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It’s Time to Ditch Buffets

Overflowing self-serve buffets are likely going to be one of the victims of Covid-19, and that’s fine with me. Who wants to touch serving utensils and eat food that has potentially been contaminated by someone else (never mind this has always been the case)? Conversely, no one wants buffets where everything from fresh fruit to hot foods are encased in protective plastic. The virus-induced events reset is an opportunity to be smarter about not only cleanliness, but food waste. A good place to start is eschewing the buffet.

As an event planner, I see an obscene amount of perfectly good buffet food dumped into the trash each year. Cakes with one slice removed, full chafing pans of vegetables or chicken breasts prepared as “back up” quantities, and mounds of freshly-baked yeast rolls routinely get thrown away. According to the USDA, Americans waste 40% of our country’s annual food supply. Food waste, and often the accompanying single-use plastic it is served with (150 million tons annually) are the number one component of landfills.

I understand and appreciate the artistry of the visual feast of beautifully displayed foods that have become standard for meetings, conferences, and special events. We use food as both bait to get people to attend, and décor to make events beautiful and prestigious. Buffets include a wide variety of offerings, piled high to convey success and abundance. They are lovely to behold. The same applies to all-you-can-eat restaurant buffets and produce aisles in supermarkets. Americans have been conditioned to the look of bountiful excess. When it’s missing, right-sized food offerings can seem less prestigious, stingy, and “second class.” It is time to change this perception.

Our recent obsession to accommodate ever-increasing dietary preferences exacerbates the problem. We now provide a multitude of choices on the chance that we might offend someone by not being able to meet their specific desires. Even break services that once constituted coffee, tea, sweeteners, and cream have morphed into mini-buffets. While one form of creamer was once standard, we now provide oat milk, soy milk, low-fat, no-fat, real cream, almond milk and little tubs of flavored chemical concoctions called, “French Vanilla,” “Irish Cream,” or “Mocha.” Accompaniments have blossomed from simple pastries to yogurt and fruit parfaits, fresh fruit, breakfast breads, muffins, and bagels with their requisite toppings. We throw most of it out.

As we begin the fall planning cycle, there are many unknowns (will we be allowed to hold large events, will social distancing still be required, even if the danger has subsided, will people be ready to reengage?) but as planners, our duty is to be ready with options. I intend to begin by ditching the buffet, no small task because this has ramifications for everything from budget to staffing to venue.

Our fall semester has traditionally begun with the President’s Picnic, an outdoor event for the entire student body that includes food, bands, and fireworks. We serve from 14, double-sided buffet lines set up under a giant tent. Students eat seated closely together Octoberfest style at tables on the campus greenway. Replacing this will be a challenge. Perhaps this year we will keep the entertainment, but dispense with the picnic. We could feed students in the dining halls. Perhaps we won’t do it at all.

Here are some alternatives to buffets that are double wins because they reduce both food waste and the chance for contamination:

Cafeteria service. People select from a number of choices (though fewer than on a buffet). Food is served by an employee who controls portion size.

Food stations. Options are available from a group of scattered food stations. Serving is done by an employee.

Boxed lunches. Offer a few choices of main item, add “sides” that are universal. Boxes are packed in advance by employees. Be sure to use environmentally friendly packaging to avoid increasing plastic waste. Go an extra step toward reducing waste by polling guests in advance so you have a close approximation of how many of each choice is needed.

Plated meals. Food is served to seated guests by an employee.

Adjourning for “lunch on your own.” Provide attendees with vouchers to eat at existing campus food outlets.

Adjusting event agendas or start times to avoid lunch or dinner hours.

Determining at the outset if it is really necessary to provide a meal.

For more information about reducing food waste go to http://epa.gov  and http://rts.com.

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Experience A Better Employee Awards Ceremony

Spring semester often includes employee recognition events honoring years of service which means people are given thank-you gifts of ad specialty products ranging from coffee mugs to key rings to cheap watches. This year, supplies may be disrupted because coronavirus has idled factories in China, the place where many logoed tchotchkes originate.  The cut-off of these goods gives us the opportunity to hit the reset button and find more environmentally friendly, creative, and useful ways to show loyal employees appreciation. While service award ceremonies often get short shrift from events planners because they fall into the category of routine annual events, these occasions may be the only recognition a person receives for his or her efforts. We need to make the day truly special. Here are some gift ideas that are far better than a plaque, certificate, another tee shirt, plastic water bottle, or portable cell phone charger, and that will actually be used and appreciated.

Shop on campus. Research shows that Millennials, the generation that will comprise the majority of your 1-5 year honorees, don’t want more stuff. Instead, they want to experience new things. Ditch the car coffee mugs and look no further than your own campus for goodies this group will enjoy. Collect a selection of things like tickets to campus theatre, music, and athletic events, concerts, vouchers for food courts and dining halls, coffee shops, and the bookstore. Let people pick from the selection to enjoy a gift that will give them a campus experience that interests them.   

Some people do want stuff, so supplement from inventory on hand. Not everyone wants an experience so do plan to provide options. Select items from your bookstore, or visit the events office gift closet. Often we have odds and ends of high-end gift items that were purchased for specific occasions. Currently our gift closet includes logoed cutting boards, pad folios, good quality pens, etched stemless wine glasses, umbrellas, and autographed books by faculty authors. There is insufficient quantity of any of these things to use at a future event, but because they are high-quality and aren’t labeled with a specific event name or date, they would make nice additions to the recognition gift table. As a bonus, you’re recycling instead of throwing items away or warehousing them indefinitely.

More service? Bigger prize. Beginning with 10 years of service, employees are often given more expensive items. Sadly these frequently include versions of outmoded prizes no one really wants like framed photos of campus buildings, key rings, logoed paperweights, cheap acrylic trophies, business card holders, and fancy pad folios.  All too often, these gifts become bookcase clutter or junk-drawer dandruff. (Not to mention that many categories of employees have no use for office sit-arounds because their work stations are not desks.)  Instead, reward employees who have more years of service with things like a certificate for professional development or a continuing education class, a fitness center membership, an upgrade to a stand-up desk, a uniform voucher, or a generous bookstore gift certificate. How about a personal day off (or two) that doesn’t need to be charged to vacation time?

Give long-time employees what they really want. At our school, employees with more than 25 years used to receive a logoed wooden rocking chair. While this was a pricey prize, it pleased some but offended many and the concept is definitely passé in 2020! Of course, the longest serving employees deserve the best gifts. How about giving something that everyone on campus covets–an annual parking pass or a reserved parking place for a year? Perhaps season tickets to his or her favorite sport or VIP passes to your school’s premier concert or special occasion.  Now those are gifts worth receiving!

Employee recognition is important. Research shows that employees who feel appreciated, recognized, and valued are more loyal, work harder, and have less turnover so it is important to personalize the occasion for each honoree. An effective way to give individuals a moment in the spotlight is to stage your ceremony like a commencement. Call each individual’s name as he or she walks onstage, shakes hands with the president, and has a photo taken. Distribute the photos digitally with a personalized note of appreciation. Serve refreshments while honorees browse the gift tables and make their selections. Your honorees will thank you and you’ll never go back to ball caps and cell phone grips again!

For more tips about planning a meaningful ceremony, click on the special events tab on my web site,  http://correctoncampus.com.