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5 Innovative Ways to Serve Large Crowds

Mealtime for the masses doesn’t have to mean a standard buffet or plated meal. Consider these options for your next trade show, convention, or other large event.

The Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotel often uses a festival-style setup to serve large meeting and convention groups. The hotel's director of food and beverage, Tony Porcellini, says the staff will prepare some of the food in advance, while other items are cooked to order in the tents.
The Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotel often uses a festival-style setup to serve large meeting and convention groups. The hotel's director of food and beverage, Tony Porcellini, says the staff will prepare some of the food in advance, while other items are cooked to order in the tents.
Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotel

When you need to feed a large group of people at a trade show or convention, how you serve them can be just as important as what you serve them. Consider these inspiring ideas from catering professionals from hotels and convention centers around the country.

1. Street festival
This format is an efficient way to feed a large group of people, and it also taps into a bit of nostalgia. “It’s like when we were kids and would go to big church festivals or feasts in the city,” said Tony Porcellini, director of food and beverage at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotel. Porcellini says the hotel uses this setup for large meetings and events at least a dozen times each year, erecting the tents on the resort’s expansive terrace. In addition to booths offering a variety of food and beverages, he also incorporates entertainment stations such as face painting, virtual reality golf, and traditional street fair games. To create cohesion, think about tying the menu together with a theme, for example serving signature foods from several cities around the United States or around the world. “Everybody wants options today, so it’s letting them choose what they want to eat. And from a caterer’s standpoint, it’s enabling us to serve a lot of people with some really great fresh food because it’s separating the crowd,” Porcellini says.

2. Communal tables
Encourage conversation and networking by serving guests at long, communal tables. Victoria Chivers, director of catering at Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, says she sets the tables with a basket of artisan breads, flavored butters, and tapenades. “Treat the food as a centerpiece. It used to be a faux pas to have things preset, but it seems like it’s coming back to where people want to see that bountiful, family-style meal,” she says. When it is time for the main course, Chivers serves each guest a plated protein and then places side dishes in the middle of the tables for them to pass and share. For a casual communal meal, Carolyn Dent, director of events at the Omni Dallas Hotel, suggests presetting individual salads layered in Mason jars and then using a lazy Susan to serve sandwiches wrapped in parchment paper. To identify each sandwich, garnish each one with an herb and then create a guide on a butcher paper table covering to identify which sandwich goes with each herb.

3. Food trucks
When the food truck craze began about five years ago, it was primarily in a handful of large cities. Nowadays, trucks are available in cities both big and small across the country. And while the buzz about them has waned, they are still a popular option for large meetings and events. As event manager for the Hyatt Regency New Orleans and its offsite catering company, 1718 Catering, Natalie Angulo often uses local food trucks at her events. “The guests are able to go up to and choose their food. When you've got a large convention and mixed dietary restrictions and needs, it’s a way to know there is something for everyone,” she says. Angulo says she contracts the trucks to provide a specified number of portions and then she complements it with action stations and buffets provided by her catering team.

4. Restaurant-style
Bring the energy and variety of a restaurant into a ballroom by replicating Hilton Orlando’s “food hall” concept. The hotel creates an elevated kitchen in the middle of the room that has four stations offering four different menus. “Providing an interactive setting where guests are able to peer into a working kitchen allows for an exciting sensory experience,” says Vincent Cani, the hotel's senior banquet sous chef.  For beverage service, the hotel offers three stations around the perimeter of the room serving craft beer, wines, and specialty cocktails.

5. Action stations
The “action” in action stations means guests have a say in what they choose to eat or how it is prepared. Frank Abbinanti, Levy Restaurants’ executive chef for the George World Congress Center in Atlanta, has used this format successfully with large groups by setting up ramen noodle bars around the venue. Staff dressed in customary Japanese attire provide guests a bowl of ramen noodles and then instruct them to add fresh julienne vegetables that are displayed in bamboo steamer baskets. Guests can also add items such as shrimp, chicken, and lobster. The final step is the addition of hot broth poured by a chef. Abbinanti says he usually offers choices such as curry broth, pork broth, and Thai vegetable broth. “It really brings in all the different senses. They are smelling it, they are seeing the action to create it, they are getting the theme,” he says. “Great food is an expectation. What really makes the difference is how you interject the service piece into it.” Tracy Cammack, executive director of catering for Savor, says she has used elevated action stations to serve more than 10,000 people during trade shows at Chicago's McCormick Place. At stations around the exhibit hall, chefs prepared items such as sushi, dim sum, beef and chicken skewers, and lamb lollipops. To inform guests about menu options, Walt Disney World Resort senior catering operations director Kelly Blakely displays menu items on large digital boards. To encourage guests to visit all the food stations—and to add an element of fun—Vincent Dreffs, director of catering at Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, suggests creating a scavenger hunt that rewards guests who collect validations from each station.

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