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A Plate for Everyone

Both buffet meals and seated meals have benefits, so consider what is best for each meeting’s goals

By Amy Durham

Heritage Pork Chop at the Carillon Restaurant at Austin’s AT&T Hotel and Conference Center
Heritage Pork Chop at the Carillon Restaurant at Austin’s AT&T Hotel and Conference Center || Courtesy of AT&T Hotel and Conference Center

Buffets are fun. You see long tables of food served hot from steaming dishes, charcuterie boards arrayed with every cheese you can imagine, and a dessert bar from heaven. Choosing your food depending on your mood of the moment can add a sense of adventure and discovery to a lunch or dinner.

Then there are seated meals. You have the luxury of being served, the lack of stress in choosing from myriad options, and you can chat with your tablemates in between courses rather than making a break for the last slice of cheesecake.

Both catering setups have pros and cons. Texas Meetings + Events took a look at the main benefits—and a few of the drawbacks—to offer clarity on what type of catering works best for your upcoming meetings and events.

After-Work Network
The work doesn’t stop just because a meal is served. At a conference or meeting, the lunch table is often the place where most of the connections are made since they are designated times for conversation. A case can be made for both buffet and seated meals when it comes to networking. With a buffet, attendees are up on their feet, moving around the room, and potentially interacting with people they might not otherwise run into. At a designated table assignment, attendees will also network, but only with their tablemates. However, these interactions might be more in-depth since they last the duration of the meal.

Additionally, some seated meals are intentionally keeping attendees in one place for a presentation or an awards ceremony. “Sit-down meals usually mean there will be a set program and a reason to have everyone seated at once,” says Deborah Elias, president of Elias Events in Houston. “A great way to mix it up for a sit-down meal is to do different-shaped tables—some square, some round, some rectangle—and have different centerpieces for those.”

The key to keeping attendees interested and talking is to offer them a conversation starter. Elias has seen planners use QR codes within the centerpieces, which can be used to disseminate information regarding the meeting or in the case of a nonprofit event, used to ask for donations or to bid on silent auction items.

Maintain Safety
While social distancing isn’t required in all venues these days, attendees might have grown accustomed to more space between them and others, especially around food. Many large venues like convention centers will offer a variety of setups that allows planners to choose the right space considerations for their groups.

The Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas prides itself on its versatility and unique approaches to meetings. “There’s a lot about the city of Irving that defies convention—including the Irving Convention Center itself,” says Lori Sirman, communications manager at Irving Convention and Visitors Bureau. Attendees like the convention center’s floor-to-ceiling windows, stacked layout for convenient transitions between sessions, and the unique architecture and design of the facility. “Perhaps the center’s most surprising differentiator is something you don’t normally associate with convention facilities: upscale, inventive food,” Sirman says. “The menu rivals that of a five-star hotel. Chef Eduardo Alvarez, who oversees 300-plus events yearly, has reinvented menus and room setups to address safety and still delivers an exceptional experience.”

Outdoor meeting on the covered terrace at the Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas
Outdoor meeting on the covered terrace at the Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas || Courtesy of Visit Irving

Safety doesn’t have to create awkward spacing, either. Instead, it can be used to add an easy flow between stations or to designate small clusters of tables in various spots of a larger room.

“Seated meals keep people from having to move from their tables to the buffet, which helps prevent people from bumping into one another,” says Jennifer Redente, owner of Central Texas Planner, which serves the San Antonio and Austin areas. The seated arrangement cuts out the need for people to manage carrying their plates, she points out, as well as juggling other items or navigating narrow areas. It also helps individuals with mobility challenges to be served more easily.

Dietary restrictions can be managed with any catering arrangement, so long as the planner has advanced notice. But in cases where the information is provided last minute, a buffet might offer more choices than a preplated meal that has already been set. Ensure that more than one buffet station has options for common dietary restrictions, such as gluten-free, vegan, and nut-free.

Rest & Reset
If the agenda calls for a lot of standing or walking long distances between sessions throughout the day, a seated meal might be a welcome relief. Resting while being served each course not only allows attendees to network, but it also gives them a much-needed physical break.

Even if you’re planning a mostly seated agenda of sessions, consider whether there will be a predinner reception where attendees will be standing. Many attendees could find themselves in heels or stiff dress shoes that make standing longer while they seek out all the elements of a buffet dinner a literal pain.

Aside from the physical aspect of moving around, a buffet meal also requires attendees to make multiple choices before they sit down and eat. During a day of busy breakout sessions, decision fatigue could make the simple act of choosing fish or chicken feel like a chore. Prepared entrees allow attendees to focus on refueling and refreshing.

Stick to the Plan
Obviously, budget plays a part in catering choices. Keeping to the predetermined estimate might decide whether you do buffet or seated meals regardless of your preference. However, in many cases, seated meals can be created with cost-cutting, and buffets can become extravagant arrangements. So, there’s no black-and-white rule to follow for budgeting.

One thing buffets do help to take care of, says Redente, is food waste. When attendees select menu items from the buffet, they tend to eat what they put on their plate. Contrarily, a preselected menu might not satisfy all palates, resulting in half a plate thrown in the trash.

In addition, Redente points out that buffets save on server costs. Without table service, the number of staff members is reduced. This was especially important during recent staffing shortages, which are still an issue in some areas around the state.

“We still have these conversations with our catering or facility managers to ensure we’re prepared in advance,” says Sarabeth Quattlebaum, founder of Sarabeth Events in Dallas-Fort Worth. She has a plan ready to execute if there is a need to overcome shortages. “When a challenge presents itself, create more extensive and preplated food or grazing stations, and spread out the bars.”

The packages presented by the venue also will limit options. Most venues create a variety of packages for planners to choose from, and many customize the meal services to meet a group’s needs. “Our meeting packages give planners the opportunity to simplify and streamline their planning efforts,” says Josh Delgado, director of sales and marketing at AT&T Hotel and Conference Center in Austin. “[Not only do they create a cost savings for planners], but meeting packages are also seamless in helping planners customize their programs because they include everything a planner needs—meeting rooms, meal service, and guest room accommodations. Planners can choose to include breaks, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, [all with] fresh food and beverage selections from our chefs.”

Delectable cheese and veggie board at the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center’s Carillon Restaurant
Delectable cheese and veggie board at the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center’s Carillon Restaurant || Courtesy of AT&T Hotel and Conference Center

Mix It Up
One solution for many of the drawbacks for each meal style is to combine them. Preplate an entree but allow attendees to cruise the buffet table for appetizers and desserts. Or, start the meal with a salad while seated and allow guests to choose between various carving stations for their entrees, then return to the table for preplated desserts.

Themes can help make a buffet or seated meal more conducive to networking by sparking conversation as well. In a culturally diverse area, Elias incorporates buffet selections from various cultures “to add flair and creativity to the event.” Seated meals also can be themed across the entire room. “I love to do themed rooms where each one showcases a different culture and has food and beverage to support that particular theme,” Elias says.

Once you know the needs of your group, the pros and cons of buffets and seated meals will become clear for your meeting. Don’t be afraid to mix things up and approach these longstanding catering practices with creativity. Remember, when at a meeting, food is supposed to be fun.