Mastering Conference Food and Beverage Planning: Nine Rules to Get it Right

Mastering Conference Food and Beverage Planning: Nine Rules to Get it Right


As a food and beverage expert, I understand that planning and executing a successful conference event can be a daunting task, especially when it comes to food and beverage planning. However, with careful consideration and adherence to essential rules, organizers can ensure that their attendees are well-fed and satisfied, while also avoiding overspending, waste, and under-ordering.

In this comprehensive guide, I will share with you nine essential rules for mastering conference food and beverage planning. These rules will cover everything from understanding the event audience and type, setting a budget, and considering timing and numbers, to determining how much to order and what type of food and beverages to offer. By following these guidelines, you can ensure that your event is a resounding success and that your attendees have an enjoyable and memorable experience.

Throughout this post, I will provide detailed calculations and recommendations for ordering the appropriate amount of food and beverages, taking into account the type of event and meal options. I will also emphasize the importance of ordering less food and beverages initially, as any unused items will still need to be paid for.

In our many years of experience in planning conferences, we have developed some great rules of thumb that have helped us achieve success in food and beverage planning. Now, we are sharing these secrets with you so that you can master the art of conference food and beverage planning and create a memorable event for your attendees. So, let us dive in and explore these essential rules to ensure your conference’s food and beverage planning is a success!


It is key that you know your audience. General likes and dislikes. Is the event social or professional? How many guests will attend? Are there potential allergies, or other restrictions based on company policy, cultural or religious considerations? Knowing your audience and event will help you plan service levels, meal, and drink options, and how much food and beverage to order. More on that below.


One of the most important aspects of conference food and beverage planning is setting a budget. Here are some examples of how to approach budgeting:

  • Determine the total amount you are willing to spend on food and beverage. This could be a percentage of the overall event budget, or a fixed dollar amount.
  • Break down the budget into specific categories such as breakfast, lunch, breaks, hors d’oeuvres, and drinks. This will help you allocate the appropriate amount of funds to each category.
  • Consider the type of event and audience when setting the budget. For example, a high-end corporate event may require a larger budget than a casual networking event.
  • Work with the venue or catering company to understand pricing and menu options. Ask about any package deals or discounts they may offer.
  • Keep in mind any additional costs such as labor, gratuity, taxes, and service fees. These can add up quickly and impact your overall budget.

By setting a realistic and well-planned budget, you can ensure that your conference food and beverage planning is both successful and cost-effective.


Venues will require that you provide a guarantee, 48 to 72 business hours prior to the event. The guarantee is the number of meals you order and will be charged for. Also understand the overset numbers. The amount varies from venue to venue and is between 0% to 5%, and sometimes more. The industry average is 3%. This means that when confirming for 100 meals, the venue will have between 0 to 5 extra meals on hand.

Planning ample time for functions is also important. Allow 30 to 40 minutes for breakfast, a minimum of 45 to 60 minutes for lunch, depending on the number of people and how the meal is served. Self-serve buffet options may require less time and are ideal for smaller groups. Plated meals take longer, especially if one server is used to serve multiple tables versus one server per table. You could ask the venue to have one server per table, but you may have to pay for the additional labor.

Refreshment breaks for 100 should be a minimum of 15 minutes, 30 minutes for groups up to 1,000 and 45 minutes for groups larger than 1,000. 


Ordering the right amount of food and beverages is always a challenge. Remember that you will pay for every meal guaranteed, consumed or not. It is better to order less, understand the overset and order more when needed. There are formulas you can use to be as accurate as possible.


Hot beverages and juices are generally ordered by the gallon. 70% of attendees will consume coffee, 20% will drink decaf coffee and 10% will drink tea.

