Creativity and innovation: Catering large events in a post-Covid world

We don’t yet know when large events will return with people in attendance, but while the finer details remain to be seen we can perhaps rely on a few assumptions. We know that timescales are likely to be cautious, rather than rushed. We know that any return of service will almost certainly follow a phased approach. And we can also assume that strict hygiene and social distancing protocols will form the bedrock of any guidelines and begin to plan accordingly.

For those of us also providing catering services inside stadium, arena and conference venues, there has been an additional focus in recent months around what food and beverage offerings will look like for visitors when they do return. We are fortunate that the risk of transmission of the virus that causes Covid-19 through food is currently deemed to be low. However, changes will still need to be implemented.

Some will be short-term adjustments in direct response to the pandemic – for example, covering all food items so that dishes are not exposed to the ambient environment. Others will be longer-term shifts in the delivery of food experiences. Here, we can expect to see the continuation – and in some cases the acceleration – of existing trends that were already underway prior to the pandemic.

One of the key shifts across the broader events hospitality space post-pandemic will be an increase in individually portioned dishes. This is of course sensible from a safety standpoint as it allows food items to be lidded and covered to minimise any risk of cross contamination. It is also desirable as a means of reducing food waste, which has been a significant trend across our sector for a number of years already.

Even buffets have tended towards the direction of individually portioned items – just one of a number of initiatives we’ve been driving to help our venue partners meet their ambitions when it comes to reducing food waste, and one area where we don’t foresee a backslide post-pandemic.

An increase in pre-ordering will be another significant trend post-pandemic. This will ensure that guests still get to enjoy choosing from a range of delicious dishes, just in advance of an event rather than on the day. It will also allow teams to plan and pre-prepare the delivery of their menus in a more efficient manner. What this won’t mean is any sort of seismic shift towards pre-packed sandwiches and packets of crisps – visitors do not want this, and operators should have no plans to move in the direction of exclusively delivering this type of experience. Instead, expect to see things like pre-prepared starters and desserts – single portioned in covered jars – which can be prepared in advance, allowing guests to enter a pre-set room and graze at their leisure.

Food businesses must also continue to prioritise sustainability, seasonality and local provenance beyond the pandemic. What this means in practice is that menus will likely need to be consolidated around more locally sourced produce that hasn’t been transported thousands of miles from farm to fork. For chefs, there is a lot of opportunity when designing menus to also make sure they are utilising as much of an ingredient as possible – whether that’s meat or vegetable.

Where chicken is on the menu on the concourse, chefs can ensure they are designing menus that make use of the whole carcass across the different levels of hospitality too. The ‘nose to tail’ approach is a more time-consuming approach for venues, but it’s something that many are now striving towards. Once it becomes the normal way of preparing menus, it will soon become routine – if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that new norms are often very hard to go back on.

Not everything about hospitality experiences will change, of course, and not all changes will be permanent. Because the vast majority of stadia, arenas and conference venues are naturally well-equipped to serve a high volume of hot food to a large number of guests, this is something that will remain consistent. What is likely to occur are the acceleration of pre-pandemic shifts towards more street food style offerings across larger events venues, especially in premium hospitality spaces. Our recent partnership with street food pioneer KERB is testament to the fact that attendees’ evolving expectations are increasingly being shaped by what they are used to outside the stadium, on the high street and beyond.

Similarly, Covid-19 does not spell the end of buffet-style service long-term, or formal three-course sit-down meals where these are appropriate and desired. For operators, the post-pandemic shift is not about decreasing choice, but about increasing the ability to approach a wide range of service offerings on a bespoke, case-by-case basis.

The key for venues is understanding what guests want, and how to deliver on evolving expectations. The challenge for hospitality providers is to continue catering to guests’ evolving demands – which haven’t changed – alongside bringing in those new elements that address things like additional hygiene and safety requirements. Venues have relied on our creative thinking and innovative solutions when it comes to designing and delivering menus for a number of years already – post-pandemic, the need for creativity and innovation will only continue to grow.

By James Buckley, executive development chef Levy UK + Ireland

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