By Carl Sacks, Leading Caterers of America
On March 9, 2020, the catering industry was beginning its annual gathering of the tribes in Las Vegas, also known as Catersource. The attendees started the week in a festive mood, having come off a generally very successful 2019 catering year. The future looked bright, and most of the caterers were looking forward to bigger and better business opportunities.
There had been some concern expressed about a contagion breaking out, including a quarantine order for those returning to the US from Wuhan China. But most of the Catersource attendees assumed that this would have only a minimal impact on their businesses.
However during that week, it all got very real all of a sudden. Quarantine orders for cruise ship passengers, and stay at home requirements for the entire state of California, got a lot of attention. Then on March 11 during the middle of the industry conference, the World Health Organization designated the breakout as a pandemic.
For those of us who were involved in organizing or running sessions for the conference, the impact of this news was hard to overstate. Early in the day on the 11th, things seemed relatively normal. But by the middle of the day, attendees were running out of the room during the middle of classes to take urgent phone calls from their home offices. The buzz around the conference was that events were being cancelled right and left, and that the industry faced a most serious crisis in the modern era.
By the end of the 11th, the attendees had started to depart Las Vegas to head home, a day or two earlier than they had planned. The stay-at-home orders began to spread around the country, and virtually all catered events were cancelled or postponed. Of course, everyone still needs to eat, so the catering industry didn’t close down altogether. But the meal programs and delivery services the caterers began to offer in no way replaced the events revenue that was lost.
Covid has proved to be the most consequential external event in the history of catering – much more so than Black Monday, 9/11, the Great Recession, or any other recent catastrophe. Overall industry revenue declined by 45% between 2019 and 2020, and without some government grants and subsidies many caterers wouldn’t have survived.
Yet business has started to improve, and the expectation is that it will continue to for the foreseeable future. The recovery that the catering industry has enjoyed proves the concept that man is a social animal, and that interactive events facilitated by food and drink are important to society as a whole.