My name is Lisa Ware, and I am the Director of Business Development & Special Projects at Catering by Michaels. I have been writing each week about our journey through COVID-19!  If you have not yet read the previous episodes – be sure to start from the beginning!

To Travel or Not to Travel

The first sign for us that COVID-19 was going to have an impact on our industry was a few days before the annual Catersource Conference in Las Vegas.  Catersource is one of the best weeks of the year for caterers to come together, learn, network, teach, and share stories about this crazy world we work in.  This year, I was even more excited as I was checking off a major professional goal and bucket list item– not just attending Catersource, but also speaking – twice!  I attended Catersource for the first time in 2013 and made a promise to myself that I would someday be the one teaching on that stage!  It took me 7 years, a move to Chicago, and 3 catering companies added to my resume to accomplish my goal.  I had spent HOURS curating our presentation, developing content, and ensuring we would have a session that was not only engaging but have tangible takeaways.  As the date approached, so many speakers and companies were canceling their plans to attend due to the start of COVID-19 spreading around the country.  Catering by Michaels (CBM) is a proud member of the Leading Caterers of America (LCA) and had many conversations with fellow LCA members weighing the risks and trying to decide if we should move forward with attending or cancel our team’s plans.  For Catering by Michaels, myself, our Executive Vice President, and our Director of Operations were all slated to speak and two of our Event Coordinators had won scholarships to attend so it was a big decision.

Catering by Michaels at Catersourse

This was early March, so it was before any official mandates around gatherings of 10 or more people before any events had started to ask about rescheduling or canceling and before shelter in place orders and any travel restrictions were in place. Ultimately, we made the decision that if we were not comfortable attending a conference for caterers then how would we ever convince our clients that it was safe to host an event.  We decided the trip was a go.  We made final preparations and packed our bags for a flight to Las Vegas to attend Catersource!

At Least We Were Together

Catersource provides a lot of educational content, but truly the best part of the week is the conversations in the hallways, morning coffee chats, lunch breaks, happy hour cocktails, and large group dinners with catering friends around the globe who share the same passion for this crazy industry. It is where you learn the most and have the best takeaways about how to improve your business. This year was different.  The vibe was all wrong.  Emails were streaming in recommending no handshakes or hugs and to do elbow bumps, hand sanitizer was everywhere, the normal upbeat and happiness to be surrounded by so many of our peers were off.  We arrive early for an annual meeting with the LCA.  We had a full planned agenda and we adjusted to talking about COVID-19 right out of the gate so that was a huge trigger that this wasn’t going to be a usual Catersource experience.  The first full day of actual Catersource education was relatively normal – minus the weird vibes and some initial conversations and chatter about COVID-19. Education continued as planned, sessions were relatively full, and we were all making the best of being present in the moment, despite what might be happening at home.

Catering by Michaels at Catersource

By day two – you could really tell the vibe was off.  Instead of the normal agendas, topics suddenly changed from “How to Grow Your Business” to “How to Survive a Global Pandemic that is Going to Destroy Your Business.” Conversations were changing from normal operations to hugging friends as they got word of cancellation after cancellation and watching companies crumble before our eyes. People were not able to attend sessions because they were in the halls desperately returning calls to customers to try to save their business.  Tears were shed as so many got word that they had been laid off or furloughed and no longer had a job to return to. Dinners were canceled because companies, including CBM, went on immediate spending freezes. People were frantically trying to book flights home to help triage the situation and be available. We were all together in Las Vegas, witnessing and experiencing the giant tsunami named COVID-19 coming at us full-force to decimate our industry.  I hate this word now, but it so eloquently describes what it was like.  This was an “unprecedented” time. We were away from our company, making watershed decisions every hour that we would normally spend months preparing for before executing.

It Was Heartbreaking! 

This was unlike any Catersource I have ever attended and an experience I will remember forever. I am so sad my two Event Coordinators, who won scholarships to attend Catersource, did not get a true experience and their memories of Catersource are tainted by COVID-19.  I am so sad that we won four major international awards at Catersource that we worked REALLY hard for and we can’t announce or celebrate them with our team. I am so sad that COVID-19 has decimated our industry and that we spent 5 days together normally filled with so much joy and education and instead were filled with so many tears, including some of my own.  But here’s the thing – as awful as it was, and it was truly heartbreaking, it was also empowering. We have never faced a global pandemic before in any of our businesses. It was reassuring to be there – TOGETHER – and react together, to strategize what we should do next with like-minded people who also had everything on the line.  It was sad but it also gave us strength. We left Catersource with the world looking completely different from when we arrived and headed home to face a virus that was only beginning, knowing we had the strength and power of some of the best minds in the catering industry on our side. As we were leaving, all the restaurants in our hotel were closing and we would be the last conference hosted in Las Vegas before the whole strip shut down. Do we regret our decision to attend – absolutely not! I formed bonds with people I didn’t yet know that have had a profound impact on our response to this virus. COVID-19 has been a major setback to our industry, but the comeback will always be stronger! We are strong.  We are resilient.  Together – we are planning our comeback!

Catering by Michaels at Catersource during COVID-19

p.s.  Speaking at Catersource, despite COVID-19, was still everything I had hoped it would be!

Stay tuned for Part 3 of our journey through COVID-19, featuring our initial response to COVID-19!