Ask the Expert: Making the Most of Your Snack Breaks

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of my life, it’s this: Never be afraid to ask for help. That is the premise for the next series of blog posts, “Ask the Experts”. Regardless of your event planning situation, it’s likely someone has experienced it before. Seeking help from outside sources can not only save you time and energy, but it can also help your event run smoothly.

Catering snack breaks can be a daunting task for new event planners. I recently had the privilege of discussing a few catering questions with Marcus White, Food Service Director at Ridgecrest Conference Center. Marcus has been in the hospitality and food service industry for over 30 years. He offered great advice on catering snack breaks.

  1. “I’ve been asked to plan snack breaks throughout my event. Quite frankly, I’m nervous. What general tips can you give to ease my fears?”
    Typically, snack breaks are the easiest type of service to provide for you and your group. I would recommend that you let us (the catering provider) know the time of day you are looking for, how many guests you plan to have in your group and the general types of items you want. If you know your group is mostly ladies (or mostly men or children) for example, we can help you create the best options for you from our menu.
  2. “My event attendance could be anywhere 50 to 100. How do I prepare when I’m not sure how many people to expect?”
    This question is often the toughest for an event planner to decide. Each group is different, but typically we recommend you guarantee your count on the higher end of the range. We understand you want to be good stewards as you guess your counts, but truly there is nothing more embarrassing or frustrating to the guests themselves, the group’s leadership and even to our own team when a group guesses low and we run out of food. This is one reason why we have made our snacks and breaks menu mostly individually wrapped and sealed items so if there are any leftovers, some groups may choose to keep some of those items and use them at a later time during their event.
  3. “I’m afraid I won’t have enough food and/or drinks. Are there standards as far as food and beverage quantities to prepare?”
    That is a great question. There are standards we use based on our past experiences with similar groups with similar menu choices. If you let us know what your group number maximum is and what you want to guarantee for, we will use that experience and help make sure there are plenty of snacks. Most of the time we are very close to accurate amounts and, of course, we can often supply more items if more guests show up than expected or guaranteed.
  4. “I know a lot of people have food allergies and some people are just picky. How can I make sure everyone is satisfied?”
    The best way to make sure that most guests are satisfied is to offer a little more of a variety as opposed to just one item for a snack break. The greater the variety the more likely that most everyone can at least find something. You can take a look at our Snack Break Menu for a few ideas: Snack and Breaks Service.

While providing food for breaks may seem like a big task, a little thought-filled planning can put your fears at ease. A big thanks to Marcus White for sharing some of his expertise in this area!


Christmas Centerpieces: A Community Effort

If your schedule during the holiday season is anything like mine, I guarantee you are constantly on the run from Christmas party to Christmas program to Christmas service to Christmas cookie exchange. While most events held around the holiday season are typically scheduled for an afternoon or evening rather than an extended overnight retreat, there is still much planning to be done to make your holiday gathering a success.

Two red Christmas baubles and colorful lights

In the midst of planning during this busy season, I have found it often helpful to involve others as much as possible. As with any event, big or small, you don’t have to do it all by yourself. People often are more than willing to help if their tasks are bent toward their strengths or something they enjoy.

One of the simplest ways to involve others in holiday gatherings is for assistance with table decorations. This allows them to take some ownership in the event, as well as helps cut costs in your event budget. Here are a few ideas to include others in creating centerpieces for events where your guests will be seated at multiple tables.

  • • Nativity Scenes: Many people have very unique nativity sets in their collection of Christmas decorations. Ask a few of them to bring their nativities to use as centerpieces for each table. These can be great conversation starters, especially if the nativity’s owner is seated at that table. You can complement these with sprigs of festive greenery or small candles. (Don’t underestimate the fun that even a Fisher Price Little People nativity set can add to the decor.)
  • Christmas Dishes: Consider having different guests play “host” to a table by bringing their own Christmas dishes to use. Set tables with their dishes (plates, bowls, glasses, etc.) and any extra pieces they may have. Again, these can be great conversation starters when guests are seated.
  • Ornaments: Ornaments can be used in a variety of ways as table decorations. For example, you might ask each guest to bring their favorite ornament and display it in a festive basket or Christmas greenery placed in the center of the table. One activity could be to tell your table the story of what makes the ornament so special. Another option might be to have each guest bring an ornament to give away in an ornament exchange – these can be displayed similarly in a basket or on greenery in the center of the table.

As you plan your Christmas events this year, think about things you already have that could be used for a one-time event. Ask around to see what others may have as they take out their holiday decorations. Most people don’t mind parting with some decorations for one or two days. Sometimes personal decorations can add a really special touch to your event.

