Picture this: You and your spouse and hundreds of other couples are attending a business organization's annual dinner. The emcee is wrapping up the opening remarks.
"Dig in, everyone," the emcee says. "Afterward, we'll be back with our featured speaker."
As forks begin to clink on salad dishes, a small army of servers appears. Within minutes, every guest receives a piping-hot, restaurant-quality main course. A mouth-watering dessert will follow.
A large-scale banquet constitutes a truly remarkable display of logistics and coordination. Such events can take more than a year to orchestrate, hospitality professionals and their clients said.
"It's a very long process," said Cheryl Irwin-Bass, vice president of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
Irwin-Bass works with the Lancaster County Convention Center on chamber events, including the annual dinner, which draws as many as 2,500 people.
Adding up the special events, weddings, fundraising dinners and so on, the convention center serves more than 115,000 meals every year, said Josh Nowak, the facility's director of sales and marketing.
The Hilton Harrisburg averages a large event every month or so, said General Manager Joseph Massaro. A sit-down dinner of 600 to 800 people would count as "average large," he said. The hotel's ballroom can hold up to 900 people, and events with up to 1,200 people have been hosted in multiple rooms, he said.
Planning for large affairs generally starts 12 to 18 months ahead of time, said Sarah Heath, convention services manager at the downtown Lancaster convention center.
Initially, the client and convention center staffers work together to confirm that the event space is suitable and to outline a budget. What kind of audiovisual equipment will be needed? Will any guests be staying overnight in the adjoining Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square? Will specialized security be needed? How about red-carpet treatment for VIPs?
"There's a zillion and one details you can get into," Heath said.
Facilities frequently offer taste tests to assist with menu selection. The Hilton Harrisburg likes to work with clients to customize the food offering and offer creative options that fit their budgets, Massaro said.
Some food choices work better than others for large events, said Bob Rothfus, the Lancaster convention center's executive chef. Breading doesn't hold up well in the wheeled hotboxes where food is kept between preparation and serving — too much steam. A fatty fish like salmon does better than a white fish, which dries out quickly.
Clients also have to think about the time involved in preparation, he said. An extra step in cooking is a big deal when you have to multiply it by 2,000 servings.
The amount of food used is as staggering as one might expect. The shopping list for the Lancaster chamber's 2012 dinner included nearly half a ton of beef and 500 pounds of scallops, not to mention at least 7,000 hors d'oeuvres.
Facilities like to use locally sourced ingredients as much as possible, but the large volumes involved sometimes preclude it, Massaro and Rothfus said.
Preparations start kicking into high gear roughly two weeks before an event, Heath said. Copies of the finalized event order are sent to all departments involved: the kitchen, hotel staff, the audiovisual department and so on.
There are always some last-minute changes, but good planning upfront makes it easier to fine-tune later, Irwin-Bass said.
Preparations intensify as the countdown ticks.
"The last two or three days, we almost feel like we're moving into the event site," she said.
Kitchen staffers work backward from the meal time to create a master schedule of when everything will be prepared, Rothfus said. The chef running the kitchen is the only one who can check something off the list as completed.
On the morning of the big day, salads are made and racked. Desserts are "trayed up." Later, steaks are seared, cooked just enough to be perfect when they come out of the hotboxes that evening.
Plating — arranging the food on each plate — is an assembly-line process, Massaro said. Plates are handed from person to person, each adding an item; the last person puts on the lid and adds the plate to the stacks in the hotboxes.
For large events, venues call in additional staff, Massaro and Nowak said. The rule of thumb at the Hilton, Massaro said, is one server per 24 guests and one supervising "banquet captain" per 100 guests.
Banquet managers coordinate their staff using walkie-talkies. For large events, the client liaison has a walkie-talkie as well; for smaller ones, the banquet manager checks in regularly at the head table to make sure everything is satisfactory.
When dinner is over, servers clear away the dishes, glasses and silver, and everything is washed. If a banquet is large and complex enough, dishes can end up being used twice in the same evening, Massaro said.
For successful event planning, "flexibility is absolutely critical," Heath said. That includes the event space itself: The convention center can lay down or take up carpeting, deploy or retract partitions and otherwise arrange its main exhibit hall for looks that range from purely utilitarian to highly elegant.
Each year, organizers learn more and make adjustments and refinements, Irwin-Bass said. The process is a true collaboration, she said.
Event staff members take great pride in their work, Massaro said. For the gala put on by Très Bonne Année, a charity with which the Hilton is intimately involved, the chefs pull out all the stops, he said: "That dining experience feels like you're a party of four in the restaurant."