For many, luxury is aspirational: being able to travel to luxurious places, dine at the finest restaurants, and generally have your needs and wants met in every scenario.
For event planners and caterers, luxury is about exclusivity, out-of-the-box thinking, and glamour.
“It’s moonshot thinking—aiming to achieve something that is generally believed to be impossible,” said Robin Selden (Marcia Selden Catering & Events) during Luxury is a State of Mind (presented during Catersource + The Special Event 2022).
Luxury means aspirational and exclusivity. Shown: An event by David Beahm. Photo courtesy Jose Villa
Attracting luxury clients (i.e., Fortune 500 companies, celebrities, tech executives, and politicians) is also aspirational to many in the events industry.
“Entering the luxury market is an excellent way to elevate your brand reputation and increase your revenue,” according to an article from Nora Sheils for NACE. But it’s not so much about “who” your client is.
“I could spin your head right now if I told you who my clients were, but I’m not going to,” Selden said, “because it’s not important to me, it’s important that those clients are telling their friends.”
If you’re hoping to break into the luxury market, it’s important to go in with your eyes open, since “high-end clients have high-end needs,” said Sheils.
What is luxury?
Essentially, luxury clients are those who are willing to spend between $100,000 and $500,000 on an event (basic luxury) and those clients who will spend over $500,000 on any given event (ultra luxury). Don’t be mistaken though: there isn’t a one-size-fits-all for luxury clients; some are flashy, while others like to fly under the radar.
“You have to do a little forensic work to figure out who they are, who’s paying, and what type of luxury client they are,” said Marcy Blum of Marcy Blum Associates during her Opening General Session at Catersource + The Special Event 2023.
Marcia Selden Catering & Events designed a custom floral installation for escort cards that mimicked the design of the event. The tablescape incorporated mismatched antique china and glassware. Photo courtesy Marcia Selden Catering & Events
When discussing luxury events, you should look at them through the lens of exclusivity. “They have what you can’t,” said David Beahm (David Beahm Experiences) during Luxury is a State of Mind. “Show them that you can give them something that they can’t have anywhere else. A flower is a flower until you can say, ‘I know the grower who lives in Holland. His name is Steve and has worked for 20 years to get this flower this color and I’m going to put it in your bridal bouquet.’”
“These are people that go to a lot of fancy events, and they see a lot of things,” said Sarah Hall (Joel’s Catering), continuing on the topic of exclusivity, during How to Break into the Luxury Wedding Market (presented during Catersource + The Special Event 2023). “They want something that is unique to them and memorable for them. They want to create an experience for their friends. They absolutely want to show off their level of success, but they have a harder time admitting it.”
“If their friend had that at their party last week or last year, it better not show up at their party,” Selden said. “That’s not luxurious for their guests to have seen it already.”
Additionally, one of the biggest trends in luxury events right now is intimacy.
“Intimacy is a trend in the luxury event industry right now. No more large gatherings with a red carpet full of journalists and celebrities. An intimate and authentic dinner with, for example, the designer and the CEO of a luxury brand will be more appreciated. More simplicity and less show off is a trend that resonates more with luxury clients post COVID,” says Thomas Serrano (Exclamation Group).
This 50th birthday from Marcia Selden Catering & Events featured a ceiling floral installation with custom lighting, as well as other custom details such as placecards custom painted for each guest and an over the top floral tablescape with custom monogrammed napkins. Photo courtesy Marcia Selden Catering & Events
At the end of the day, luxury comes down to the level of service that is provided.
“They want high end, top professionals,” Blum said.
Speaking their language
When working with luxury clients, it’s important to illustrate that you understand their world (where they travel, where they eat, what circles they run in), so make sure that you are reading the latest luxury magazines and staying abreast of current luxury trends.
Marcia Selden Catering & Events created a custom escort card “table” for a wedding on a family’s horse farm in the Hudson Valley. Photo courtesy Jonathan Young Weddings
Additionally, luxury clients are also looking for those they can relate to.
“In our industry today, and especially with high network luxury clients, it’s not enough anymore to be interested in our clients, you have to be interesting to them,” said Paulina Corvi (Events by Paulina) during What Luxury Wedding Clients Really Want (presented during Catersource + The Special Event 2022). “When you can talk to your clients they’ll think ‘This lady might know what it means to play in my sandbox. If she knows what it means to play in my sandbox, if she’s going to the same places I’m going to, maybe she gets who I am and maybe she can represent my vision for my wedding and turn it into reality.’”
