You’ve found the meeting space and made sure that you have enough bedrooms to accommodate everyone. You’ve also got a great venue earmarked for the conference dinner – but what about the dinner itself?

Great conference dinners don’t just happen. As a client recently told us: “the conference dinner is usually a highlight – or even the highlight – of the event. People may have long forgotten the conversations and content of the conference presentations years later, but if it’s that good, they will never forget the conference meal…”

Whether the purpose of the dinner is to just make sure that everyone has a good time or if there’s a more strategic objective of gathering speakers, sponsors and delegates together over good food and drink, we believe that time spent planning the actual meal is time well spent. We asked our clients and the teams at our venues for their top tips…

The Room

First things first, you’ll need to consider logistics of the venue before planning a conference dinner.

  • Make sure the room is a suitable size and that it can accommodate an increase/decrease in numbers. Does the venue have a minimum number requirement and are there any extra charges for room hire, linen, service or extended hours?
  • What is the purpose of the dinner? Is networking a priority or are the speeches more important? If speeches take precedence, ask about AV, microphones and sound limitations and so on.
  • Go and see the dining room for yourself and meet the people who will be your point of contact on the day. Meet the catering team and ask for a tasting before you decide on the menu.
  • Too many diners for the venue? It doesn’t have to be a problem, as with clever use of technology and AV links, multiple venues can be connected so that diners still get the feel of being in the same space.

The Food

As well as allergen and dietary requirements, consider the nationality of your delegates and any cultural or religious needs they may have.

  • Duck for some Scandinavian delegates can be reminiscent of Christmas, likewise turkey for British guests or Thanksgiving for US delegates
  •  Japan, China, India, Korea, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia - Asian food tends to be predominantly spicy food, fruit, rice with most things and lots of vegetables. Alcohol is not normally used in cooking and Chinese guests will probably not wish for cold water – they will have tea or warm water instead.
  •  South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia African cuisine features a variety of beans, pulses, grains, couscous and potatoes, together with meat stews, spicy food, local fish, and a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables and Halal chicken.
  •  Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela – South American food is often based around a lot of different vegetables and nuts, as well as beef, pork, lamb and fish dishes and tropical fruit.
  •  UK, Germany, France, Italy - European cooking still tends to be meat-heavy, with lots of seasoning, dairy, pasta, dumplings, pastries and potatoes – all with a lot of different sauces and alcohol in cooking.

It could also be said that many international guests may wish to try something typically British during their visit so don’t dismiss local produce or specialities. It’s better to provide a choice to show that you have considered everyone!

The Drink

When ordering wine, a good guide is an arrival drink per person, two glasses of wine with the meal and port and/or dessert wine to finish. Ask the venue to pour for you if you want to keep this under control!

  • Also take into account those people who do not drink alcohol. Consider possibly having a signature cocktail that can be prepared without alcohol so all guests can experience it alongside a selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
  • Passing the Port is an age-old tradition but if you’re planning to serve it, consider asking the venue to pour to ensure that the decanter isn’t empty by the time it reaches the last guest!
  • Most venues have a sommelier in the team so ask for advice on pairing dishes with wines if you’re not sure and don’t be afraid to book a tasting too.


Choosing an after-dinner speaker can be tricky – and in fact it can be better not to have anything planned rather than making the wrong decision.

  • Humour is good – as long as the speaker does not try too hard.
  • There must be some empathy with the conference community.
  • As a rule of thumb the after-dinner speaker should not present for more than 10-15 minutes.
  • Check with your speaker any photography or filming restrictions.
  • Consider using an agency to ensure that all of your needs are addressed and all eventualities are covered – read our other blog about this for some great extra tips.
  • Make the venue aware of any speeches, so that timings can be coordinated with service. You’ll need to ensure that front of house staff don’t interrupt the speaker, and vice versa.

Seating Plans and Name Badges

As much as everyone dislikes name tags, at large conferences they really help people mingle and eliminate the awkwardness of not remembering someone's name.

  • Will you be having a top table? Who should sit next to whom can sometimes be quite a political decision. Think this over carefully.
  • College dinners traditionally have a seating plan that mixes up senior academics and students so they can learn from each other. Adopt the Cambridge tradition and consider a seating plan where senior delegates are seated. with junior delegates to ensure that everyone gets the best networking and learning opportunities.
  • Consider putting a code, such as a discreet symbol or different coloured sticker, on name cards at the table to help servers identify anyone with special dietary requirements.


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