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Why a Catering Marketing Plan is Essential to Success

Think a Catering Marketing Plan is Optional?

Work in catering is rich in event energy, variety, excitement—but, of course, not rich in free time. You’re responsible for attending to scads of details for each project and ensuring delighted clients, seamless events and healthy company balance sheets. With all this, do you have time to create and implement a marketing plan? It can seem like an impossible luxury.

Protect Against Slow Business

According to some, it’s a luxury you can’t afford not to have. This has always been true, and it’s even truer in light of the economy’s recent doldrums. “I don’t see how any catering company these days could not have a marketing plan,” says Cheryl Bennett, general manager with Main Event Caterers in Arlington, Va., just outside of Washington, DC. “Even in our area, some pretty big dogs are down 30 percent in business. We’re still doing a lot of wedding catering, but corporations and nonprofits are scaling back the quantity and scope of their events, so our business in those areas is down. Gone are the days when you could do no marketing and the phone would continue to ring.” In difficult economic times, Bennett says, competition is more fierce, and having and implementing a marketing plan is key to your catering company’s survival.

Also, a marketing plan can add structure and focus to work you’re already doing. “All businesses have to market, so you might as well have a road map for it and be systematic about it, which is what a marketing plan is,” says small business owner Sonal Goda. “It gets down to whether you want your results to be predictable. Most people want a predictable income from their business, so you have to write down what you plan to do, and track the results and tweak it as appropriate.”

Bennett agrees. “You can succeed either by accident or by design, and part of succeeding by design is planning your business,” she says. She credits Main Event’s organized marketing plan and program for her company’s recent growth and achievements, including winning the coveted Caterer of the Year award from Catering Magazine.

Size of Your Business Determines Marketing Plan

So you should have some sort of marketing plan—but how complicated does it need to be? The answer depends on whom you ask. It also depends on the size of your business. Small businesses tend to be more informal, with fewer set processes and procedures. They’re also less likely to have their own large marketing departments, or a lot of extra money to hire a marketing company to write their plan.

Small business managers Bennett and Goda both emphasize that marketing plans need not be complicated to be effective. “Somebody in the company has to sit down and make a list of all of the marketing opportunities out there,” Bennett says. “You figure out everything you could possibly do, list opportunities in a spreadsheet, rate things in terms of return on the dollar, rank opportunities and sort them based on what they are, who the target market is and what the cost is.”

Bennett says that companies should also have processes for tracking the effectiveness of their marketing activities. They might include these processes in their marketing plans. “It’s all about having systems and processes,” she says. “If you’re going to spend the money and the time and the energy to market, you need to be able to track your success.”

Bennett also emphasizes the importance of setting a budget for the marketing plan and its activities based on the profit structure of the company. She suggests 2% of gross revenues as the total marketing budget for a catering company. “The biggest mistake that companies make is that they don’t budget for anything,” she says, “and they don’t look at the long-term implications of their decisions. It’s imperative to set down a budget for these things.”

“I’m sure there are more formal types of marketing plans out there,” Bennett says, “but the point of any marketing plan really is just picking out your demographics and figuring out how to reach them.”

Both Bennett and Goda report that their businesses create marketing plans on an annual basis. Around November of each year, Bennett says, she and other Main Event managers review what they did over the year that worked and what didn’t and decide what to get rid of or put into their marketing plan for the coming year. She adds, though, that Main Event’s marketing planning process is really year-round. “Throughout the year opportunities crop up that you didn’t even know existed,” she adds. “We do have to sit down on an as-needed basis.”

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