Few Edmonton business sectors were broadsided more blatantly by the past two-plus years of pandemic disruptions, social distancing restrictions and lockdowns than the virtually choked-off business of catering and event management. No need to analyze stats and numbers. There was hardly any catering or even management business in Edmonton or anywhere else. But, as the cliché goes: when the going got tough, the tough got going.
Edmonton’s catering and even management professionals held on, regrouped and are now recovering. “We are experiencing an exciting uptick in event booking requests and a modest increase in live events and concert requests, but our path to recovery has been slower than we hoped,” says Emma Pietroleonardo, General Manager of the Edmonton Convention Centre. “International travel demand remains lower than we’d like and the number of visiting delegates and attendees to domestic events are fewer than we’ve served two years ago. Still, we feel optimistic.”
Mercer’s Catering has grown from a one-woman operation doing a couple of events per day to one of Edmonton’s premier caterers, doing over 4,000 events during an average year. And these have not been average years! “Mercer’s catering is grateful for the loyal clients, government supports and staff that has helped navigate the extremely challenging past two years,” admits the personable founder, Jill Mercer.
“Together with our peers, we have lost key staff that have moved on to different avenues and career paths, as a result of the ebbs and flow caused by restrictions. With no revenue it was very difficult to hold onto these team members. Now we are faced with the flip side of the coin – the challenge of the lack of manpower with the upturn of events and catering.”
Both experienced Edmonton event management experts agree that, working around the challenges of the past two years, regrouping and some industry new normals are transforming the catering and even management business. “Physical distancing accelerated the need for more innovative and creative ways to gather,” Pietroleonardo points out. “Hybrid events facilitated face-to-face meetings from remote locations. Today, while hybridization of meetings and events continues, our observations show the pattern flattening. There is a greater priority is on all aspects of safety, with more clients expecting detailed safety protocols and response plans as part of their events.”
No doubt about it. When it comes to even management and catering, there have been (big and moot) changes made. “After all, necessity is the mother of invention,” Mercer laughed. “Restrictions imposed forced the industry to explore new avenues on executing catering and events; from individually packed meals, virtual events, safe service buffets and hybrid events. Virtual events also connected Mercer’s with caterers from other provinces hosting virtual events with local guests and attendees.
“We are seeing more of the ‘pre-covid’ interactive food stations, chef-driven events returning, as well as Indigenous influenced menu items and other ethnic influences and fusion menus. Weddings are trending toward plated, family style or food stations rather than the classic buffet.”
In Edmonton and throughout North America, catering and event management is being re-defined. Tasty and good food is no longer special. It’s about the whole experience around it. It is no longer about what the customer thinks about a company or a brand, but about what the customer feels. The experience has to be right from A to Z. Instead of serving from coffee pots, coffee is roasted and ground on location. Instead of buffets, it’s live cooking. People want to be surprised. It’s as much about the components of food and drinks as it is about the presentation and the new ingredients in it. For example, you can serve a brain-shaped vanilla dessert with a scalpel and ask people to ‘dissect’ it. Experts suggest that guessing ingredients made for fun interaction at the table.
When it comes to trends, buffets are on the way out. They notoriously do not create an atmosphere and hardly encourage social interaction. It is also known that buffets cause more food waste.
From the school of little-things-matter, the halls also have to be right, neat and in theme. As catering and event pros have known all along, guests see everything from the parking lot to the toilet. If something is not right, the experience is damaged.
“Over the past 30 years the industry has changed, a lot. Previously catering was mostly used for large corporate events and weddings,” Mercer notes. “Now, many smaller private events are happening, and the hosts are opting for the full-service catering options. Over the past five years, due to the influence of social media and food television, clients have become more interested in everything in the culinary world. We are able to present food with a global influence using unique ingredients, which were not possible previously. Clients also like to see the food being prepared with our chefs on site. Interactive food stations are very popular.
“Clients are much more sophisticated and knowledgeable about food and catering. There is a lot more competition in the catering industry. Social media has become a very important, much more important than word of mouth.”
Mercer also admits that some things never change. A critical must for catering and event management is planning, planning and planning. “We must be prepared for every possible outcome, particularly if the event is outside. Communication between the kitchen and event staff is vital. Checklists are double checked and then checked again. Communication with the event organizer is paramount so expectations for all parties are in sync. Health and safety are extremely important. Cold food must remain cold and hot food must remain hot.”
The Edmonton Convention Centre, together with Edmonton EXPO Centre, are two anchors for Edmonton experiences.
“It was not unusual for the Convention Centre to host over 450 events per year… and then COVID happened,” Pietroleonardo says. “In 2022, we are hosting 250-260 events. This year, we were honoured to serve the media during the papal visit to Edmonton and also the inaugural Canadian Hydrogen Convention. Animethon, the Japanese Animation (anime) themed festival, returned after a two-year hiatus to welcome 10,000 visitor a day over a three-day period, and was our largest attended event this year.”
Next month, the Edmonton Convention Centre is hosting the three-day Sport Events Congress, the largest annual gathering of everyone connected to the over $7.4 billion sport tourism industry in Canada. The Centre will also host the Rocky Mountain Wine & Food Festival.
The catering and event management sector is used to crisis management by highly creative problem solvers and innovators. A subtle but key driver of catering and even management, particularly in Edmonton, is – people; face-to-face people all anxious and excited to get out and enjoy the social aspects of life.
Catering and event management echo a trend. The last two years have really helped solidify the power of in-person gatherings. There’s so much that comes from the energy of a group, celebrating and collaborating together and tackling big business imperatives as a team. The good news? Event calendars are filling-up.