position it along the aisle. It annoys people when you tell them the food isn’t for them. And when aisle shoppers walk away with your food and beverage, it wastes your investment.
  • Maximize your space. “I always put five chairs at a round café table rather than four. It works,” says Gunderson.
  • Make sure your electricity is run to the right location. Plan for outlets for your refrigerators, your cappuccino machine, and if you need them, your induction warmers.
  • Compare costs to bring things in vs. renting them from the convention center. At some shows, Gunderson has found it more cost effective to bring in dorm refrigerators and chairs from Sam’s club than to rent them. This is especially true if your show is in a country/at a show that doesn’t charge for drayage. At the end of the show, Gunderson donates these items to charity.
  • Have a plan B. Gunderson always asks catering what they have on hand that can be ordered and delivered quickly—just in case she needs a quick replenish. For instance, some centers always have a supply of hummus or deviled eggs on hand. (Who knew?)

Follow Kathleen’s tips and your in-exhibit food service should go smoothly. Or, if you’d like more assistance on how to achieve no drama food service, contact Stephanie at scoupland (at) 3DExhibits (dot) com and she’ll connect you with one of our event specialists.