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Posted On March 19, 2014 by Susan Pupa

Better Marketing Strategies for Catering Part 1: How Will You Talk to Your Audience (and keep their attention)?

Once you’ve found the right audience for your catering company, as we talked about in the last Total Party Planner blog, how will you talk to your audience and keep their attention? How will you distinguish yourself—and then get potential clients to remember you AND call you too?

The answer: with distinct messaging that strikes at the heart of your clients’ biggest concerns.

What keeps your clients up at night? Fear that the food won’t be ready on time, and people will be standing around, bored and anxious? Fear of pleasing picky relatives? Fear of looking like a fool at a huge event? Fear that you won’t even show up?

What can you do to allay these fears?

It’s not enough to tell people what you do. You have to show them what you’ll do for them personally. And you do that with strong messaging.

First rule of messaging: Show them, don’t tell them.

Check out this video about how words can make an impact on consumer response. It’s less than two minutes long—but be warned, you may be moved to tears.

(Just in case you can’t watch it right now, we’ll give you a brief synopsis. But knowing what happens doesn’t diminish the video. Make sure to watch it as soon as you get a chance.)

In this video, a blind man has a sign that says, “I’m blind, please help.” He has a cup for collecting loose change. A few people toss coins at him.

Then, a woman comes along and writes something new on the other side of his cardboard. Suddenly, people are giving him money left and right. When the woman returns, the man asks her what she wrote on his sign. She says that she just said the same thing he said.

But that’s not entirely true. She told a better story—a story that struck a nerve of empathy with the passers-by who more willingly shared their change with the blind man.

What did the woman write on his cardboard?

“It’s a beautiful day, and I can’t see it.”

Changes the perspective a lot, doesn’t it?

So, how will you change the perspective in your messaging? How can you strike an emotional chord with your audience?

Practice makes perfect.

Before we sign off, here’s an exercise for you to try.

Think of what it is you want to say about your catering company. Just as an example, maybe you want to say, “We’re the best catering company for weddings and large corporate affairs, with flexible food options for every location and special needs diets.”

Just rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Write your own messaging or mission statement at the top of a large piece of paper.

Now, underneath, how many different ways can you say that exact same message? Set a timer for 15 minutes, and see how many taglines you can come up with. Compete with yourself.

When you’re brainstorming, THERE ARE NO BAD IDEAS. Write them all down. Because a bad idea may lead to a brilliant idea. You can go over them later and judge which to keep and which to toss. But for now, don’t hold back.

Consider changing how you tell the story, the perspective of different readers, and even separating the messaging. Perhaps the better strategy is to have a wedding message and a corporate message.

Here are some different combinations from our example to get your creative juices flowing.

For the wedding day you dream of

For food worthy of your important events

The icing on the cake to life’s celebrations

A wedding meal even your choosiest guest will enjoy

Delightful food for your most joyous occasions

Celebrate the joy of food, friends, and family with My Catering Company, LLC

Satisfying food that keeps the focus on you

Satisfying food that keeps the focus on your meeting

For clients and guests, serve them only the best

From comfort food to special diets—we’ve got you covered

From weddings to corporate events—flexible food, impeccable service when you need it

The food you want, the service you need

It’s hard to show brainstorming in a blog. However, hopefully you can see the different focus in each tagline. Some focus on the food. Some focus on the event. Some try to combine ideas. Others focus on one idea. Depending on your niche, these are examples of the different angles you can try until you hit upon what you think will really resonate with your ideal client.

In fact, take a look at the last two taglines. The last one actually evolved from the one above it. However, since we’re running out of space, we’ll have to show you that evolution in another blog.

So, play with your story. Put yourself in your clients’ shoes. What do they really want to hear from you? That’s when you’ll capture the magic of messaging.

Happy brainstorming—and happy storytelling!

Posted In Industry Information | 1 Comment

Posted On March 4, 2014 by Total Party Planner

The 2 Biggest Marketing Mistakes Caterers Can Make (and how they’ll mess up every business decision you make)

Two of the biggest mistakes caterers can make that will also mess up every business decision you make have to do with your audience. Do you know your audience and how to reach them? If you don’t have a really well-defined answer to this question, then you are likely wasting your marketing and prospecting time.

