We are observing an emerging trend with exhibitors. More and more are moving away from having the generic candy dish to serving “real” food and offering beverages to their visitors at the booth. From something as simple as offering a branded bottle of water, coffee or tea, higher end chocolate, sandwiches or even a full sit down meal at some shows in Europe. People get tired and hungry walking a show. Many people travel from distant places to attend, and there are few things that are better when you are jet lagged and tired than free food.
There are some things that while great at a college party, are not a good idea to offer at a business event.
- Messy foods. No one wants to get ketchup or ice cream on their business suit or to be seen by a prospective business contact with cilantro on their teeth. Serving fajitas, hot dogs, and spaghetti are probably not a good fit. One year we served ice cream in our booth. While people loved it, there are still stories about how messy it was and the difficult cleanup issues we had.
- Smelly Foods. I love garlic and seafood. Many people love fish sauce and other foods that are fabulous to eat … but may not be so great to smell when you are not eating them. A big objective at events is to make new connections and have in-depth business conversations. Questioning your breath, or whether your hands smell like roast beef, are not confidence inspiring when you are trying to decide whether or not to introduce yourself.
- Controversial foods or beverages. Yes, it is likely that serving shots or martinis at the show can get you a lot of talk value, and possibly many more leads. However, you may want to consider how your clients and other industry contacts may interpret that choice. If your brand image is pretty relaxed, high-end, or you work for a company that produces the product, then it may be the perfect offering. However, make sure it does not conflict with your messaging at the show or distract from the product or service you are trying to promote.
- Dangerous Foods. It should go without saying that anything that requires you setting the food on fire should probably be out. Yes, that means no bananas Foster, sorry. However, you may also want to avoid anything that requires cooking food at high temperatures. Fire regulations are very strict at Trade Shows (check out this Exhibitor Online article). There is a good reason for that, you have a very large number of people in an enclosed and somewhat unfamiliar space. You don’t want anyone to get hurt, or worse yet to cause a fire.
- Highly allergenic. This could easily fall into the dangerous category if you serve peanuts to the wrong person. Other possible foods to avoid would be shellfish, tree nuts, fish, milk, and eggs. For a more detailed list of food allergens visit the World Allergy Organization. Even if allergies are not an issue, you may want to be mindful of food sensitivities or trends such as gluten or lactose intolerance when planning your menu as well. In some of our events, we have found we get much better attendance when people know that we will have food options that will be sensitive to their food needs and preferences.
- Very expensive. You don’t have to serve caviar for your food expenses to exceed your budget at a trade show. Note that any food not regularly included in the catering menu provided by the convention center or host hotel is likely to be significantly more expensive than what you would pay outside of the show. Also, be aware that if you plan to bring your own food to the show you are likely to be charged for corking fees which may make you question the importance of a particular brand of coffee or water. Corking fees may include flat service fees per booth, per day as well as corking fees per item. Candy Adams has a great article on Exhibitor Magazine, “Food on the Floor” that outlines how to minimize expenses. Be sure to contact the Convention Services vendor for your particular show well in advance to get estimates.
- Not brand appropriate. The food does not need to be controversial to fit into the “not brand appropriate” category. For example, if you are a premium provider of a particular product or service, it may not be brand appropriate for you to offer sub sandwiches at your trade show. However, if your brand is playful it may be just fine to serve custom cake-pops at your booth. Here is a great site with some fun bite-sized ideas you may want to consider for your next event.
Once you have noted these potential pitfalls, have fun planning your menu! There are few things as effective in forging a relationship as being able to break bread with them. So go ahead and start planning a menu for your next event and let us know how it goes!