Go to Hampton Court, on the River Thames, and you will find some of the largest and most complete 16th century kitchens anywhere in Europe. You will also find a scale model of the palace in the middle of catering for one of King Henry VIII’s great feasts – the pinnacle of Tudor corporate entertaining, as it were.
Back then, what mattered was conspicuous consumption. Swans weren’t eaten because they tasted good (they don’t), but because they made a very obvious statement.
It is only today, seven years into the 21st century, that we are finally beginning to shake off this Tudor attitude to wining and dining important guests. And it is largely because of the growing concern among consumers about the quality of what we eat and drink and the impact producing, transporting, preparing and serving that food and drink has on the environment.
The organic movement has had an enormous part to play in this sea-change in our business entertaining habits, but there are plenty of clients who might well ask that as much as possible should be sourced locally. Nor is it just a matter of what passes guests’ lips. Entertainment, lighting, the venue, the way that guests were ferried to and from the event are all being put under the spotlight.
Nigel Cooper is executive director of marketing communications company P&MM and chairman of Eventia, the industry body for conference and incentive travel organisers. He says: “Local food has been around and used since time began and is as popular as ever.”
He recognises, however, that some things cannot be sourced within the UK and match clients’ requirements, not least fine wine. But he observes/ “Granted, our wines have not yet reached the reputation levels of many countries, but surely we can ship wine from France at a lower cost to the environment than from South America and South Africa?”
Carly Mitchell, sales and marketing director at catering and events company Tapenade, sums up the new mood: “As a nation we are becoming more aware about environmental issues. We know about the benefits of organic and locally sourced foods. Environmental issues are never far from the news, which means people are more switched on and this inevitably filters through to events.”
Ian Irving is sales and marketing director for brand experience agency Sledge. He observes: “The move towards organic, healthy food will be the next big shake-up in the live events sector. The consumer of today is far more environmentally aware and will judge an event on its effect on the environment and the quality of its consumables.
“Consumers are choosing only to engage with brands that they feel empathy for because they have similar values to their own. These values have to be represented at every touch point the consumer has with the brand – so it is essential for live events to portray those values.”
Sledge is currently working with ethical smoothies company Innocent on the latter’s plans for a country-wide series of village fêtes.
Irving says: “Innocent is a brand that is healthy, green and fun – so their events have to portray this.”
But ethical event organising is about far more than just the food and drink. There is the issue of what happens to the rubbish afterwards.
As P&MM’s Cooper observes: “Look at the waste. Where does it go? Are beer and wine bottles recycled by the venue, or dumped in sacks for landfill? Then, look at the amount of waste. If we don’t over-order, we don’t strain the resources in the first place. Just look at the coffee break pastries. Thousands must go to waste every day in London alone – surely a better use can be found?”
Richard Davis, deputy general manager of Leith’s at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, says the centre has made strenuous efforts to cater for the demand for healthier food and drink, organic and locally sourced produce and fair-trade ethically sourced items.
However, he warns: “Ultimately, catering choices for corporate events need to remain in the hands of the client. While caterers can advise and educate clients on the increasing variety of sustainable options, we still need to give them the final say on the menu and ingredient choices.”
While you could certainly replace Champagne with an organic English wine, the client may have a different concern at the front of their mind. It is important to communicate with clients to determine their catering requirements (and budgets) and subsequently ensure their event achieves its objectives in an ethical and ‘green’ manner.