Since my current position involves some level of event/exhibit management, I now receive trade magazines about the business of meeting and making everyone happy. The most recent of these featured an article called “Contracting for Trouble” by Leo Jakobson, which begins by recounting a recent news item dubbed “Muffingate.” In brief: a number of US Department of Justice divisions were audited and sharply criticized for excessive spending, including an allegedly $16-per-muffin breakfast held for a Leaders and Interpreters Training Conference in 2009. Later, it emerged that the fee was not $16 per muffin but $16 per person for a breakfast that included muffins and the traditional tea/coffee/juice setup; the “muffin” in the meeting contract was shorthand used by the conference hotel for this particular buffet.
The rest of the article is actually a useful resource and reminder to comb contracts for specificity and to be clear when writing up similar documents. But I was particularly moved by the muffin tale because not too long ago, I was faced with the dilemma of selecting a breakfast menu for a sales conference my department held in another city. I wanted to be economical with my nonprofit company’s funds, but I also wanted to provide a satisfying and energizing morning snack; I wanted the selection to be classy, but not extravagant or off-putting. If you were not yet convinced that food carries meaningful associations, try to imagine choosing between the bare bones (coffee, tea, and water; too cheap, and besides, we’d murder each other), the bare bones plus cookies and coffee cake (filling, but practically junk food), or the bare bones plus fresh fruit and light Italian pastries (which people might eat less heartily than the denser baked goods; less bang for our buck). I dismissed several other options (including a “buzz free” buffet with popcorn and no coffee). In the end, I decided I’d prefer the implication and physiological effect of “fresh” and “light” foods than the denser desserts, even at risk of appearing snooty. The menu I chose was $1 more per head, but as it turned out, the hotel randomly threw in cookies for free.
In other words, I deeply sympathize with the LITC organizers who came under fire for this decision; on the surface, $16 a person still sounds extravagant for breakfast, but they’d be hard pressed to spend any less for a decent spread in a fully staffed conference hotel. Breakfast is serious business. Regardless of how you normally start your day, imagine how crabby you’d feel if summoned to a morning meeting that offered no caffeine and no carbs. And aside from the physical need to adequately fuel minds and bodies so that they are ready for business, catering and meals are extremely important to a company’s image. Last weekend, at the large scholarly meeting I attended as a book exhibitor, each morning began with polite chitchat among exhibitors and the question “So where did you eat last night?” We swapped restaurant recommendations out of genuine interest, to be sure, but also to present ourselves as knowledgeable and sophisticated eaters – and to be equipped to knowledgeably and sophisticatedly take press authors out for lunch.