The two biggest mistakes caterers can make are:

1. Chasing after the wrong audience, and

2. Going after an audience that is too broad—trying to be all things to all people.

Fortunately, we here at Total Party Planner have 4 antidotes to this problem—4 questions to consider that will help you define who you are as a caterer and how to find the clients who are the right fit for your business.

1.  You Can’t Be All Things to All People.

OK, this first item is a statement, not a question—but it is an important realization. Even well-established businesses can get side-tracked by jobs and clients that wouldn’t fit their usual client profile. Are you a no-nonsense, low-cost, no-frills caterer? A high-end, all-the-bells-and-whistles caterer looking for the big-ticket events? Do you want to focus on corporate or private events? Small dinner parties? Entertainment catering? Do you want to specialize in vegan catering or barbecue? Depending on where you live and work and what the demand is, there is probably a niche market out there—how well can you fill it?

2.  Who do you like to work with?

Another way to ask this is: Who is your ideal client? Some clients are going to be more demanding. Different kinds of events will demand different things of you and your staff. Do you like being able to take your time and add a personal touch to every dish you create? Then perhaps smaller, more personal events are for you. Or maybe you like the thrill of providing gourmet box lunches to VIPs at a 10,000-person tradeshow. What is it you really enjoy doing—the kind of thing that got you into catering in the first place? The more you enjoy what you do, the better job you’ll do—not to mention that you’ll be more relaxed and in your element. That’s likely to lead to better word-of-mouth referrals—and a better reputation overall.

3.  What are your specialties?

There are many creative ways to tie in what you love and what you’re good at that will help you distinguish yourself from your competitors. Specialties can include anything from food and desserts to décor to your special way of dealing with certain kinds of events and personalities. What are you really good at, and how can you translate that into finding the right audience for you? If you’re really organized and well connected with folks in your area, maybe you can promote yourself as an all-inclusive event organizer. Maybe you are really good at sports and want to focus on outdoor events—corporate picnics, family reunions, and other occasions where you can organize some team building and sports play. Get creative and have fun! Then, your clients will have fun too.

4.  How will you reach your audience?

Now that you’re starting to get a better idea of who your audience is, where will you find them? Where are they hiding—and what kind of messaging is going to convince them to call you for their event? The best ways to find the audience you seek are to talk to people, network, and do some research on the Internet and in local media. When you attend networking events, don’t just say, “I’m a caterer who specializes in big weddings and corporate events.” Say, “I’m looking to meet the corporate event planner at XYZ, Inc., as well as brides who are getting married in the next 9-12 months with guest lists over 200.” The more specific you can be, the more you will help others find the right audience for you. (And remember to ask them whom they’re looking for, too, so you can return the favor.)

And as far as messaging goes, your messaging should strike at the very heart of the biggest concern of your clients. Are they more worried about the quality of the food or about making an incredible impression on their guests? How can you put their fears to rest by exhibiting confidence, knowledge, and sensitivity to their needs?

The problem with not knowing the answer to these questions is that you could be making business decisions based on the wrong information—which can lead to wasting time and money,

That’s why discovering the answers to these questions will not only make your job more fun—they should make your business more profitable too.

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Posted On February 17, 2014 by Total Party Planner

Catering Staff Doing The Right Things Right

This past weekend my wife and I made dinner plans at a restaurant in Virginia Beach that we had never been to. We were really excited to try it since we read so many great reviews. There was one staff member, however, that had us leaving with questions about the management team.

Upon our seating, we were presented with a rather extensive wine list. Because it was Valentine’s Day weekend, I wanted to make sure I selected something memorable. I also know my wife really likes a more fruit forward Pinot Noir. So I suggested we wait to talk to the Sommelier before ordering our wine. Oh but wait… the Sommelier wasn’t available because he was handing out Valentines roses to the ladies that night.


I kept telling my wife how much this reminded me of an old saying that a mentor would repeat to me time and time again: “Always make sure you have the right people doing the right things right.”