Unique Fall Favor Ideas

Little details add up to an overall experience. Favors can be a small detail that get passed over too quickly. If you need unique favors for a fall event here are some great options.


  • Individual S’mores in cellophane.
  • Hot tea bags with a few pieces of cubed sugar in a clear bag with the event logo.
  • Cider and a stick of cinnamon tied together with twine and placed in a handmade mug.
  • Tiny jars of local jam or jelly.
  • Peanut brittle (careful of those with peanut allergies).
  • Fudge
  • Candy apples
  • Mini pies
  • Bags of caramel corn
  • Small mason jars of salted pumpkin seeds

To come up with more ideas for this group just imagine all of the foods you most enjoy during this season of harvest fairs, Thanksgiving and apple picking!

More ideas:

  • Set of beautiful local postcards
  • Scripture tag with event’s them Scripture for keys, luggage, etc.
  • Magnet with photo of event location or area attraction
  • Photo of the group from your event
  • Locally made soaps in fall scents (cinnamon, pumpkin)
  • A few pieces of beautiful stationary and matching envelopes

Two keys to a fantastic fall favor are relevance and quality. What item best represents the focus of your event? This will be much more meaningful to a participant than a junky pen with your website address printed on it. A favor can turn someone’s mind back to your event and the things they experienced and learned weeks and even months after the event is over. Strive for that. Finally, think quality over quantity. When I attend events most of the promotional items I get end up in the trash. Spend your time and money on something that your attendees will not only be able to keep and use, but enjoy.

Summer Series: Summer Catering Ideas

With the summer season upon us, it’s time to look at a few specific ideas for your upcoming, fun-in-the sun retreats.  Summer is a great time for camps and conferences designed with all ages in mind.

watermelon girl
Looking for a few summer-themed catering ideas for your next event?  Here are a few tried-and-true suggestions you can incorporate.

  1. S’mores:  Nothing says summertime like an evening sitting around a campfire.  However, having a campfire isn’t always ideal in your host location.  A new trend is creating a s’mores bar, something that can be used indoors or outdoors.  To create your bar, use a shallow wooden box or terracotta pots filled with rocks.  Place your flame source (burners or canned heat such as Sterno) in the rocks.  Using wooden skewers, guests can roast their marshmallows directly over these flames.  Think outside the box when creating your s’mores – flavored marshmallows, peanut butter cups or mints as your chocolate and various flavors of graham crackers.  The possibilities are endless!
  2. Watermelon:  When I think of summertime in the South, it’s not complete without watermelon.  Create an evening fellowship enjoying this summer staple.  You can incorporate other fruits, as well, by carving a watermelon as a bowl or basket and filling it with chunks of summertime fruits.  And, if your group is up for it, end the evening with an old-fashioned seed-spitting contest!
  3. Ice Cream Sundaes:  Most everyone loves ice cream!  Offer ice cream in a few different flavors and have guests create their own sundaes with all the toppings.  (If your group is smaller and you have access to ice cream freezers, consider homemade ice cream instead!)
  4. Sno-Cones/Shaved Ice:  Bring out the kid in all of your guests by indulging in summertime sno-cones and shaved ice.  Many party companies have machines available for rent.  Allow your guests to create their sno-cones with an assortment of flavored syrups.  You can buy these at most grocery stores during the summer months.

Summertime provides an opportunity for a lot of fun, outdoor catering events.  Often, they can be very nostalgic in nature, bringing back snacks you enjoyed as a kid on hot, summer nights!

Ideas for Your Next Themed Meal

Tired of the same old meals served in the same old fashion at your event?  Consider having a themed meal (or meals) during your next retreat if your venue allows for the ability to change things up a bit!  Themed meals provide a fun environment to do what your guests will be doing anyway – eating!  They give you, as an event planner, a chance to showcase a creative side, hopefully creating an evening that will long be question markHere are a few ideas for a themed meal you can incorporate in your next event or as a stand-alone evening:

  1. Western Night – Pull out the hay bales, bandanas and cowboy hats as your guests dine on cuisine such as barbeque, ribs, chicken and all the fixings.  Decorate tables with checkered tablecloths, using Western themed items for centerpieces.  Have country music streaming in the background.  If you plan on making an evening out of it, consider hiring a square dance caller to give your guests a truly Western experience!  As an added touch, create invitations in the form of “Most Wanted” posters to hand out in the packet given to guests when they check-in for the retreat.
  2. Hawaiian Night – A luau is a relaxed way to experience dinner.  Decorations include colorful tablecloths, flowers, leis and grass skirts.  Hawaiian music can fill the background as your guests dine on chicken, pasta salads, fruit and other tropical treats.
  3. Italian Night – A pasta bar is the focal point of a night dedicated to Italian food.  Small café type tables can set the ambiance of an Italian restaurant.  Table decorations can include checkered tablecloths and large containers of dry pasta.
  4. Holiday Meals – If your event is in a month other than November or December, your guests could be in for a big surprise if they enter a dining room decorated for a holiday such as Christmas.  Decorations can be as detailed as putting up a tree and lights or as simple as holiday tablecloths and Christmas carols playing.  A home-cooked meal of turkey, ham, dressing and all the sides can add to the feel of the holiday meal.  If you want to give your guests something they can take home, create an ornament commemorating the event to give to each guest.

