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Restaurant Associates CEONick Valenti

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Nick Valenti has led event industry powerhouse Restaurant Associates since 1994. In addition to its large event catering division, RA runs restaurants like Brasserie 8 1/2, the Sea Grill and Rock Center Caf?, and manages foodservice operations in numerous corporate cafeterias and spots like the United Nations Delegates' Dining Room.

What's the biggest challenge for the event industry?

To restore New York as a destination for events both domestic and international. We in the event industry have done a terrific job of getting New Yorkers and tri-state area business to come back, but we have to continue our efforts to attract domestic and international visitors.

How do you watch for trends?

I attend a lot of events-fund-raisers, galas, social events-and try to keep my finger on them. But the way to watch trends is not necessarily by attending other events, it's by watching what's happening in restaurants and caf?s, in social dining.

What trends have you observed recently?

There are a lot of specialty bars at events, like mojito and margarita bars. Tuxedos are out; waiters are dressed significantly more casually. Food is significantly less formal. There are more receptions than sit-down dinners, with cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, food stations serving tacos, sushi, light salads, grilled vegetables. It's not necessarily less expensive to have these receptions. But a sit-down dinner doesn't allow for as much mixing and interacting, and that's the reason you go to a party.

How important is food to an event's overall success?

Extremely important. People are much more aware of food today than a few years ago, with Williams-Sonoma, the Food Network, every magazine covering food. People cook for themselves more than before. They don't mind something caloric, but they want to make sure it's worth the calories.

How is RA's special events business holding up?

Everyone has been affected by 9/11, the economy, scandals. Events are one way for companies to get closer to their customers. It's something to look forward to, and we have to be suggestive, to reach out to customers. People are getting aggressive about fighting for their customers' market share; special events can help.

The special events industry has begun to see a resurgence. Restaurant Associates' party business is now on par with last year. But who knows what normal means any more?

RA is known as one of New York's largest caterers. Is it difficult to sell an image of quality, when people know you for your size?

We are known as one of the largest companies in the city, but we're also recognized for our premium food.

What's your forecast for New York and your business right now?

There are a lot of exciting things possibly happening in New York City, strong bids for the Super Bowl, the Olympics, Democratic and Republican conventions. NYC & Company has done an awful lot to attract visitors to the city. I'm cautiously optimistic about our business. Although I think the sky is not completely blue, it's mostly sunny.

--Jane L. Levere

Posted 12.11.02

This Q&A originally appeared in our newspaper, the BiZBash Event Style Reporter.
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