So, who made the decision to have the Sommelier hand out roses? Shouldn’t he have been Sommelier-ing (is that a verb?). If I were the general manager, I would have probably had the hostess hand out the roses upon seating guests.

So without talking to the Sommelier we ended up just playing it safe and ordering 2 glasses instead of a bottle. A loss for the restaurant.

Now think about this for your catering operation. Do you have the right people doing the right things right? Some examples of mistakes that I have come across are:

  • Utilizing any and all staff members for servers. Key mistake! The servers are the face of your company and directly reflect you. You want your best personalities out there. I have actually had entire experiences ruined from poor service – not necessarily bad food.
  • Hiring family members because they need a job. It’s not necessarily that you shouldn’t work with family, we did it for years, but are they the best person for a role? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
  • A staff member (or yourself!) not trained in website design in charge of building, or updating, your website. I know there are some great tools out there today, however, there is still no substitute for a professional who knows about design, blends, flow, content strategy, SEO, etc.
  • A salesperson who may only be money, not guest satisfaction, focused. Sure the sales are important but I don’t know a caterer on the planet that puts sales over applause at the end of the night.
  • A closed minded marketing manager. Every company, whether it’s catering or catering software, needs to be open to new trends, ideas, feedback, and even social media. Don’t get left behind!

Can you think of other examples where it may not have been the right person doing the right things right? Share your story with us!

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Posted On February 11, 2014 by Total Party Planner

In The Catering Kitchen With Mi Chicas Catering & Events

mi chicas logo

This month, we asked busy upscale kosher caterer and event planner, Mi Chicas Catering & Events, to share what brought them to use Total Party Planner, along with advice for other caterers out there. Read on for great info and tips on how they have grown their business exponentially!

Tell us about your business.

We are a women-owned (mother-daughter) kosher catering & event planning company. Clients love that they only deal with one company from the menu planning to décor, centerpieces, linen, staff etc! We just love what we do, especially the decorating and planning for each party on an individual basis so they are all unique and one of a kind.

How did you get started catering?

Davii started out helping her husband over 20 years ago. Slowly but surely, she took over more and more aspects of the business until it became her total responsibility. Chany grew up in the business and eventually became Davii’s partner.

What brought you to begin using Total Party Planner?

We saw it at the Catersource event in Las Vegas.  Even though we were using [another software program] at the time, we kept it in mind.

How has Total Party Planner helped your business?

We absolutely could not keep track of what we do without it! We log in many times a day and use it for all aspects of our business. We do our menus, contracts, staffing, packing lists, invoicing, everything on this program! It keeps us organized which is essential in this business.

What is your favorite program feature in Total Party Planner?

Just the fact that it is so easy to use.  It’s also logical, so if we don’t know something, we can often figure it out. If not, the email help is fast and easy to access. We can tell it was designed by people in the catering business.

What sets your company apart from others in your area?

Our high level of personal attention to every detail, plus our great design ideas and beautiful plate presentation make us unique in our community.

What do customers expect when doing business with you?

Our customers expect to be able to call or email us and get a quick response. They also expect us to take care of every detail so they can come as a guest to their own party. They also expect (and are frequently surprised to get more than expected) to have everything done on a professional level and at the highest standard.

What advice would you give a new caterer?

Ideally you should work for someone for a year or two before venturing out on your own. Be prepared to work long hours when you are busy and be ready to do everything necessary: cooking, baking, washing dishes, setting tables, waiting tables, schlepping dishes, etc. It usually takes a long time before you will have enough employees to take some of that off of your head. Also, don’t be afraid to charge!! If you undercharge, you:

1. Risk not covering your costs

2. Show that you are new at what you are doing and don’t respect your worth as a caterer, which causes people not to trust you.

What was your biggest blunder throughout your career?  What did you learn from it?

Not being organized enough for one of our most important parties and having a crowd of 300 people try to squeeze into a space that only held 200 comfortably. In that case, our customer had offered ahead of time to hire an event coordinator and, out of pride we said it wasn’t necessary. We needed an event coordinator at that party and we still cringe when we think about what a fiasco it turned into!

