Christmas Party World is celebrating its seventh year of parties at the NEC by hosting a record 40,000 guests, organised by leading event management specialists Vivid Experience with the help of caterer Amadeus.
This year, the venue has been expertly transformed into a make-believe Marrakesh for Moroccan Fire Nights, complete with cirque style entertainment and the intoxicating sounds of the red city, welcoming a near 40,000 dinners over 22 days.
Trapeze artists swirl through rings of fire hanging from the NEC’s rooftops, fairground sounds fill the air as bumper cars collide and waltzers revolve, while the bar, complete with a huge 20 service points, spans the entire length of the 14,000 square metre hall.
Right at the core of the festivities is Adrian Ford, the live events senior head chef for Amadeus, who knows the make or break point for any Christmas party experience is the food on offer.
Adrian said: “It’s fantastic to see the parties get bigger and better every year. From a catering perspective, as the productions gets larger and larger, and we take on more guests, the kitchen space behind the scenes gets a lot less – which of course brings challenges for our team.
“In 2013 we held 11 nights for 13,000 people and we are currently in the middle of a 22-night stretch for 40,000, so that really shows how the event has come on and progressed over the years.
“At Amadeus we don’t think of it as that many people – it really is much bigger than that.
“It’s 40,000 starters, main courses and desserts, which means a huge team effort behind the scenes. We have 46 staff working around the clock to put on the catering for around 2,200 visitors a night. We always split down the numbers into our two kitchens, so it doesn’t seem quite as daunting.
“It’s all about preparation for our team – and a close relationship with Vivid. They tell us how much kitchen space we will get each year and then we plan accordingly. Being able to adapt our kitchen to streamline the process each year has been working well for us.
“We try to eliminate as much stress as we can by lots of pre-planning. The event may be Christmas-focused, but it really is a whole year in the making. We start planning in February, before being sent the menu by Vivid in March and it’s at this point we can begin crafting the dishes. Some menus may work for smaller halls, but when you’re catering for more than 2,000 people most nights there are certain limitations because of the scale – as experienced event caterers sometimes we must hold our hands up, say certain things don’t work and then revaluate.
“Experience is key with events that reoccur like this – you get to know what time everything needs to happen for the service to be as efficient as possible. The first night you can experiment a little to find the best way of working.
“The team is cooking huge amounts of food but there are processes in place to be ready for anything – we are always ready for service.”
Logistically, events of this scale can pose a minefield of challenges for catering teams, none more so than an increasing focus on allergens in the industry, which Adrian calls ‘without a doubt the most important thing’.
He said: “It’s something we always have to consider, I think some people don’t take allergens as seriously as they should. As soon as I get the kitchen plans, it’s the first thing we think of, sitting down with the team to go through menus and consider our plan for the event.
“Our first thought, when we are sent the menu, is to cover as many allergens as we can. We will try and make the dessert gluten free, dairy free and vegan if we can. Over the past few years it has been an increasing focus for us – and of course, rightly, a hot topic in the industry. It has never been more important for caterers to be one step ahead when thinking about allergens.
“Customers pass on their allergen reports and nine times out of ten we’ve ironed it out already with the menu, which saves us a lot of logistical challenges. Naturally, there are going to be people that fall outside of the 14 main allergens, but we are committed to catering for everyone’s needs.
“Events on this scale are all about preparation. From the front of house staff, to the section managers, everybody knows what each person can have.
“Every night before an event I’m handed an up-to-date allergen report with a split of the room for each kitchen, and we consider how we are able to tailor the dishes for each person’s requirements if needed. We also have nominated allergen specialists who serve the dishes to those with specific requirements, minimising the room for error.”
Flash forward to 22nd December and the dust will have settled on another stint of Vivid Christmas parties at the NEC. “It’s a real relief once it’s over!”, Adrian chuckles.
“By that point I’m definitely ready for Christmas. You get four days break built in to the 22 events, but you’re always thinking on your feet, reacting to any curveballs that come your way. It is tiring work, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m still going to be making dinner on Christmas day.
“It’s not a sole effort though, the team is so important and to have trust in them. I always say I’m just driving the train – the other parts are invaluable. You’re truly only as good as the team around you – they are the unsung heroes of the operation.
“Without a strong team around you, it’s impossible to deliver catering for an event like this.”