Exhibition catering and bars have undergone a transformation in recent years, and it’s not over yet.
Feeding and watering a hoard of hungry visitors and exhibitors is not a task to be sniffed at.
Not only do most caterers and bar providers have to serve hundreds, if not thousands, of people over the course of a single day, they also have to serve people who might have been striding back and forth across a show floor for hours on end. In other words? People who might be a bit tired and grumpy.
It’s not surprising, therefore that when Olympia London worked with research agency Kantar TNS to discover what visitors value most in a caterer, they discovered that quality of service topped the list.
After a long day exploring a show, a friendly face offering food is a welcome sight for visitors.
“Great food in a venue really matters; customers who eat well are likely to arrive earlier, stay longer, network effectively and be inspired to return,” agrees Julia Galbraith, marketing manager at ExCeL London. “Happy customers mean more successful events.”
Historically exhibition catering might not have had the best reputation – overpriced sandwiches and costly croissants come to mind – but many UK venues are making a concerted effort to consign that rep to the history books.
“Let’s face it, traditional perceptions of venue catering have in the past ranged from the uninspired to the downright depressing,” says Galbraith. “As a London venue we have the added pressure of having one of the world’s best culinary capitals on the doorstep. Our visitors expect and demand so much more.
“That’s why, over the last two years, we’ve invested over £15m to deliver a highly focused and large scale food and beverage offering, designed to enhance the experience of our customers and enable better event outcomes at ExCeL.”
Customer tastes, in both bars and catering, have diversified and arguably matured in recent years.
“Having cocktail bars always goes down very, very well,” says Alice de Haan, owner of Wonder Bars. “Cocktail bars are definitely wanted by the majority of our customers, but it always comes down to the client and the clientele.”
Additionally, there’s a trend towards bespoke spirits and beers, adds Ben Avigdori, founder of Barsmith Event Bars.
“The term ‘craft beer’ is now ubiquitous and local spirits are equally popular,” he tells EN. “We get asked regularly to do specific gin or whisky bars and when we come to selecting the menus with clients the choice is endless.”
Barsmith operated the main bar for Squaremeal’s Venues + Events Live 2016 and at Taste of London: Festive Edition, and Avigdori says one of the biggest challenges is predicting visitor numbers.
“While these events are incredibly good fun they are also logistically incredibly challenging and take months of planning,” he explains. “At an event like Taste, for example, we had no idea quite how many people would visit the bar, so preparing stock quantities was a challenge.
“With private events the planning is definitely easier. You know how many people, how many hours and it’s less challenging to operate a bar in those circumstances.”
At private events, bar providers and caterers may have some idea of the tastes of their audience, whereas at an exhibition there will always be an element of guesswork involved.
What this means, says Galbraith, is that venues like ExCeL have to be prepared for all visitor appetites.
“We welcome nearly four million visitors ever year from across the globe,” she says. “One week we might have a big fitness event where attendees are looking for protein and vitamin rich, healthy foods. The very next week we’ll have a motorcycle show, where visitors would prefer something that is more substantial (followed by a pint of craft ale).”
While food and drink used to be an afterthought at many shows, nowadays it’s vital, adds Galbraith.
“If you are spending a lot of time on the event circuit, you want to be able eat foods that make you feel well and give you energy to get the best out of your day,” she concludes. “When it comes to their stomachs, people expect more.”