What has been your greatest accomplishment as a caterer?

A year and a half ago we took a big, brave step and rebranded our company. We changed the name to Mi Chicas Catering & Events, upped our prices to almost double and got all new chefs. We are proud to say that in this past year we have doubled our gross sales! It was a scary move and many people advised us against it, but we went with our gut and did it! We are looking forward to doubling our sales again this year!!!

Mi Chicas

Mi Chicas

Mi Chicas

Mi Chicas

Mi Chicas

Mi Chicas



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Posted On February 4, 2014 by Total Party Planner

It’s Not Your Secret Catering Recipes, It’s Your Branding

I recently stumbled across a YouTube video that completely reinforced everything I have ever learned about overall company branding. And here’s the strange part – the video was made in a kitchen by the Executive Chef at McDonald’s.

McDonald’s is giving away the recipe for their secret Big Mac sauce. Won’t that make them vulnerable to competitors? The answer is absolutely not. They understand that it’s more than just a single sauce recipe that makes up their company. It’s the overall McDonald’s brand.

Everybody knows the golden arches, the happy meals, the mascot himself – Mr. Ronald McDonald, the play areas, and the low prices. The Baby Boomers might recall the original jingle; “two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun”!

They are consistent in everything they do, say, build, and introduce. Their “Plan to Win” includes – People, Products, Place, Price and Promotion. They have also been innovative over the years with launching new products such as fresh salads, Chicken McNuggets McCafe’s, yougurt, etc. They are charitable with the Ronald McDonald house and local youth programs. People are vary aware of their presence.

Their success has nothing to do with the recipe for the Big Mac sauce. They are successful because they are: McDonalds!

Now… I ask… do you think a new burger chain could take the Big Mac sauce recipe from the free video and compete with McDonalds? I’d like to see them try.

I’m not saying it would be a good idea to go out and make a video explaining how to make your famous tiramisu. The lesson from McDonald’s is to build your brand correctly from the ground up. You will naturally create recognition and solidify your place in the market.

As a catering company, does your entire operation, from the website to the business cards, have the same look and feel? Does your staff have branded uniforms (even those delivery drivers!). Do you only hire people that believe in your vision and core values? Is everybody in the organization an ambassador for your company? Are you well known for a specific service style -  or being cutting edge innovative? Are you the most customer service centric company in your area? I could go on and on, but you get the point.

The same rules apply to the Total Party Planner catering software company. In fact, our competitors CAN watch videos of how our software works. But that’s OK. There is so much more to the company than a few videos could ever show.

How about you? Share your branding story with us. We would love to hear from you!

Posted In Industry Information | 1 Comment

Posted On January 21, 2014 by John Cohen

Caterers Just Want to Have Fun

By now everyone has created their business goals list for 2014. Right? If you haven’t it isn’t too late!

This year, more than ever, there just seems to be a common theme in the blog world around having more fun at work. Great point, but how does a catering business do that when there always seems to be a million tasks and priorities to juggle?

We need to find some simple things that can be executed without significant time in planning – or effect on budget. So we thought we would compile a top 10 list of things caterers can do to have more fun at work.

  • Close the business for 3 hours on a Tuesday afternoon and take the entire staff to see a movie. Just promise us one thing… you won’t forget the popcorn!
  • Celebrate birthdays once a month with a fancy cake. Your staff will appreciate the gesture and give them a chance to interact in a social setting.
  • Have a corn-hole tournament. It’s all the rage, it can be played indoors, it’s fun, and everybody can participate. Teams could be BOH vs FOH – or managers vs staff. Want to make it a company write-off? Order a personalized corn-hole board with your company logo.
  • Do a simple team building activity at least once a month. Here’s a link to a site that has some fantastic ideas to get started.
  • This may sound simple, but when was the last time the staff went out to the local pub for appetizers and beverages? This could also be used as the time to celebrate achievements or birthdays.
  • Dedicate part of your Social Media to staff news. For example every Monday morning spotlights a particular staff member with their picture, interests, job role, etc. It can really makes someone feel part of the team.
  • Nominate a social committee. This group of people would be responsible for putting together weekly or monthly activities based on the staff feedback. One caution: be sure to set a budget or you may find yourself with an expense report for a 3 day trip to Hawaii for 10 people!
  • So many people are playing video games these days. You can buy a wii or xbox for the office. Give your staff the latitude to take a break every now and again to relieve stress. Another gaming idea could be a ping pong table. We used to have one here at Total Party Planner and the developers especially loved it.
  • There is a lot of creativity and artistry in catering. Who’s your most creative person on the staff? Have a contest and find out! It could be anything… painting, singing, an instrument, or poetry. You may be surprised at what everybody learns about there co-workers.