There are 12 to 20 cups per gallon depending on the size of the cup used at the venue (you can ask). We generally plan for 2 cups per attendee for breakfast. So, 100 attendees would require the following order for breakfast (based on 16 cups in a gallon):

  • 9 gallons of coffee
  • 2.5 gallons of decaf
  • 2 gallons of hot water for tea

For breaks we use the following calculations:

Morning Break:

  • Regular Coffee = attendance x 60%
  • Decaf Coffee = attendance x 25%
  • Tea = attendance x 10%
  • Soda = attendance x 25%

Afternoon Break

  • Regular Coffee = attendance x 40%
  • Decaf Coffee = attendance x 15%
  • Tea = attendance x 20%
  • Soda = attendance x 65%


For buffet meals such as continental breakfasts, lunches and morning breaks we typically order meals at attendance x 80%. This means that with 100 attendees we would guarantee 80 meals, a number that can be increased on site if needed. Most events have a percentage of no-shows, or people not participating in meal events. You do not want to overcommit and waste money and resources. For afternoon breaks we typically order attendance x 65%. Many people may still be satisfied from lunch and not want to snack during the afternoon.

For more formal sit-down and plated meals we order attendance x 90%. With 100 people attending and oversets you are usually covered. Note however that at a hotel or resort, a kitchen may be able to serve additional meals more easily. Off-site events will require guarantees to more closely match the registration numbers because additional meals may not be able to be created.


The ordering of hors d’oeuvres greatly depends on the event following the reception. Is the reception followed by a dinner or not? A 1-hour reception with dinner following will require 3-7 pieces per person, depending on the type of eaters you have at the event.  A reception not followed by a dinner will require 8 to 12 pieces per person. A 2-to-3-hour reception not followed by dinner will require 10 to 16 pieces per person.


You should provide one bartender/bar per 75 to 100 attendees. When hosting a cash bar after a meeting, approximately 50% of the attendees will participate. When having a hosted bar, 75%+ of the attendees will participate. If hosting a bar, count on 2.5 drinks per person for a 1-hour event. If ordering wine by the bottle, estimate 5 glasses of wine per bottle. If hosting a seated dinner with wine, estimate ½ bottle of wine per guest. It is key, however, that you know your audience. Some may be inclined to consume less or more, and most events have a historical perspective you could fall back on.


When planning a beverage break, it is not just about the drinks you serve, but also the accompaniments that can enhance the experience for your attendees. Here are some ideas for what to serve alongside your beverages:

  • Sweet treats: Cookies, pastries, or mini desserts are a great way to satisfy attendees’ sweet tooth during a break. Do not forget to offer a variety to accommodate different dietary restrictions, such as gluten-free or vegan options.
  • Fresh fruit: A bowl of fresh fruit can be a refreshing and healthy option to serve alongside your beverages. Consider seasonal fruits to add variety and freshness to the break.
  • Cheese and crackers: A cheese and cracker platter can be a great option for a more savory snack. Offer a variety of cheeses, such as cheddar, brie, or goat cheese, and different types of crackers to accompany them.
  • Vegetable platter: A colorful vegetable platter with dip can be a healthy and refreshing option for attendees who prefer savory snacks. Consider offering a variety of vegetables, such as carrots, cucumbers, peppers, and cherry tomatoes.
  • Nuts and trail mix: A bowl of mixed nuts or trail mix can be a great snack option for attendees who prefer something a bit more filling. Consider offering a variety of nuts, such as almonds, cashews, or peanuts, and dried fruits to mix in.
  • Energy bars: Energy bars can be a great option for attendees who need a quick pick-me-up during a break. Look for options with natural ingredients and no added sugars for a healthy snack option.

Remember also to consider any dietary restrictions or allergies your attendees may have when planning your accompaniments. Offering a variety of options can ensure that everyone has something they can enjoy during the break.


