Are tastings a great sales tool or a waste of time and money? Discover the latest ideas and tips on this often controversial but beneficial sales tool.

Say the word “tasting” to some caterers, and they will visibly cringe. Mention the same to other caterers, and you see their faces light up with enthusiasm. Why the difference? For some, tastings, “samplings,” or “chef’s tables,” as they are variously referred to, are viewed as expensive, time-consuming, and resource sapping. For others, tastings are an extremely valuable sales tool that can help close a deal on the spot. While most caterers do them in some way, shape, or form, the formats, guidelines, and most of all, results can be dramatically different.

Tastings before or after booking?
A good starting question to help you evaluate your tasting process is, “Does the client have to be booked before we will hold a tasting for them?” Holding tastings exclusively for confirmed clients certainly means that you are not spending time and resources on a potentially lost sale. You also have an opportunity to recoup the costs. The flip side is that clients trying to make a decision between you and a competitor might be swayed if the competitor offers tastings before booking while you don’t.

A potential solution is to charge a fee for the tasting, possibly one that is credited towards their balance if they do book. Either way, you should only offer tastings to qualified clients that have at least a rough menu in place, so that you have a direction in which to proceed at the tasting. Not having client input prior to writing a tasting menu may easily result in a request for a second tasting if you didn’t include what they wanted.

Formats and guidelines are a must
Your entire sales and operations teams can be consistent when you have formats and guidelines in place. Setting the number of guests allowed per tasting, establishing certain time slots and days that don’t impede production or other sales, and limiting the amount of food prepared are important. Some caterers have gone as far as limiting tasting appointments to weekdays, for example, making sure they are completed prior to the end of their office hours. Remember, unless it’s a specifically requested menu item or something requiring ethnic authentication, you don’t need to show a client everything. Tastings are a great way to establish trust with your client, and put them at ease in terms of quality; if they are not comfortable with your guidelines, and don’t trust your quality, they are not your client.

Another key format question to consider is the use of group tastings, which more and more caterers are doing. Several couples are invited to one event, where the caterer selects the menu and service style. This allows you to:
• Showcase your venue (which also helps build that venue relationship).
• Highlight your business partners, who are often willing to donate or exchange products and services for an opportunity to be in front of a captive (and receptive) audience.
• Lighten your load so your production and culinary team can focus on one event, rather than several.
• Promote camaraderie as invitees often end up striking up conversations and sharing tips about their upcoming weddings or events.
• Promote all of your services at one time if you have ancillary divisions, such as décor or floral. Plus, couples can meet the entire team.

As with all good things, there are potential drawbacks, including:
• You might not get to give the one-on-one interaction your clients expect. If you’re trying to work a room, your attention will be divided.
• You run the risk of not serving menu items your guests want.
• Meshing many schedules can be a challenge, even with an extended serving window.

To charge or not to charge?
We can all agree that tastings can be costly in terms of the food provided, time dedicated, and equipment used. It’s also safe to say, that if a tasting results in a sale, we can easily recoup these costs and make a healthy profit. How do we mitigate the potential losses if the clients don’t end up booking with us, or we can’t close the sale? Here are two ideas:

Charge up front for the tasting, and then credit that amount back when/if they book. This is a straightforward way to ensure compensation. Look at what your competitors are doing—if you’re the only one that charges up front, you run the risk of alienating potential clients.

Set a limit as to the number of people that can attend and then charge for additional guests. Often, a couple will want to bring parents, friends, etc., which turns the tasting into a dinner party, and minimizes your chances to connect with clients. On the flip side, if mom and dad are paying for the wedding, it’s a great chance to win them over and convince them to write that check.

Tastings can be an extremely beneficial sales tool when utilized correctly. If they are approached as a nuisance, they’re also a great opportunity to shoot yourself in the foot and lose a sale. Find what works best for you and your team—and more importantly, your clients! WPM
Doug Quattrini, CPCE, Feastivities Events, National Association for Catering and Events, Philadelphia, Pa.