Planning and logistics: catering for 400,000 guests

ARTICLE

Planning and logistics: catering for 400,000 guests

DWTC catered for more than 1,000 large-scale external events in 2018. Chef Harald Oberender, Director of Culinary, throws a spotlight on the exceptional logistical requirements involved in such complex operations

​At Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC), we are well known as the leading events hub in the Middle East, hosting hundreds of exhibitions, conferences and congresses every year. What’s less well known is that we are also one of the region’s largest outside catering companies, operating under the brand, Hospitality by DWTC.

In 2018, we served a total of 415,293 guests at events including the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Dubai International Boat Show and Sharjah Book Fair. We also catered for several royal weddings with an average attendance of 2,000 guests per wedding.

To ensure each and every event runs smoothly, we have a team of 148 chefs from 19 countries and more than 300 professionally trained service staff that can serve 15,000 covers a day. We also have an extensive catering fleet comprising 25 refrigerated trucks, 12 dry trucks and buses with additional capacity hired for major events.

The biennial Dubai Airshow is our biggest offsite hospitality project, with more than 20,000 covers every day for five days, including heads of state, military leaders and global CEOs. Beyond the basic task of serving that many meals each day, there are many challenges involved in an operation of this size. The Airshow site is about 80km from our kitchens at DWTC and security is tight because of the high-profile attendees; this makes it harder for our chefs and service team members to access the site, so meticulous food delivery scheduling is essential.


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How we plan ahead of an event

We begin planning for the Airshow two years earlier – the day after the previous Airshow finishes. It is a massive international exhibition meaning the eyes of the world are upon us. The same applies to the Formula 1: preparations for the next year’s catering begin before the petrol fumes have even left the air.

The first task is to book the chefs and other service team for the dates required. To cater for such large events, we need a 300 to 400 per cent short-term increase in our staff numbers. It is essential we have people with the right skills and experience in working on large-scale functions.

There is a lot of logistics involved just to secure the staff – their visas, flights, accommodation, food, and transportation all need to be organised. Mostly, we hire mid- and senior-level chefs, but we also use final year students from internationally recognised catering schools, as our events provide them with hugely valuable experience. The junior staff, we mostly hire locally.

The other big challenge unique to outside catering is planning the delivery of the food. We use DWTC’s ultra-modern, 3,650 square metre kitchen as the production hub, and install preparation and staging kitchens at the event site.

For the Airshow, we prepare and deliver more than 63 tonnes of food. The delivery timings have to be scheduled to meet the security procedures before, during and after the show each day. We have a fleet of 25 refrigerated trucks and their arrivals and departures need to be precision planned to preserve food quality.

Food health and safety is paramount. Temperature control is the number one issue. We need to plan when the food is prepared, when it is transported, how it is kept on site – in heated or chilled storage cabinets – and when it is eaten. There is a limit on how long you can store prepared food before it begins to spoil, both in terms of appearance and safety.

At the Formula 1, no deliveries are permitted after 6am, so we use the sous-vide cooking method, whereby food is placed in a plastic pouch and cooked in a water bath for longer than normal cooking times at a regulated temperature.

Health and safety always comes first

With any food that is served to the public, it is also important to avoid physical contamination. For food that is transported and stored, protection measures need to be even more robust as the opportunities for contamination are greater. Everything is covered and wrapped, and we have a lot of log sheets and people who check the food is safe and secure every step of the way – in production, transportation, storage and delivery.

I am proud to say DWTC has an excellent reputation for health and safety; our culinary team has received the highest certification possible from Dubai Municipality for 15 consecutive years. We are currently applying for Green Globe certification to reflect our sustainability efforts.

We cater for about 1,000 outside events each year, delivering 1 million covers, and each function brings its own challenges. The International Boat Show is held in an exposed area near the sea. Planning for that takes three months, and we have to factor in weather conditions and delivering food to yachts.

But we take everything in our stride. One week, we might cater for an event in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah; the next, a function in the desert by the Saudi border or on an island out at sea. We might be catering for 60,000 people or for just two very high-profile guests. Our unique selling point is our flexibility; our ability to adapt and change scale and our modes of delivery for every event.

I think the key to staging successful outside events, besides flexibility, is planning and communication. On any given day, we could be catering in two or three different emirates, so we are always communicating between the team, we have daily meetings and are in touch constantly via Whatsapp. Today’s technology makes communication so much easier, we can share photographs instantly and also ask for help when things don’t go according to plan.

Why it’s vital to expect the unexpected

Inevitably, there are many external factors beyond our control. For example, we were preparing a gala dinner for 2,000 very important guests in the desert. The night before there was a huge storm. Twelve hours ahead of the dinner, the decision was taken to transfer the event to the Trade Centre.

We had to revise all the logistics and bring back everything that had already been sent out to the desert. It was a huge upheaval, but we all came together as a team and succeeded in delivering an exceptional event. The guests even sent their compliments to the chefs, which made me especially proud.

We are a great team, and rather than the Director of Culinary, I like to consider myself as a facilitator and mentor who keeps the team delivering at the best of their abilities day in day out, whether that is for events at DWTC or elsewhere.


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Topics

  • Catering
  • DWTC
  • Event Management
  • Hospitality