Importance of Catering Numbers

Catering business man calculating food costs for an upcoming event based on the number of attendees.

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Numbers matter when you are running a successful catering business. If you are new to event planning, this realization might come as a surprise to you, but the fact is that numbers heavily drive the catering world.

Guest counts, portion sizes, and delivery date all factor into the profitability of food service, and even small number changes can make a big difference when it comes to serving dinner to hundreds of guests.

Because of all this, meeting planners need a firm grasp of catering numbers to ensure food quality and avoid penalty fees.

Estimated Count

It is the number of guests you initially build your event projections around. There is no real obligation with the estimated count as it is more of a “working number” used to estimate costs and staffing needs. These numbers will also drive the choice of venue and perhaps the service style you choose.

Expected Count

The expected count is submitted two or three weeks in advance of an event. It represents a more accurate count of anticipated guests, and it is tied contractually to the final count.

Every catering operation has policies for expected counts, but generally speaking, it is should not deviate by more than 15% of the final count.

Final Count or Guaranteed Count

Your final count is the number of guest meals for which you will pay. It also represents the number of place-setting and the size of the catering team for the room.

Any changes made to this number after the due date can incur penalties or late fees. Thus, it is important that the planner set an RSVP date that falls before the guarantee deadline.

Drop Percentage

There are two angles to drop percentages. The first is calculated by catering to see how much of your final count has dropped from your expected count. If the percentage is too large (over 20%), then a penalty fee may be issued to cover expenses related to staffing and supply orders.

Planners use drop percentages to estimate how many “no-shows” to expect. A 2% drop rate is about average for paid or ticketed events. That average can climb to above 5% for events that are free. As you can imagine, attendees are more likely to show when they have money invested in an event.

Meal Cards

Some planners offer more than one entrée at formal meals, and this creates another calculation requirement. Hotels and banquet centers don’t want to be stuck guessing how many guests will choose steak or chicken, so it is up to the planners to get accurate counts of each choice through their RSVP system.

On event day, each attendee should get a colored meal card they can place on the table, so servers automatically know which dish they ordered.

Drink Tickets

Event planners can use drink tickets to control the costs of running an open bar. It is accomplished by giving each guest one or two drink tickets at registration. The bartender will accept the tickets in exchange for a drink. Guests who opt to drink beyond their ticket allowance can pay cash.

One thing to note about drink tickets is that the venue will charge you the highest priced drink per ticket. For this reason, it makes sense to use this system with a beer and wine or house bar since the selections will be priced more closely together.

Work With the System

Ultimately it is up to the event planner to provide accurate counts to the catering department. Those planners who ignore the policies and deadlines issued by their providers can end up paying more than they should in the form of penalties and other fees.

The best way to avoid this is to read through the catering policies before planning the event. Following this, one simple rule will help you choose the most appropriate dates and costs to pass onto the guests.