And lastly… update the recipes in your catering software program. WHAAAAAAAT?! How is that fun!? OK, admittedly it’s not in the “top” list of items, however, it can be fun if you put some incentives around it. Maybe for every 100 recipes built, or verified, somebody gets to leave a couple hours early on a slow day.

We want to hear from you! What are some of the fun things you do in your office? Share your stories with us!

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Posted On January 5, 2014 by John Cohen

Locally-Sourced is for More Than Just Catering

I think I’m like most people in business. When “big name billionaires” like Richard Branson of Virgin, Tony Hsieh of Zappos, or Jeff Bezos of Amazon write a blog, or give an interview, we scramble to read about it. We hang on their every word – maybe buy a book they recommend – and then expect we are on the path to become them.

But… are these people really our best mentors?

Don’t get me wrong, there is no question that these billionaires are very successful people that have important and inspirational things to share. I’m just not sure we can connect with them on a truly personal level – which for me goes a long way.

And thus my point about locally-sourced.

Recently I had the opportunity to both attend, and participate in, a panel discussion with local CEO’s running successful companies in the Richmond, VA community. These were people in charge of well respected companies. People interacting with other local businesses on a daily basis. People who are accessible for a follow up coffee. People who, at the end of the day, really aren’t so different than you and I. Can you say that about Michael Dell?

At the panel I attended there were 3 fascinating speakers that had wonderful stories to share. In fact, I was the first audience member to eagerly follow up with questions! One of the panelist opened up about his unique strategy for growth that I just had to learn more about.

In the panel I had the honor of participating in, we shared stories of turning pain points into opportunities. Even though we are a catering software company, this is a topic that resonates with any business – large or small. Our vulnerability to open up in the discussion was well received. Personally I received quite a few emails with questions and agreed to speak with companies interested in learning more.

Last week I had an awesome lunch meeting with a prominent investment banker here in Richmond. For the small cost of lunch, he shared many great experience and advice points – a small price to pay for this knowledge. Even more important than the wisdom gained in that lunch, my new ally offered to help connect me with other key strategists within his network. His take away point : don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask for help and advice. You just never know where it may lead.

So I encourage everybody to check with their local Chamber of Commerce, CEO group organizations, breakfast clubs, networking groups, LinkedIn connections, etc. to find ways to communicate with other leaders right in your community. I believe you will find just as much inspiration, if not more, than the billionaire blogs.

Who are your best inspirations for personal growth? Share your experience with us!

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Posted On December 30, 2013 by John Cohen

Cooking from the Heart with Chef John Besh

This month I met my family for some holiday fun and food in the great city of New Orleans, LA. Needless to say, both our goals of having fun and eating fantastic food, were far exceeded. One afternoon of our trip I had the privilege of attending an exclusive book signing by Chef John Besh at his famous Besh Steak restaurant. His new book is titled Cooking from the Heart.

John Besh book signing

John Besh book signing

If your not familiar with Chef Besh, he owns 9 restaurants – 8 around New Orleans and 1 in San Antonio. His is a fascinating story about a young boy who loved cooking from the early age of 10. After time spent in the military, John decided to do something completely different and attend culinary school. After school, he continued his training as he traveled across Europe working with many famous chefs. His first real job landed him in Germany, where he found out very quickly he still had many lessons to learn! Cooking from the Heart was inspired from his journey along the way. Cooking from the Heart is a beautiful book filled with great stories from Chef Besh, cooking lessons, and most importantly -  interesting and delicious recipes! There are many recipes in the book to wow your social catering clients. For easy reference to Chef Besh’s recipes, you could create a special menu tag in your Total Party Planner catering software. Chef Besh’s new book can be ordered from a number of popular sites including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can also Like him on FaceBook for some great updates. Have you tried any of Chef Besh’s restaurants? Share your story with us!

