Is Your Conference Like A Five Course Meal Or A Smorgasbord Buffet?


If you had a choice and money was not a concern, which would you prefer? A fine dining five course dinner or an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord buffet?

I prefer a fine dining five course meal anytime.

Smorgasbord All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

Smorgasbord buffets are usually prepared fast, easily and inexpensively. They are a popular method for feeding a large number of people with minimal staff and effort. The food is displayed in a public area where diners serve themselves. The consumer chooses from a variety of options.

Customers pay a fixed fee and can eat as much food as they want during that single meal. They are most popular in hotels and restaurants like the well known Sizzler or Golden Corral.

Owners of smorgasbord buffets give most of their attention to the buffet, not the restaurant’s environment, atmosphere, quality or customer’s experience. It’s all about offering a lot of choices at low costs to attract a lot of people. Money is made on volume sales.

In my opinion, many all-you-can-eat buffets are watered-down food experiences. Often the food is stale and unhealthy. Frequently the food looks like it has been sitting under hot lights for hours.

Typically patrons that visit all-you-can-eat buffets are more concerned with price than food quality. It’s about instant gratification, bowing to the immediate cravings of the stomach. It’s not about having a memorable experience…unless the food causes nightmares and frequent visits to the bathroom.

The Conference Smorgasbord Experience

Many conferences today have become nothing more than the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord buffet of education offerings. The focus is on offering a wide variety of content choices to a large number of people with minimal effort and staff. Quality is minimal. Little attention is given to the attendee’s experience or learning.

The smorgasbord buffet conference experience tries to be all things to all people. It’s about getting as many people in and out of rooms as quickly and efficiently as possible. The goal is minimal satisfaction.

The experience is quickly forgotten and often seen as the cheap, warehouse department store discount. It’s provides some instant gratification but rarely has any long-lasting affect.

Fine Dining Five Course Meal

Fine dining restaurants are full service restaurants with specific dedicated meal courses. The restaurateur works with designers to create the right atmosphere for the experience. The environment features higher quality materials dedicated to an overarching theme. Chefs and wait staff have more experience and training.

Most multicourse meals follow a pre-determined sequence. Each course is designed with a specific size and genre that is appropriate for its place in the sequence. Food and drinks are chosen intentionally to feature particular flavors and spices. The entire experience threads a unique storyline and theme.

Often a five course meal starts with a small serving called an entree or appetizer. Sometimes this may be a soup, bisque, consommés, salad or antipasto. (In the US, we often substitute the word appetizer for entree as entree may refer to the main course.)

Following the entree is a light dish, sometimes a fish, usually served with vegetables. Next is the main course which is the most important dish. It contains a larger portion than the other dishes. Dessert is the fourth course followed by a cheese or nut selection accompanied by an appropriate selection of wine.

The entire event unfolds intentionally, layer upon layer, precept upon precept, line upon line. It is unique and memorable. It moves at a slower pace than an all-you-can eat buffet, allowing customers time to digest and enjoy the experience.

The Fine Dining Conference Experience

Conferences that intentionally offer attendees a threaded experience are memorable, unique and rare.

The fine dining conference experience does not try to be all things to all people. Instead it follows specific dedicated sequence that relates to an overarching theme.

A limited number of education offerings are intentionally chosen and paired together for the customer. The content is chosen to attract specific audience segments, not the general public. Each part of the experience is designed for its appropriate place in the overarching narrative and storyline. It unfolds layer upon layer, precept upon precept, line upon line.

Attendees are seen as participants, adding to the experience. They are given time to digest and process the experience. They discuss the content with great vigor and passion. They share their own knowledge and understanding adding more depth to the conference.

So which would you prefer, the smorgasbord, all-you-can-eat buffet conference experience or the fine dining conference experience and why? Which experience is more likely to be remembered and why?

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  1. Anna Trott says:

    I prefer the fine dining conference experience, however, the money my associations get from hosting a conference is generally what gets us thru the year, budget wise. Without conference funds, some associations would not exist. So, the more people the better, and as a “good meeting planner” I am constantly pulling on my creativity so the conference won’t be “stale” and “buffet-like”. Then, once you have a successful large conference, you can plan a more specific “fine dining” conference that may attract a smaller crowd, but the content is more than excellent. 🙂

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      So true that many associations get a large portion of their revenue from the conference experience. I think there is a way that a conference can offer a fine dining experience for large groups of people. A trend we’re seeing is that conference participants are becoming more sophisticated and wanting better experiences. If they’re not getting it from the association, they are going elsewhere or moving those dollars to a different type of experience.

      Here’s to more associations having meeting professionals like yourself that are looking for creative ways to create fresh experiences. We need more like you.

  2. Sheila says:

    Nice analogy. I hate all-you-can-eat buffets (maybe because I always end up overeating at them?) I’d much rather have a fixed course meal, and you’re right, the food is always better and I enjoy it more.
    I think the throw-everything-on-the-plate mentality is for groups that are unable or unwilling to determine the few items (or courses) that are the best, or at least, that they think are the best. Or maybe they think they can get more people by trying to offer “everything”. Personally, just show me your best offerings, and let me decide if they are are what I need, and if they are good enough or not.
    PS. Sorry if I wandered. 🙂 Sheila

  3. I think where associations get in trouble is having 2-3 day long conferences with so many meals when they really should be cutting it down to one day of exceptional training. Most of us don’t have time to be away from the office so long or spending extra funds travelling. I would rather be able to fly in or drive to a conference and go home the same night. I don’t care if you feed me, but give me time to get that food elsewhere. Just wow and engage me with your content!

  4. thom singer says:

    Jeff… you have made me hungry for food and conference with your analogy.

    I think that the answer is not in a buffet or a five course meal. I think that the answer is in the great local bistro who keeps prices reasonable and yet wow’s the customer at every turn. Making the customer to focus always is the winning gesture at for all industries.

  5. William says:

    Great comments. I wanted to pick up on one. I think it’s time not money that is the difference between the buffet and the fine dining conference experience. Viewing the conference as a service and not a product adds extra dimensions that add tremendous value. And thus is done through structuring everything around the programme content. And ensuring that speakers, chair and delegates know there role.

    With fine dining you are also expected to take some food (learning / engagement) away in a doggie bag, so perhaps we can extend the dining metaphor, and say our fine dining is about the pre, during and post more than the buffet style.

    I think we’ve been dining out cheaply and unheathly for too long.

    Fine dining for all I say.

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