These are just a few ideas you could implement in your next event.  There are many activities you could add to make an entire evening of your meal.  You might want to inform your guests of your themes before your event if you want them to dress in certain attire for the meal.

Have you had themed meals at one of your events?  If so, comment in the section below with your ideas!

Beautiful and Unusual Spring Centerpieces

Springtime was a long time coming this year- at least in the North Carolina mountains where we live. I’m 189% ready to breath in the warmer air of spring and open all the windows in my house to blow away the woodsmoke and dust of winter.

vegetable-centerpieceSpringtime also brings lots of fresh possibilities for decorating, today we’ll focus on centerpieces. When planning a centerpiece for your next event, consider:

  1. Unusually presented flowers. Add something unexpected to the vase like cut fruit or even whole carrots. Or ditch the vase all together and use teacups, ball jars, cabbage leaves, watering cans, or umbrellas.
  2. Let the changing landscape inspire you. Spring brings herbs, butterflies, bees, birds nests, budding branches, and bright green grass. Use one or two of these items to create a surprising centerpiece. You might need to try several combination to hit on something that is aesthetically pleasing. Try it out before you buy/collect enough for every table.
  3. Spring activities. What does Spring find you enjoying? Walks in rain boots, collecting flowers, gardening with gloves and trowel, watching birds with bird book in hand, painting with watercolors outside, or building a bluebird house? It can be fun and surprising to collect some of these tools and display them artistically.
  4. Books on Spring. I’m a book lover, and when I’m in a pinch, I can always go into my library and find a few books on almost any subject.  For a spring centerpiece I could bring down a gardening book, a birding book, and a travel book and surround them with some pastel candles. Lovely!
  5. Celebrate Easter by including a cross or relevant Scripture. There are so many arresting reproductions of the cross- or you can create your own with twigs and twine. (Don’t pair this with eggs. It’s a confusing combination of symbols.) Relevant Scripture on Christ’s resurrection can be beautifully scripted on thick pieces of paper and framed or folded to stand upright.

Do you have a favorite Spring centerpiece? Share a description or photo with us.

How To Create an Event Lounge Space

Have you ever attended a multiple-day, fast paced conference? By 2 pm did your head ache with information, were your face muscles tight from smiling, perhaps you daydreamed of a comfortable chair? I’ve always wondered why more events don’t offer a lounge-type space, similar to those at airports, for their attendees. What might a lounge include?

•    Comfortable chairs
•    Finger food
•    Coffee
•    Cold drinks
•    Wi-fi
•    Charging stations for phones/laptops
•    Chair massage
•    Large screen televisions
•    Notepads/pens

Consider adding touches to your lounge area that echo the theme and location of your event. For example, if you’re meeting in the south, your finger foods could include  biscuits with local honey, and iced sweet tea.

If your event is fairly small, you might be able to provide a lounge like this for all your guests– but opening one for a large group would be cost (and space) inhibitive.  Consider offering the lounge as a perk to people who pay a higher registration fee, or charge a daily or hourly rate.  If you open the lounge to a certain group of people, put an indicator on their name badge to help staff quickly identify guests who are allowed to be there.

A lounge can be a great place for people to relax or connect while not straying too far from the event hall.  This is an especially good idea if the conference hotel is more than a short walk from the event itself.

If creating a lounge isn’t practical or probable at your next event, perhaps you could scale back the concept by simply providing an open area with comfortable furniture. At Ridgecrest we often see our guests utilizing lobby couches and chairs, and porch rocking chairs as a place to relax and have more lengthy conversations with other guests or speakers.

Do you create limited access lounge areas at your events? If so, what do you include and how do your guests secure entry?

How To Thrill Your Guests With Fewer Choices

I hate ordering coffee at Starbucks. Grande, venti, foam, blended, iced . . . Too many choices for a tea-drinker like myself.  Do you think an event planner can ever offer too many choices to their guests? I do.

Back to me in line at Starbucks. I envy the people placing their order with certainty, “tall, iced hazelnut macchiato.” I stare up at the menu board and wonder what combination of words I need to say to get something small, sweet and without loads of caffeine that will make me shake all morning.  Sometimes I choose something I like, other times I’m disappointed with my order. Now when my coffee-loving husband brings me something from Starbucks, I always enjoy it.  He knows the “language” and what I like, and I accept his gift, and drink appreciatively.