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Posted On December 12, 2013 by Emily Powers

FOOD FIGHT: The Eternal Battle over What to Serve During the Holidays

There’s a food fight coming as the eternal battle over what to serve during the holidays brews in households across America. Few things rile up families and foodies more than the holidays. To serve Grandma’s traditional green bean casserole or an Asian-inspired wasabi-infused version, sprinkled with roasted almond slivers—these are the questions that have divided households.

For some folks, the traditionalists, there is no question of what will be served. They stand on tradition and serve the same thing each year.

Then, there is a wide spectrum of moderates. They’ll change things up from year to year—but only so much.

And then there are the rebels. People who will serve pizza or turkey tacos or even sushi—simply because there’s no one there to tell them no, and that’s what they feel like doing.

Which camp do you fall into?

Win or fail, here are some of our favorite holiday snippets about food, folly, and the quest for holiday food bliss that will make everyone happy.

It doesn’t sound like it should taste good—but it does.

One of the more controversial holiday recipes out there, which will be familiar to NPR listeners, is Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish. This cranberry relish recipe sounds foul—fresh cranberries, onions, sour cream, horseradish, and sugar? What could Susan Stamberg’s mother-in-law have been thinking? But she swears by it and sneaks it into an NPR story during the holidays every year. (One day, some of us with Total Party Planner may even be brave enough to try it.)

Food themes.

Then there was the year that a sister of one of our staff decided to have a bacon-themed holiday meal. This woman actually used to work in some nice restaurants, so she could cook. The turkey was wrapped in bacon. She added bacon to the green bean casserole. The only thing that didn’t have bacon was the dessert. She decided in the end that bacon in every dish at the meal was really just too much.

Special food accommodations.

Have a friend or relative with food allergies, who is very health-conscious, or who is vegan (i.e., eats no animal products at all)? Make their day with the dairy-free, egg-free vegan Gingerbread cookie recipe at the end of this article!

Do you have a recipe that sounds like it would be awful—but that actually tastes really good?

What’s your favorite food theme that you’ve ever tried—or wanted to try?

Have any go-to recipes for people with special diets, such as vegans, diabetics, and other folks who need special food accommodations?

We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Whatever you decide to make for the holidays, whether for family, friends, or clients, we hope you enjoy the season, the stories, and the company. From our offices (and our kitchens) to all of you, have a very happy and safe holiday season!

With gratitude and appreciation, here’s to your success!

The Total Party Planner Staff

Vegan Gingerbread Cookies

1 Cup Packed Brown Sugar
1/3 Cup Vegan Vegetable Shortening
1 1/2 Cup Dark Molasses
2/3 Cup Cold Water
7 Cups All-Purpose Flour (save some for flouring surfaces and your rolling pin)
2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
2 Teaspoons Ground Ginger (make all your seasonings heaping teaspoons to make them more spicy)
1 Teaspoon Allspice
1 Teaspoon Cinnamon
1 Teaspoon Cloves
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
Baking Spray
White Frosting for decorating

Heat oven to 350.

In a bowl, mix Brown Sugar, Molasses, Shortening and Water with an electric mixer until completely blended. Then mix in the remaining ingredients with the electric mixer and blend until completely blended. I should warn you – it’ll be pasty and sticky. It’s the molasses. Once it’s completely blended, cover it and put it the fridge for at least 2 hours.

Spray your cookie sheet with baking spray. Roll dough 1/4 inch thick on a floured surface with a floured rolling pin. Use cookie cutters to cut out your cookies. Place them on your cookie sheet – make sure they are 2 inches apart.

