Industry Insights: Andrew White

Suppliers – Food for Thought

How do you set up a catering suppliers list? Andrew White asks Gavin Bevan, senior operations manager at a truly unique venue, the Natural History Museum.

Culinary Gourmet Buffet Party
Photo: Getty Images

Catering is a huge undertaking for any venue, and unique venues are no different. With many owner/operators taking on a multitude of roles and responsibilities, is your food and drink offering something you can handle in house or is outsourcing a better option?

Feeding and watering your guests doesn’t just require good insight on menu bestsellers, stock control and budgeting; it’s an area governed by legislation, training and serious investment to ensure you are health and safety compliant. Rolling up your sleeves to prepare sandwiches, a three-course lunch or prepping platters of canapes for a drinks reception isn’t a case of having the ability and agility to cook in big batches and numbers; there is governance and training that must be adhered to.

Within the event sector, it’s not only catering that may be outsourced: audio visual, furniture hire, entertainment and floristry are all often part of a preferred suppliers list. We asked Gavin Bevan, senior operations manager at the Natural History Museum, how his organisation goes about outsourcing this hugely valuable revenue stream and what he looks for from his partners.

Creating a supplier list may not necessarily be right for your business, but it’s food for thought.

How do you set up a supplier list?

What does your business do? What type of suppliers do you use currently? Would you benefit from establishing relationships with suppliers on a long-term basis? Before even writing an invitation to tender, you need to ensure your tender documents are in order and have been shared with internal stakeholders as often your initiatives will affect others – for example, gaining advice on the latest health and safety regulations and environmental standards.

The Natural History Museum application process takes around 12 months to allow for applications to be processed, shortlisted, site visits arranged and getting to know suppliers on site at other venues. As the process progresses there are also on site presentations at the later stages. Being a Grade 1 listed building there are many rules and procedures which need to be followed which are also included in the tender document to give applicants a real indication of the scale of events held at the museum, and why we employ such a high level of scrutiny when selecting partners to work with.

Once you’ve formally selected your suppliers, it’s important to have a signed document from both parties agreeing the timeline for accreditation, i.e. 2018-2020 and an e-copy of their core documentation to hold on file should it be required during audits.

What are the credentials you look for?

We look at several aspects when considering new suppliers for our catering list including similar venues they work at, whether they also run restaurants or provide services to events, if they have an active presence in the market and react to market trends, along with the usual focus on price points. We visit shortlisted suppliers that we’re really interested in, touring their hub and making a point of checking on refrigeration space, transport, warehouse preparation areas, whether they have sufficient management systems in place and even down to how their offices are organised!

Ultimately, as we’re allowing our clients to only use approved suppliers, we need to be confident that they can deliver and manage expectations; we’ve all heard horror stories when friends or clients have booked services to find they under deliver or worse, don’t deliver at all.

What accreditations do they need?

Banquet at the natural history museum

During our accreditation process we ask applicants to complete a pre-qualifying questionnaire, we then shortlist submissions before asking them to complete a more thorough tender document. At this stage we ask for relevant health and safety accreditations, staff training certificates, insurance documents, sustainability policies, how they source their agency staff (do they use credible suppliers and do their own due diligence), and food sourcing information i.e. MSC certified.

So many of our clients are interested in where their food has come from and whether it’s from a sustainable source. We also need to do our utmost to align our area of business with the overall values the Natural History Museum stands for.

How often should you change it?

Our supplier list is refreshed every three years but there are no rules on this, each venue takes a different approach. You may find that when changing lists too often, suppliers are less inclined to invest in you as a venue, and the venue team itself isn’t able to build long lasting relationships with key team members.

You may find that applicants you thought were not quite ready to make it on to your list need sufficient time for continued growth and experience before applying next time round.

We treat our suppliers like partners; we pride ourselves on maintaining relationships and appreciate the efforts made by our suppliers when working at the Natural History Museum, some of whom have worked with us for over 20 years.

What expectations do you have from the supplier in terms of introducing business?

It’s certainly a benchmark when it comes to reaccreditation and we log how many events each supplier does at the museum, noting whether the client came to us directly or was referred by a supplier.

We expect our suppliers to proactively drive business into our venue, with some holding yearly showcase events at the museum inviting their client base. While we don’t put a specific number on this, we do closely monitor each supplier’s activities, and discuss this subject when conducting regular supplier reviews.

Our suppliers are also asked to collaborate with us on FAM trips (organised by our business development manager) to help drive business to all parties involved.

How many suppliers should be on the list?

Rather than focusing on the total number of suppliers on your list, you should first ask yourself, what do your clients want? We have structured our list to not only reflect quality but to ensure a wide range of price points and styles. While our venue hire charges are high end, we understand that clients may not have the budget for high end catering, production, entertainment and floristry.

This doesn’t discredit our listed suppliers as each has their own place in the market and their own distinct identities, which is why we were drawn to them in the first place.

What is the benefit of a sole supplier?

From a venue perspective, a sole supplier makes life a lot easier as they’re ingrained to the venue, have their own security access, on site food preparation, storage areas and custom infrastructure to suit the nature of the business.

But this model doesn’t suit our venue hire business as our clients don’t like to be assigned to only one option of supplier, and often we have clients holding events throughout London in a week, allowing them to use the same suppliers they’ve built relationships with from our list as they’re often approved by many other unique venues.

We are never going to be a contract catering model and, in order to remain one of the most revered venues in London for events, we need to continue to work alongside the best suppliers in the city who constantly keep pace with trends and the latest technologies.

Gourmet appetizers: caviar, venison, tuna and salmon.
Photo: Getty Images

Gavin BevanGavin Bevan is senior operations manager at The Natural History Museum. He is responsible for sourcing and managing the partnerships with the museum’s supplier list. The Natural History Museum was the fourth most-visited attraction in the UK in 2018 and is a landmark destination for business and society events.



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