Relating to luxury clients is where the concept of “code switching” comes into play. Code switching is the psychological act of making people around us feel comfortable while making ourselves feel confident around others, according to All That Glitters is Not Always Gold (a feature that appeared in the winter issue of Special Events magazine).
You can take luxury to another level with the use of custom ice cubes alongside chilled champagne. Photo courtesy Michael Jurick Photography
For Selden, she code switches when meeting with clients following a bit of cyber research.
“Is she always in her Lululemons and sneakers coming from the gym? If she is, that’s how I’m showing up to that meeting,” she said. “If she’s in her pearls and her sweater, that’s what I’m wearing.”
Luxury clients are looking for concepts that they haven’t seen before, like these hanging orbs that David Beahm incorporated for an event. Photo courtesy Theo Milo Photography
But be careful: there’s a fine line between being relatable and “being them.”
“They may want to relate to you, but they don’t want you to be them—it’s a very tricky dance,” Blum said. “You have to wear just enough designer stuff not to annoy them, but not too much that they think they’re paying you too much. “It’s not pretention, it’s just craft. They want to understand that you are committed to your craft.”
While some caterers may already work in the luxury market (and their reputation precedes them), those who are hoping to break into the market may need to look to luxury event planners and luxury event venues for referrals. According to Hall, roughly 50% of luxury business will be through referrals, which is why collaboration is so essential when working with luxury clients.
“We are your friends, not your enemy,” Blum said. “The only way forward is for all of us to figure out how to all work together.”
For a waterfront anniversary party Marcia Selden Catering & Events installed a custom floral ceiling. Photo courtesy Ricky Rodriquez
Consider engaging with the planner (or venue manager) from the very beginning: host a planner-only tasting to encourage referrals, discuss your menu proposals with the planner up front, listen to their ideas, and most importantly follow up after the event (possibly even with a gift) to see what worked and what didn’t.
“You are impressing the planner first and foremost because we are the gatekeepers,” Blum said. “We are able to give [the caterer] clues and tricks and insight they wouldn’t get otherwise; I can upsell things so much easier to a client because I’ve basically been living with them.”
A caprese salad from Joel’s Catering featuring heirloom tomatoes, burrata, basil, olive oil, sea salt, and pepper. Photo courtesy Denny Culbert
Additionally, make sure to maintain that respectful relationship throughout the planning process, because it’s the planner or the venue who will bring more luxury business your way in the future.
“We’ve all done enough events to know that things can sometimes get a little dicey,” Hall said, “but that couple is going to come and go, this planner and that venue manager is who I really need to partner with. They don’t become our best friend then our adversary; they’re always our best friend.”
Setting yourself up for success
Working with luxury clients can be challenging, so it’s important that you have your business set up to succeed in this market.
“When it comes to luxury clients, they’re going to be fussy, they’re going to change their mind, they’re going to say, ‘I forgot,’” Corvi said. “They need to know that they can trust you.”
Proposals that pop
The first way to illustrate to a luxury client that you are serious, and you are up to the challenge of catering their event, is to present a professional, thorough, beautiful (and hand delivered) proposal.
“It has to look as important as the money they are looking to spend is,” Blum said. “Share all kinds of menus so people get a sense of your range and diversity.”
Additionally, do a little bit of research into who you’ll be pitching to: is it the couple, the parents, or is it their assistant (which is most often the case). Also, never push back when a luxury client challenges something that you are proposing.
“They didn’t become rich because other people argued with them,” Blum said.
Make it a moment
Obviously, luxury clients are looking for you to offer moments that surprise, delight, and excite them.
“You have to be a memory maker,” Selden said.
In catering, luxury clients want opulently served cuisines that are made from the highest quality ingredients, presented beautifully, and personal to them (95% of luxury couples said that a vendor’s ability to incorporate their personal style and taste contributes to their decision, Hall said).
“You create goosebumps with food when you make your menu truly part of the story, from the ingredients to the menu structure to the origins of the recipes, all the way to wine pairing and bespoke service of course,” says Anastasia Nisenbaum (Exclamation Group).
Consider what Colette’s Catering & Events did recently for the wedding of Joelle Fletcher and Jordan Rodgers from ABC’s The Bachelorette (this year’s ACE recipient for Best Off-Premise Catering).
Colette’s Catering & Events composed an hors d’oeuvres platter (featuring lobster rolls, chilled corn bisque, Hamachi Tartare, Tomato + Burrata, and Scallop Tartare) for the couple (Joelle Fletcher and Jordan Rodgers of ABC’s The Bachelorette) during A Love at First Rose Wedding. Photo courtesy Colette’s Catering & Events
The plated salad course during A Love at First Rose Wedding featured arugula, frisée, Manchego cheese, dried apricot, dried fig, Pink Lady apple, toasted almond, and white balsamic vinaigrette. Photo courtesy Colette’s Catering & Events
Beautiful blooms and luxurious crystal and china adorned the tables during A Love at First Rose Wedding. Photo courtesy Colette’s Catering & Events
The initial menu proposal that they presented evolved over two years in order to further reflect the couple. Things like their favorite meals together, cherished places to visit, their shared Southern upbringing, falling in love in Los Angeles, and their values for clean eating (check out our summer issue for a look at the clean lifestyle) and sustainability became foundational pillars for the final modern American menu: an interactive Burrata Bar; filet mignon with red wine demi, Yukon gold mashed potatoes, oven-dried tomato, roasted king oyster mushrooms, sautéed spinach; and Baja Sea Bass with romesco sauce, heirloom bean ragout, hazelnut, frisée and Tinkerbell® pepper salad.
Colette’s Catering & Events incorporated an interactive Burrata Bar into their A Love at First Rose Wedding (featuring imported burrata cheese, fresh sliced-to-order prosciutto, house made focaccia, grissini, heirloom tomatoes, and a beautiful assortment of fresh jams). Burrata has been gaining popularity over the last year or so, making this a trendsetting moment for the event and a wow factor for the couple. Photo courtesy Valorie Darling
Colette’s Catering & Events received this year’s Best Off-Premise ACE award for their event A Love at First Rose Wedding, which celebrated the wedding of Joelle Fletcher and Jordan Rodgers of ABC’s The Bachelorette. Photo courtesy Valorie Darling
Joelle Fletcher and Jordan Rodgers of ABC’s The Bachelorette had only one request for Colette’s Catering & Events: beautifully plated and photo-ready food with innovative signature cocktails. Shown: Moscow Mule and Passionfruit Margarita. Photo courtesy Valorie Darling
The thing that sets caterers apart when working with luxury clients are the little things: the synchronized service, the high performing staff, the surprising moments, and general service without being asked. All these things fall under the umbrella of “unreasonable hospitality,” or service that is unexpected.
“You need to show that you’re worth what you’re getting paid,” Blum said. “It’s not about ego here, it’s about money.”
Joelle Fletcher and Jordan Rodgers of ABC’s The Bachelorette held their wedding at the Sunstone Winery. Photo courtesy Valorie Darling
“It’s the small things that make all the difference,” Corvi said.
“If you can make someone’s life easier, do it.” “The luxury experience depends on the depth that you can anticipate your clients’ needs,” Beahm said.
Look at your marketing and your brand if you’re hoping to break into the luxury market. Does your brand communicate luxury? Or is it more of a corporate brand? Is it worth considering a rebrand? Perhaps you need to create a luxury division of your business.
Char-grilled oysters from Joel’s Catering (oysters brushed with melted butter, parmesan, garlic, and parsley), which are passed on an interactive concession tray. Photo courtesy Denny Culbert
Seared scallops from Joel’s Catering (served with wilted greens and presented in an oversized cast iron pan). Photo courtesy Denny Culbert
“Don’t just be a food page, show the events that you’re getting hired for,” Hall said. “If you really want to do this, you have to take it seriously.”
Above all, go into the luxury market knowing who you are and what you do well.
“We are known in our market as being the expensive caterer, [Beahm’s] known as being the expensive designer. I am done apologizing for being who we are,” Selden said. “If we’re not right for you, that’s okay—because I have other friends who do what you’re looking for and I will gladly send you their way—but I am not going to compromise what I know we do so right.
“If you align your company with other like brands that are luxurious, there’s something really special about that because it’s authentic and it’s not disingenuous.”
The venue is often the first thing that a luxury couple decides on. Photo courtesy Jose Villa
“You have to be authentic, especially with a luxury client,” Beahm said. “If you’re inauthentic, they can smell it in the water, and they’re going to take you out.”
“It doesn’t matter what you’re selling, it’s how you make them feel,” Selden said.