Bake 5-10 minutes. It depends on how big your cookie is really. Small cookies like mine took 5 minutes. Immediately move them to a wire rack to cool. Let them cool for at least an hour and decorate!

Posted In Industry Information | 1 Comment

Posted On November 19, 2013 by John Cohen

Should You Take That Pro Bono Catering Gig?

It’s that time of year again! Not talking about the holidays—talking about fund raising time! The holidays are when a lot of great causes try to take advantage of everyone’s charitable holiday mood to raise funds and awareness for their causes. Which also means you may be asked to cater one or more of these events for free or at cost. And then the question becomes: Should you take that pro bono catering gig?

Ask yourself these 5 questions to determine if you should take that pro bono catering gig.

1. Is it a cause you believe in?

You will be donating your time, energy, and resources to this cause. That’s as good as—if not better than—cash. If you don’t believe in the cause, you definitely should not take the event—no matter what you think the exposure will be. Chances are good that if this is a cause you don’t like, the audience will not be a good fit for you. If it’s a cause you’re at least neutral about, then maybe it’s worth it. But really, an ideal situation would be to align yourself with a cause in the community that you really want to support and feel strongly about.

2. Is the exposure right for you?

Exposure is possibly one of the worst reasons to take a pro bono gig, unless the event meets other specific criteria too. Everyone says, “You’ll get great exposure!” And yes, in the most technical definition, you will get exposure to new people. But will this exposure lead to booking more events? Not necessarily. There are two kinds of exposure: general and specific. General exposure is just that—you serving food to a bunch of people who may or may not have any interest in you as a caterer beyond you’re serving them right now. You don’t know if they’re a good fit for you. These people are not decision makers who will book you for any events they may be involved with in the future. Or worse, they’ll only think of you when they need to book their own pro bono events.

But with specific exposure, you could be in a room with people who are decision makers. People who have events and are always looking for people to help produce them. People who will tell their friends about you. Venue owners, hospitality managers, executive admins who plan corporate events. These are people who will pay attention to you, really taste your food, ask you questions, and may want to work with you in the future. Then, the event may be worth taking.

3. What’s in it for you?

Think about what you’ll really get out of it—and don’t be afraid to ask. If all they can offer is exposure, ask who will be there? Besides influential decision makers from other organizations and companies, what about other caterers and event planners? Will you be working by yourself or with a team? Working within a team of caterers is often a great opportunity, because you can meet people who might call you if they need back up for really big events—and vice versa. Then the pro bono gig becomes a great professional networking opportunity—a chance to show what you’re made of and to forge some new relationships for future collaboration.

4. Will you enjoy it?

Will this event be fun for you in other ways? Is it a chance to cater in a venue you’ve always dreamed about working in or to meet your favorite band? What are some of the other perks? Because as you already know, there are advantages to being in the service industry, and one of them is basically getting that all-access backstage pass to the hottest ticket in town. Being “in the know’ and being one of the people who “makes the magic happen” behind the scenes is always a good feeling. And sometimes, that’s enough.

5. If a paying event comes along, would you still take the pro bono one?

What makes pro bono work during the holiday season so difficult is that you usually already have too much work already. EVERYONE is having a party—so you don’t need to take pro bono work for the exposure. Pro bono work is much easier to justify during the slow season after New Year’s, when you’re not likely to book as much anyway. It can’t hurt to get out there and spend some time networking with folks and maybe give your staff a few hours. But during the busy seasons, if another paying gig comes along, will you want to drop the pro bono one?

The answer is: If you would be tempted to drop the pro bono event if a paying event comes along, the event probably isn’t that valuable to you. So, if it’s not that valuable to you—why are you taking it, especially during the busy season, when something else is likely to come along? Never EVER cancel on an event, free or otherwise. Word will get out and people won’t trust you. So if you will regret committing yourself to this event, then don’t take it.

The overarching point here is that your time and talents are valuable. Do not undervalue them—and don’t let others undervalue them. Whether the event is a large, public charity event or a friend asking you to cater a small dinner party from her kitchen, don’t be afraid to dig and find out what you will truly get out of the event. Then, you can make an informed decision about donating your time and effort for any event.

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