It’s appropriate for event organizers to know when their guests need to be directed towards a better experience by fewer choices. Are you offering training or introducing a new subject to your guests? This might be the perfect opportunity to use your expertise, and/or the knowledge of your experts to craft the best event schedule for your attendees.

For example, you might replace fifteen breakout session options with five.  Focus on the five sessions that your guests most need to attend to get a good grasp of the topic.  If the five break out sessions were taught by the most sought after experts in the field, on the top questions that everyone was wrestling with, I don’t think you’d get complaints!

Slimming down the choices can be especially helpful during shorter events; a one day conference with limited options can direct people through the exact set of experiences you, the planner, have promised.

What choices might you trim from your next event? What more helpful experience could you put in its place?

Catering Secrets Part II

We’re back with the rest of my interview with catering expert Marcus Duarte of the Red Radish in Black Mountain, NC.  Last week we talked about types of service styles, how to save money and the importance of considering guest flow.  Let’s hear what else Marcus has to share.

What are the biggest mistakes consumers make regarding catering?  “The first is planning for too few people.  You spend lots of time and money planning an event, choosing decor and table coverings, and then people want to get cheap on the food; so they buy for 85 people when 100 are coming.  Then guests blame the caterer when they run out of food.  It’s not a fun situation.  Don’t try to skimp on the amount of food you order to save money.”

Other common mistakes? “Trying to handle part of the meal themselves.  Caterers don’t like to hear ‘you do the meal, but we’re going to do dessert.’ Maybe the dessert tastes excellent, but it isn’t ready on time and there isn’t anyone to serve it.  You’ve had a lovely main course, but now the quality and service isn’t the same with the next portion of the meal.  It just doesn’t usually work very well.”

What should people look for/ask a caterer before hiring them?  “Look for insured caterers with a certified kitchen.  There are lots of ‘fly-by-night’ or home caterers that are buying second hand food from non-certified vendors and it’s just not safe. You can also ask if they have sanitation trained employees, that is, people trained in proper receiving, prep, cooking and serving of food- you want that! And, if you’ve never used them before visit their kitchen, look at their vans or delivery vehicles.  Are they clean?

Also, google their reputation.  What are other people saying about them?”

What if you check all those things, and you still have several good options? “Choose a caterer that specializes in what you want to do.  Do they specialize in weddings? Corporate events?  I would highly recommend using a caterer and not a restaurant that caters.  A friend of mine recently did an event and really wanted steak served.  So he called Outback.  By the time the steaks were all packed up and in the van, they were cold.  Most of the time restaurants just aren’t used to preparing food that will be transported and served later.”

Any final tips? “Be very clear on all your expectations.  Who will cover all the different responsibilities? Who will set up the room, clean up?  Ask.  And have a contract.  That way you can read over it and see everything outlined clearly.”

Thanks to Marcus for all his insider tips! I hope they were as helpful to you as they were to me. Happy event planning!

Catering Secrets from the Source

I sat down with Marcus Duarte of the Red Radish Catering Company for some inside tips on catering for events.  Marcus runs a booming catering company, specializing in gourmet corporate lunches.  He’s a chef who’s been catering for fourteen years with a devoted following in North Carolina.  He gave me so many great tips, I’m splitting my interview with him into two parts.  Here’s part one:

Do you have any tips on estimating the amount of food to guest ratio?  Tell your caterer how many people you really expect are coming and they can help you decide on how much food to order.  “Ask your caterer if they figure in an overage.  I usually figure about 10% more than they order.”  But don’t depend on that overage to cover people you know are already coming, that’s not what it is for!

How can people save money? “You save money on wait staff.  A buffet is less expensive than a plated meal because you can run a buffet with fewer staff.  It’s important to have the food packed, delivered, and set out while it is still hot/cold.  You can do that with fewer people at a buffet, but you need lots of staff do that with a plated meal.”

Are buffet and plated the only two service options? “No. In between plated meals and buffet meals is family style service. Family style has all the dishes on the table and people serve themselves.  This requires more food per person, because you don’t have a set portion per person and you don’t want lots of empty bowls sitting on tables.”

Aside from cost, how do you determine the best serving option for your group? “Deciding also depends on space.  Is the event in someone’s house with no counter space- well, buffet might be difficult.  How will guest flow work? Where will people sit/serve themselves etc. Think about your space carefully before deciding how you will best serve people.”

Next week we’ll talk about the most common mistakes customers make with their caterer, questions you shouldn’t forget to ask before hiring a caterer and why you need a contract.  Thanks for all the insights Marcus!