A Catering Director’s Advice to Planners


MeetingsNet recently caught up with Diane Tighe, director of catering and conference services at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club on the campus of Duke University in Durham, N.C., to talk about food trends and how planners can make the most of the relationship with their catering and conference services partners.   

MeetingsNet: What is the most important information that meeting planners should share with the catering and conference services team?
Diane Tighe: Prior to meeting with a venue's catering and conferences services team, meeting planners should first identify and understand the dynamic of their group and overall goals of the event. Dietary restrictions, including an understanding of cultural needs as well as food allergy needs, are among the most important pieces of information to share. That said, every detail is important. Your catering team doesn't know what they don't know. It's important to share the mission of your event, the goals you need to accomplish, and to be honest about any questions you have or areas you're not comfortable with. I work to ask the right questions, and it always helps if the meeting planner is prepared with the answers. If a planner doesn't give me all the information I need, I have to guess. That gives me a 50 percent chance of getting things wrong. I never like to find out after an event that I could have enhanced and improved upon a component in some way if additional information had been shared.

MN: How do you work with the challenge of multiple dietary preferences and requirements among meeting attendees? 
DT: I don't see multiple dietary preferences and requirements as a challenge but rather the culture in which our profession works every day. Most important is making sure that all attendees are asked the right questions. It is helpful to understand if a requirement is made based off of guest preference or an allergy.

I work with our culinary team every day to re-create menu items to suit dietary requirements. In some cases, we design an event's entire menu around a specific allergy in ways that attendees don't even realize. In other cases, we make a meal or menu item that appears similar to the meal everyone else receives but has been modified to accommodate the preference or requirement.

All of our menus and buffet items are also meticulously labeled, including if items are dairy free, gluten free, vegetarian, and more. Labels help guests through the experience in an unobtrusive way. Guests should never feel their meeting is disrupted by their food allergy.

For a plated meal, we work closely with the meeting planner to ensure individuals with food allergies and preferences have proper signage in front of them. There are also many ways we can ensure our team can identify guest with food allergies or preferences.

MN: What current food trends are you most excited about? Any trends that you won't mind saying farewell to?
DT: I love food, so I'm being honest when I say I'm excited about all of them! It's an exciting time to be in the industry when food is so much at the forefront. One of my favorites is collaborating with our culinary team and peers to see how we can take an everyday menu item and present it so that the guest will see it as a wow factor. For example, people have had milkshakes before, but we worked with our culinary team to create Milkshake Madness—fun concoctions of flavors highlighted with condiments that put a unique twist on the presentation of the shake.

With my passion for creativity, I'm always ready for the next thing. I could say farewell to cake pops and cupcakes so we can welcome in the next creative dessert trend!

MN: What are one or two budget-saving tips you can share with meeting planners when it comes to F&B?
DT: My first tip is to have a good understanding of your meeting's needs and the role that food will play. Have a conversation with your conference services partner about the entire meeting, including everything from goals of the meeting to the budget, so they can work more effectively for you. With a complete understanding, your conference services planner can work alongside you with the same goals in mind.

My second tip is that more is not always better—it's just more. An item done really well and creatively can send a powerful message to your guest. It's important to identify your food wow factor and execute that item really well. Instead of offering a buffet of items that don't hit the mark and go unused, be focused on your group's needs and be creative. Narrow down to what's really important and make it the highlight.

MN: Do you advise planners on what to serve at meeting breaks to keep attendee energy and focus? 
DT: Yes, we work with our clients to make food a component that strengthens their event and complements their overall design. For example, if a client has a full-day meeting we would recommend offering lighter meals multiple times throughout the day. This helps the food not be disruptive to the day's mission, but rather fills in break times with great, nutritious foods that keep up the energy of the guests.

MN: What is the most fun part of your job?
DT: I love my job. The best part is walking in and knowing that I'm going to have a new experience every day. The world of menu planning, design, and event décor is so exciting and constantly changing. It always makes me think on my feet. I've been with Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club for 17 years and, to be honest, have pretty much never designed the same event twice. You're always working to improve every aspect and make things even more engaging.

I also love that my job is to help people celebrate milestones and hold productive meetings. It's really great to be part of so many different people's lives in this quiet way. When I go home after work, I feel fulfilled—I know I've accomplished something. It takes the entire hotel to pull off every event and all my coworkers are working with me every step of the way.

Diane Tighe joined the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club in 1999. In 2012, she received her Certified Professional Catering Executive designation from the National Association for Catering and Events. She is an active member of NACE, having served three terms as president. She also has served as program chair, treasurer, and secretary, as well as national secretary for the chapter presidents' council and on the NACE National Education Committee.