How the Catering Industry is Shaping Up for the Rest of 2020 and Beyond

Nov 10, 2020

A nimble go-anywhere caterer and a multi-venue large operator consider a period that’s extremely eventful but less full of events than they’d like.

Nicola Woolfrey owns Trolley’d, a Sydney-based event company that offers cocktail experiences from upcycled airline trolleys, with her husband Byron. They were looking at their busiest calendar ever before it was wiped clean in March. Though small events have started to come back, business is nothing like it was before the pandemic struck.

“In the short term, there’s a lot of uncertainty around if and when restrictions will ease or tighten,” says Woolfrey.

That’s prompted changes in customer behaviour and the rhythms of event planning. “Most bookings are last minute now whereas prior to COVID they were booked and paid months in advance,” she says. On the upside, the events that do happen really feel like they matter. “Clients are more sure of what they want,” she says. “Because numbers are limited, there’s a focus on quality not quantity. People are willing to spend, and the events are more intimate and sophisticated.”

Hatem Saleh owns Atlantic Group in Melbourne, a multi-pronged hospitality company with event spaces, restaurants and now a home-delivered food arm. High fixed costs make low numbers tricky.

“Let’s say you’re allowed 60 people at a wedding but the space usually holds 200,” he says. “The opportunity cost of lost revenue, the expense of running a kitchen, paying rent, using individual canape boxes that are sustainable and look premium, it all adds to the cost. There will have to be a general acceptance that the cost per head will escalate.”

There’s also the question of atmosphere. For smaller in-home events, a convivial mood can spring from just a handful of guests but it’s different in cavernous hired spaces. “If numbers are down and you can’t have a band and you can’t have dancing, it’s hard to create the atmosphere and vibe,” says Saleh.

“We have to work harder to create enthusiasm and interest and excitement. It’s hard for business owners, and guests, and for staff who want to get paid. We all need each other to keep things moving but they’re difficult cards we’ve been dealt.”

New-style eventing

“We weren’t living normal lives prior to COVID,” says Woolfrey. “I’ve heard so many people say they were too busy to spend time on things that count. This time is a gift to reconsider how we want things to be.”

Nicola and Byron have had profound mindset changes that they want to take into the future, with a specific ambition to connect to nature through their events.

“It’s raising consciousness through storytelling, whether that’s introducing people to plants in their backyard or that they forage, or helping people pay attention to natural cycles,” she says. “We plan to deliver quite bold messages in ways that are digestible and easy to consume.” They recently ran the first in a planned series of themed ‘Wild Feasts for a New Age’, designed to create authentic connection through conversation and demonstration.

Saleh did a lot of winter planning for a COVID-safe Spring Racing Carnival that now won’t happen in the normal way at all. On the upside, the process brought canape trends to light.

“When you can’t have people putting their fingers into platters, when you can’t even have people walking around, what is the new norm of event food?” asks Saleh. “We looked at pre-portioned plates, bowls and bento boxes to enable us to safely and cautiously deliver the product.”

Atlantic Group has catered for many remote meetings during the pandemic, delivering food to individual homes for online gatherings. Saleh anticipates further developments in the virtual conference.

“I don’t think our normal idea of a conference with 600 to 1,000 people in a room will be back for 12 to 18 months,” he says. “I could imagine smaller numbers, perhaps with every second chair empty, with delegates having the option of Zooming in.”

In such cases, he foresees a combination of in-venue and at-home catering. “You can’t force someone to come to an event if they don’t feel comfortable,” he says.

Planning for uncertainty

“We’re in for a difficult 2021,” says Saleh. “Catering and functions work anything from two to 12 months in advance and when we don’t know what we’re working with we can’t give anyone else certainty.

“There will be a recovery but it’s going to be a long battle to get back to what we knew as normal. In the meantime, it’s important we are supported by our governments, that hospitality works together, and that our customers trust restaurants and caterers to run events in a manner that keeps them and our staff safe.”

Woolfrey is seizing the opportunity to reset her focus and play a long game. “I think a lot of stuff we focus on is superficial and doesn’t have much substance,” she says. “We all come from nature, though some people like it more than others.

“We’re having the conversations, making a little bit of change. It’s about going on the journey and taking a step in the right direction. You will be surprised where you end up.”

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