Whether you have decided to go along the traditional route and offer your guests a turkey dinner with all the trimmings or have taken inspiration from others and are planning to give the Christmas party-goers something a little different this year, there are several points you’ll need to consider if you want to make it as successful and stress-free as possible.
With this in mind, we asked experts in event catering, who are used to dealing with larger groups and putting on world-class culinary events to share their top tips for delivering the perfect festive frivolities.
As obvious and boring as it sounds, our experts unanimously state that the key to ensuring the success of any Christmas event lies in early planning.
While the events team at The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA Venues) start planning for Christmas in February, there is no need to panic if you haven’t done anything yet. However, it will help to draw up a plan as soon as possible, considering what you want to offer and to whom, the budget you’re working towards and how you will staff events or busier than usual lunch or dinner services.
“Planning Christmas can take a lot longer than most people think – researching and selecting menus; booking entertainment; decorating the venue,” says Jason Kitt, event sales manager at luxury London hotels Jumeirah Carlton Tower and Jumeirah Lowndes Hotel. “Every client will have different requirements so it’s important to consider what you can offer prospective clients.”
So what is the best way to plan an event or dinner?
“I work backwards,” says Simon Flint, executive chef at the National Theatre in London. “I come up with an exciting idea and go back step by step from that to see how we will achieve it,” he says.
“It’s important to build your ideas around your kitchen and the equipment you have too. If you have to get 90 covers out in 45 minutes and you’re not used to it you will need to think about how you’re going to achieve it.”
Flint offers tastings to some clients before an event ‘to iron out any creases’ and get their feedback. If that isn’t feasible, at least have a staff tasting.
“If you’re trying a new dish, practice it before the event so you have a clear idea of timings and any challenges you may face,” agrees Kitt.
RIBA’s venue marketing manager Maria Langshaw also advises sharing all plans you have to execute an event with others before you go ahead.
“Get your staff involved early and get their advice and feedback on the issues from previous Christmases,” she adds.
Once you have your plan in place for the festive season, whether it is hosting a series of dinner and dances or simply offering a special Christmas menu, ensure you share those plans with everyone across the business.
“Brief your staff who will be talking to potential clients on the phone so that they understand exactly what you are trying to achieve and give them an idea of how flexible they can be on variations to menus and timings,” says Langshaw.
And when the festive season is in full swing and events are happening, keep those lines of communication open. "All members of your catering team should be fully briefed on their roles so everything runs smoothly for the client,” advises Kitt.
It shouldn't just be the kitchen who need to be kept in the loop, however, waiting, bar and reception staff should all know what stage the operation is at if you want an event to go to plan. "The key consideration when catering for large groups are meticulous planning, organisation and clear communication with all team members, enabling a military operation in the execution of the event," adds Gavin Gooddy, head of marketing at event caterer Rhubarb.
If you are a manager or in charge of the operation, it is also worth communicating timings to guests, in particular when you expect them to leave by, says RIBA's Langshaw.
"Two things that make Christmas events harder are guests drinking too much and later closing times," she says. "Being firm about closing times and communicating these from the outset is the only fair way to treat your staff - Christmas can be a long haul otherwise."
When it comes to the execution of the event itself there are several tips our experts have presented that will help you on your way.
Large groups can mean that people will be requiring individual bills, so RIBA's Langshaw suggests having a menu option that includes a wine allowance per person to avoid guests squabbling over who drank what. If you have space and don't already have a bar, setting up a cash bar within your venue could be a way of avoiding that, but ensure you have the ability to staff it.
If you are concerned about being able to cater for larger groups than usual, particularly when it comes to offering drinks, you could include a drinks reception within the package, having a member of staff serving a selection of drinks from a tray or from a table to guests before they are seated.
You could even do away with seating altogether if space is an issue.
Rhubarb, which caters at The World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards, has seen an increase in demand for canape and bowl-food parties this year where guests are not seated, but still get hot, belly-filling food and the National Theatre's Flint also suggests this option if you are looking to offer a more contemporary take on the Christmas party as well as cater for more people within a speedier timeframe.
For this option, Gooddy suggests feeding hungry party-goers with miniature festive classics or reinterpretations of traditional dishes such as a mini Christmas dinner served in a tiny copper skillet and pork and chestnut cocktail sausages with apple mash to dip.
If you are catering for sit-down dinners, prepare as much food in advance and keep it as simple as possible. Gooddy says: "Dishes should be prepared in advance where possible and a suitable menu designed that allows ease of operation. Minimise the number of 'hits' to a plate by keeping the amount of ingredients down to a minimum and decoration simple but impactful."
Whichever option you go for, ensure food is good quality and you won't go wrong, believes Flint.
"Food can provide real theatre, don't forget that. If you blow them away with the food and provide good service you can't go wrong."
All our experts agree that to put on the perfect event you have to see it as an experience through the eyes of your guests and suggest that staff try and enjoy it as much as they do.
"People always have high expectations for any event but especially Christmas parties," says Gooddy. "It is one of the few occasions that guests are able to let their hair down around colleagues or clients, so they expect a smooth running and thoroughly enjoyable event."
“Christmas is one of the busiest times of the year for events with everything ranging from large corporate parties to small dinners for families, but it’s one of the most enjoyable times to work as those attending events are looking to enjoy themselves and celebrate the end of the year,” says Kitt.
Planning the perfect event - five top tips
- Plan early. The earlier you can get your ideas out there the longer you will have to get them right before the festive season kicks off.
- Know your limitations. If your restaurant, pub or hotel doesn’t have the space to offer a sit down dinner for parties of 20 or more, why not clear a space and offer a buffet or a drinks reception instead?
- Brief all staff. Ensure everyone working in your business in the run-up to and during Christmas knows what packages or deals you are offering to customers so they can deal with enquiries, or at least have a person they can direct them to. When the events are happening, make it clear who is responsible for what to avoid any confusion when the rush starts.
- Keep it simple. Don't try and achieve too much or give too many options to guests if you don't think you'll be able to deliver at the event. Have a couple of options for different budgets and consider all inclusive packages to minimise problems with bills at the end of events.
- Expect the unexpected. If you only have a small team of staff, it could be worth having the number of an agency to hand or people you can call on to help if sickness strikes.