Beverage breaks may seem like a small part of your event, but they can have a big impact on the overall attendee experience. Here are a few reasons why planning beverage breaks is important:

  • Keeps attendees refreshed and energized: Meetings and conferences can be long and tiring, and a well-timed beverage break can be a great way to give attendees a quick energy boost. Providing coffee, tea, or other beverages can also help attendees stay alert and engaged during presentations.
  • Provides networking opportunities: Beverage breaks can be a great time for attendees to network and chat with each other. Providing a variety of beverage and snack options can encourage attendees to mingle and socialize during the break.
  • Enhances the overall attendee experience: A well-planned beverage break can leave a lasting impression on attendees and make them feel appreciated and taken care of. Providing high-quality beverages and accompaniments can show that you value their attendance and want them to have an enjoyable experience.
  • Can help meet dietary needs: Offering a variety of beverage and snack options can help ensure that attendees with dietary restrictions or allergies have something they can enjoy during the break. This can help attendees feel included and valued, and enhance their overall experience.

By taking the time to plan your beverage breaks carefully, you can ensure that your attendees have a positive experience and leave your event feeling refreshed and satisfied.


When planning food and beverage for a conference, it is essential to prioritize food safety. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Follow all applicable food safety regulations: When selecting vendors or preparing food in-house, make sure to comply with all local, state, and federal food safety regulations.
  • Choose reputable vendors: Select vendors with established reputations for providing safe and high-quality food. Check their food safety records and certifications.
  • Train staff: Ensure that all staff involved in food preparation and service receive appropriate food safety training. This includes training in proper food handling, storage, and preparation techniques.
  • Monitor food temperatures: Use thermometers to check the temperature of food regularly, both when it is being prepared and when it is being served. Hot foods should be kept at a minimum temperature of 140°F (60°C), and cold foods should be kept at a maximum temperature of 40°F (4°C).
  • Avoid cross-contamination: Keep raw and cooked foods separate to avoid cross-contamination. Use separate cutting boards, utensils, and storage containers for raw and cooked foods.
  • Label food allergens: Clearly label foods that contain common allergens such as nuts, dairy, and gluten. Consider offering allergen-free options for attendees with allergies.
  • Provide handwashing stations: Make sure that attendees and staff have access to handwashing stations with soap and water. Hand sanitizer can be used as a supplement but should not replace handwashing.

By following these guidelines, you can help ensure that the food and beverages served at your conference are safe for attendees to consume.


In today’s world, sustainability is a crucial consideration in event planning, including conference food and beverage planning. By following sustainable practices, you can minimize the environmental impact of your event while still delivering a memorable experience for your attendees. Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Source locally and seasonally: Choose locally produced food and beverage options to reduce the carbon footprint associated with transportation. Select seasonal ingredients to ensure that they are at their freshest and most flavorful.
  • Minimize food waste: Plan your food and beverage quantities carefully to avoid excess. Consider donating leftover food to local charities or composting it instead of throwing it away.
  • Use eco-friendly packaging: Avoid single-use plastic containers, utensils, and straws. Instead, opt for biodegradable, compostable, or reusable alternatives.
  • Choose sustainable suppliers: Work with vendors and suppliers who follow sustainable practices and use eco-friendly products.
  • Educate your attendees: Inform your attendees about your sustainability efforts and encourage them to participate in reducing waste by using recycling bins and composting stations.

By following these guidelines, you can promote sustainability and reduce the environmental impact of your conference food and beverage planning while providing a memorable experience for your attendees.


There will be leftovers. Consider donating the food to homeless shelters or distribution organizations for the needy in the area. We have also taken leftover sweets directly to housekeeping and engineering departments at venues. The people who make your stay comfortable, you rarely see and rarely get recognized. 


In conclusion, successful conference food and beverage planning requires careful consideration of a variety of factors, including the audience, budget, timing, and appropriate food, and beverage ordering. By following the nine rules outlined in this guide, organizers can ensure that their event is catered perfectly, with the appropriate amount of food and beverages ordered to avoid waste or overspending. With these tips in mind, conference planners can provide a seamless food and beverage experience that will leave attendees satisfied and well-fed. Remember, the key to successful planning is attention to detail and thoughtful preparation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *