Mastering themed events

Engaging all five senses creates excitement at catered events.

Published in FSD Update

Sodexo Leisure Services' event at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo for its Elephant Community Center opening.

Looking for a way to enhance your guest experience? Consider themed events that hit on all five senses, not only to get customers excited and engaged but also to boost sales. 

Sarah Finlayson, national director of catering and special events for Sodexo Leisure Services, finds inspiration from new exhibits at her clients’ locations (often museums, zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens). For example, for the opening of the Elephant House at the Smithsonian National Zoo, Finlayson created an event with a Southeast Asian- and Indian-inspired menu—items included banh mi sliders, seared tuna with pickled Asian slaw, spicy red curry pork and Thai veggie skewers—and décor (think bright and lively colors, rich textures and lush floral). “Guests felt transported to the other side of the globe,” she says.

Likewise, Damian Monticello, corporate hospitality services manager for Florida Blue, in Jacksonville, creates themed events to correspond with heritage celebrations, current company initiatives and to build excitement for future events. For example, Florida Blue hosted a special reading program for children themed around Dr. Seuss—there was a “Green Eggs and Ham” menu, with items like baskets full of eggs, ham, spinach and cheese, and melon platters.

Mike Caulfield, executive chef at the Dorothy Love Apartments, in Sydney, Ohio, offers themed events to give residents a change of pace from their daily routine. Caulfield has hosted events like ’50s nights, Halloween parties and Hawaiian luaus. “For the luau, we transformed the dining room into a Hawaiian paradise getaway filled with colorful décor, flowers, luminaries, leis and sand,” he says. Island music played, the staff wore grass skirts and a relevant menu of piña coladas and traditional Hawaiian dishes was served.

The process

When it comes to themed parties, make sure you hit all five senses, Finlayson suggests. Consider these steps:

  • Plan ahead. “Themed events may need to be planned as much as a year in advance,” cautions Tom Lapp, director of same store sales at Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services.
  • Pick a theme. Lapp created Residential Dining Culinary Events, which promotes world cuisines, holidays and social celebrations through customized menus inspired by changes in the seasons. Like Lapp, you can look at countries, holidays and social celebrations (think Earth Day) for inspiration. For example, for the winter season, Chartwells put on a Winterfest themed event complete with ice carvings, Olympic discussion tables, winter sports raffles, snowflake decorations and hearty dishes of venison stew and poutine alongside hot cocoa and mini white desserts.
  • Meet with clients, customers and your staff to determine goals and visions for the event and create a solid understanding of the purpose, says Tracy Reese, conference center operations manager for Sodexo at Florida Blue.
  • Set a budget. To cut costs, ensure expenditures can work across multiple operations.
  • Determine decorations by thinking of items that remind people of or represent the theme, says Maggie McGee, retail and catering manager at Virginia Mason Medical Center, in Seattle, who finds inspiration at craft stores. “See what decorations you can find and then let those guide your theme.”
  • Research, develop and test relevant recipes. Ensure the menu stays true to the theme so attendees can make the connection, Reese says.
  • Consider how music and entertainment can play a role, Finlayson adds.
  • Create signage to promote the event, Lapp says. Traditional marketing and promotional materials include posters, POS, tri-panel table tents, counter toppers, content for digital screens and social media. Adds McGee: Make sure you promote far enough in advance so guests have something to look forward to.

A word to the wise: Go all in, Finlayson says. “When a thematic event doesn’t work, it’s typically done halfway, so think of ways to extend an event to the guests before they ever arrive, through the invitations or engagement, all the way to when they go home at the end of the evening with a tasty takeaway.”

More From FoodService Director

Industry News & Opinion

Sodexo aims to reduce carbon emissions by 34% at its foodservice and facilities management sites by 2025, a goal it says it will reach through such changes as converting cooking oil into biodiesel fuel and using energy-efficient HVAC systems.

In announcing this endeavor toward sustainability, Sodexo—which manages more than 32,000 sites globally—noted that over 7,200 of its sites in North America recycle aluminum and paper, and 8,640 recycle cardboard.

Managing Your Business
business ladder climbing illustration

Recruiting talent is only half the battle for Mike Folino, associate director of nutrition services at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. Once he’s attracted good employees, providing clear opportunities for advancement can help retain them—but knowing when to bring up the topic in conversation can be tricky.

Prior to hiring

Folino likes to touch on advancement during the initial interview process, but the extent to which he does so changes case by case. “I have had interviews where we knew right away that we needed to discuss our structure and...

Ideas and Innovation
woman surprise

When I joined the staff at FoodService Director in the spring of 2015, I couldn’t believe how much there was to learn about the intricacies of the industry. My past experience, from kindergarten to my college days to on-the-job meals, would lead me to believe that noncommercial dining was a kind of automated process—an amenity that’s expected, and one you only become aware of if something goes wrong.

But as with my own household chores, there are no magical elves making sure the business of feeding students, seniors and hospital patients is done, and done well. Foodservice...

Managing Your Business
hands team

In November, students at University of Missouri in Columbia began leading protests against discrimination faced by people of color on campus—including some marches through the dining halls. Julaine Kiehn, director of the school’s campus dining services, said the 2015-16 school year was a tough one, but she was proud of MU’s students for being at the forefront of a national movement.

And not only did the protests launch important conversations with students, but also with staff. Kiehn heard the protests and thought that her student workers, at least, might not feel safe and welcome...

FSD Resources