You may start to notice the same faces taking pictures, setting up flowers, and tending the bar. Establish a network with these vendors; you work with the same clients, and you can bring each other business.
You can invite other event vendors to your tastings as a promotional tie-in. Both of you will make valuable contacts. If you know a photographer who works at some of the events you cater, invite her to your tasting. She'll appreciate the invitation and the opportunity to meet your clients. Have her take pictures of your food at the tasting, so that you have professional quality pictures for your portfolio and Web site. She can also take pictures of your guests and send them with her card afterward. If your clients need an event photographer and haven't hired one yet, your colleague might get some new business.
Do the same thing for a musician who works at the same events you do. Ask the musician to play at your tasting for a half hour or so. The music will relax your clients and might provide the musician with new business. If you need to rent linens, glasses, or other tabletop items for your tasting, invite your local rental vendor to come to your tasting. In return for some great food and a chance to show off his new products to some upscale customers, ask the vendor to provide his services to you at no charge.
Listening to soothing music relaxes customers and allows them to enjoy and digest their meal more easily. They're more likely to close a catering deal if you provide them with a relaxing, stress-free environment.
Ask a local florist to provide a table arrangement gratis for your tasting. Invite her to the tasting, and let her bring her business cards. Your clients might hire her for their events. Some other vendors to contact for possible partnerships may include:
Musicians and DJ's
Furniture rental companies
Ice sculpture companies
Specialty food vendors like crepe makers, popcorn cart vendors, etc.
Tent and restroom rental companies
Limousine and coach rental companies
Stationers who do custom invitations
To save on the ingredient costs for your tastings, partner with some of your specialty food vendors. If the guy who sells you grass-fed beef is willing to provide samples of his new dry-aged product, then develop a tasting menu that features his beef. If your local grower is willing to provide heirloom tomatoes and fresh dill in return for promoting her farm and her homemade pickles and jams, then feature her vegetables and herbs in your tasting dishes. You can even have your vendor come to the food tasting as a special perk for her.
You'll need serving help at your tastings to allow you the time to talk to your guests. Find low-cost serving help by partnering with the career office at a local school. Offer to provide a training internship for students, and teach your interns kitchen and serving skills in return for helping you serve at your tastings, complete your paperwork, and prep ingredients for your jobs. If you can meet the school's internship requirements, the student will get credit for working with you and you'll get a worker for a very reasonable cost, maybe even for free.
Partnering with Wedding Vendors
If you're interested in booking catering jobs for wedding receptions and prewedding festivities, use your creativity to partner with other wedding vendors to publicize your business.
Meet with the owners of the top limousine companies in the area. Propose a cross-promotional program, which can benefit your company and theirs. Negotiate a deal — you'll recommend their services to your clients, and in return they will promote your services in their cars and customer mailings and to their larger corporate and private clients. People who use car services to get to and from the airport and to go home after working late nights tend to be the same people who host events and need caterers for their business and social parties.
Bridal expos are a great opportunity to gain exposure and network with other vendors. Expos can attract thousands of potential customers and hundreds of vendors. Check local events calendars for events near you, and contact the expo's planners to see if you can register as an exhibitor.
Even though you never work directly with them, travel agencies are another partnering target. Since many upscale clients and wedding couples book honeymoons through a travel agent, inviting travel agents to a special tasting in return for promoting your services to their clients makes sense. Travel agents work on commission, so you can offer them 5 percent of a catering contract if their lead results in new business for you.
The travel agent — client relationship is a special one. Clients tend to work with the same travel agents for years, and travel agents spend a lot of time working with each individual client. A good travel agent gets to know her clients. She'll be a valuable source of referrals and can also let you know who to invite to a special tasting. Since travel agents spend a lot of time working with their clients and tend to work with them over and over again, they get to know their customers pretty well. A good travel agent will know who to recommend your services to and who's worthwhile for you to invite to a special tasting.
You must have a signed, written agreement with anyone who sells your services for commission. Draft a simple agreement that spells out what the rate will be, when they'll get paid, if they're allowed to sell a competing catering service, and what defines a qualified sale.
Local hairdressers are also worth networking and partnering with. Hairdressers have a captive audience, and they also tend to know a lot about their clients. They know who in the family is getting married, graduating, or having a baby. Most hairdressers have an extremely loyal clientele who listen to what their hairdresser has to say. Many people go to the same hair stylist for years at a time, often traveling to get a haircut if they move out of town. Hairdressers become part of a trusted network, so if Mrs. Smith's hairdresser recommends you to cater her daughter's wedding next May, then Mrs. Smith will be receptive to meeting with you.
Hairdressers work for tips, so offer them a flat fee if their referral ends up getting you a contract. You, in turn, can offer to promote their services to your clients. Bridal parties and guests of honor often need a hairstylist who is willing to come to the home or event venue early to help with day-of-event styling.
Local jewelers who specialize in engagement rings can be excellent partners because couples buy the ring before they start planning wedding details. Get to know the area jewelers and offer them a commission if they recommend your catering services to engaged couples. You can help the jewelers by recommending their shops to your clients. You might also be able to hold a special tasting at the jewelry store, allowing the jeweler to showcase his special line of rings and bracelets to your customers.
If the event and wedding planners you approach are skeptical about using a relatively new vendor, arrange a special tasting for them. The time and effort you spend winning them over will be worthwhile. Referrals from this group are invaluable.
Stores that sell bridal gowns, bridal accessories, and dresses for mothers of the bridal party can also be helpful promotional partners. Any bride who's bought a gown gets to know her salesperson pretty well after going for a few fittings. Offer the salespeople a commission if their recommendation turns into new business for you.
Partnering with Event Planners
There are always more prospective clients than you'll have time to e-mail, call, or meet. Partnering with professional event planners is an efficient way to make your services known to more potential clients. Event planners always need great, reliable caterers to work with, and most will be glad to know about you. Offer them a commission or a minimum flat fee if they provide a lead that results in a catering contract for you.
Public Relations Partners
One way to generate local buzz is to partner with local media outlets. Whether it's a local newspaper, magazine, radio, or television station, they all need to keep their readers buying and tuned in. Newspapers and radio stations run contests throughout the year to keep their readers and listeners loyal.
When you offer to provide your services for free, make sure the total number of guests you'll be serving and the total monetary value of your services is within reason. You don't want to be stuck providing 100 people with a free steak and lobster dinner.
Suggest a contest where you'll cater a wedding for a local couple that's chosen by the readers of a local newspaper. This is a good way for the newspaper to create some positive publicity and goodwill. In return, you'll negotiate for the newspaper to cover the wedding and promote your services in a series of articles about the wedding.