Because of a desire to stay one step ahead of the competition and to provide top-of-the-line service, Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel and its Director of Catering, Ed DiAntonio, were selected as Catering Magazine’s 2005 Caterer of the Year.
With a team of nine catering executives, 200 servers and seven chefs – not to mention a sous chef for each of its restaurants – The Swan and Dolphin team executed more than 4 million food and beverage jobs during 2004. “That could be a coffee break, a breakfast, a lunch, a dinner, a reception – so obviously it can be the same people at different food events, but that’s the kind of volume this property does,” DiAntonio says. The Swan and Dolphin catered 1,008 large events in 2005.
DiAntonio joined the Swan and Dolphin crew three years ago, after spending the previous 25 years in the catering industry. His breadth of experience provided him with many strategies on how to boost business and broaden catering trend savvy.
Tip 1 – “Always look for something to differentiate yourself from the competition.”
With 330,000 square feet of meeting space and 2,265 guest rooms, the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort is an impressive venue for catered affairs. Its staff keeps up to tempo with catering times with its Visionary Innovative Banquet Events (VIBE) program. “In our opinion, a banquet event should not be what people typically think of as a banquet event,” DiAntonio explains. VIBE events are eclectically themed and combine mouthwatering cuisine with specialized service techniques, atypical furnishings and entertainment.
The Swan and Dolphin crew recently catered the Greater Orlando NACE Chapter’s Awards Dinner, dubbing it “Decades of Rock & Roll” using the VIBE concept. Music videos on LCD units were displayed on tabletops featuring rock ‘n’ roll legends such as Jimi Hendrix and the B-52s. A exotic troupe of plated frog legs, buffalo and wild boar were given to guests while a music video with the song “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses played.
The Swan and Dolphin catering staff take meticulous care in pairing food, beverage and service. “We look at all three components in catering and we’re pretty crazy about making sure they match,” says Director of Food and Beverage, Tony Porcellini. To add extra pizzazz and grab guests’ attention, synchronized service at VIBE events is common.
Porcellini has organized education packages for large corporate events. He recently set up a Bordeaux blending seminar for 200 guests, providing them five wine varieties – Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. By the end of the day, the guests were able to make their own blends of Bordeaux. “We don’t want clients coming back and seeing the same things,” DiAntonio says. “A lot of our guests are very well traveled – they’ve seen a martini bar.”
Tip 2 – “Educate yourself, your staff and your clients.”
Earning certifications in the catering industry can help your bottom line. Whether certified meeting professional (CMP), certified professional catering executive (CPCE) or sommelier, clients notice credibility. DiAntonio has his CMP and CPCE certifications and is in the process of earning his sommelier certification. He also was named Caterer of the Year at the 2005 Greater Orlando NACE Awards Dinner. Porcellini has earned his CPCE and sommelier certification and says “Certification shows the person’s passion for the job.” Having the credentials show that the individuals have passion for the job and create a professional atmosphere. “I always include getting professional certification as part of the goals for everyone on my staff.”
The Swan and Dolphin conducts a three-day convention for servers annually. “They get the feeling of being in a convention, which they normally service. However, we turn the tables and service them,” Porcellini says. From daily classes, they learn the latest on food and beverage products and service. A VIP service team, or SWAT Team, as Porcellini refers to it – which consists of 35 servers, is constantly being trained on synchronized service. “The swat team is called on at least 10 times a month through site visits, through special functions we do.” The culinary staff tours countries like France, Greece and Japan to learn the latest in international provisions. “They’re working with chefs [on these trips]. They’re taking digital pictures and they do presentations for the team at the Swan and Dolphin,” DiAntonio says.
Enlightening clients about current trends and outdated customs is important to the Swan and Dolphin staff. “For example, when I got here three years ago, this company was already on the cutting edge, trying to get away from foo foo linens on tables, and migrating to a nice clean look,” DiAntonio explains. “A lot of clients were looking for things set up on linens, fluffed around a chafing station and that’s not the look you see anymore.”
Reading trade publications and attending catering conventions offer great tips. “A lot of our competition is hotel caterers. Going to a conference where there are a lot of independent caterers is a great educational opportunity,” DiAntonio says. “I think they’re a little more aggressive and they’re a little more on the cutting edge. There are some great independent caterers out there, and there’s a lot to be said about what they’re trying.”
Tip 3 – “Give back to the community.”
The Swan and Dolphin team gets involved with charitable organizations like the American Red Cross and Taste of the Nation. “We’ve been involved [with Taste of the Nation] for the past three years,” DiAntonio says. “We donate the location, the staff, operate it – it’s totally at no cost to the charity. All the money goes to the food banks in Central Florida.”
“The $140,000 raised at Taste of the Nation will provide 550,000 meals”, he says. At the 2005 Orlando Taste of the Nation, the crew fashioned the Swan and Dolphin Food Lab. The staff dressed like lab technicians, and cocktail servers handed out beverages in test tubes. “We put a lot of thought and creativity into it and made it a lot of fun,” DiAntonio says. By installing “floating” plasma screens throughout the room, guests could see the chefs working at their stations. “It kept showing images of the chefs making this food, so that it was a very interactive station; people got to see what was happening in our station basically throughout the entire ballroom,” he says.
“We’re involved with so many fund-raising events here that I think it comes back to us tenfold,” DiAntonio says. “Not just the good feelings from helping people, but we absolutely get recommended when there is something – not just free events, but for corporate events.”
Only 3 percent of the catering business at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin is local/social. The remainder is convention and corporate.
Catering businesses – small and large – absorbing advice from our Caterer of the Year can only benefit from the tips DiAntonio provides.