Caterers, unlike other small business owners, usually don't have a store front to remind passersby they exist. You must invest time and money to introduce your catering business to the world before relying on referrals to bring new jobs. Advertising is a prime tool to market your services, and ranks with food, rent, insurance and office-related costs as your top five expenses, according to Bowe Packer, author of "Catering Business: How to Start, Operate & Be Successful With Your Very Own Catering Business." Advertising encompasses more than placing an ad in a newspaper or magazine. Knowing your options gives you flexibility to spend wisely and reap a return on your investment.
One of advertising's shortcomings is that your message doesn't always reach the people most likely to use your services. Before outlining a marketing plan that relies on advertising to promote your catering business, identify your target audience -- the segment of the population that hosts events you want to serve. If you specialize in corporate functions, direct your advertising to meeting planners, business associations and the public relations or community relations managers in the businesses you would like to add to your client list. If your target audience is brides, your pre-advertising preparation should include identifying where local brides turn to learn about available venues and vendors, such as special sections of the local newspaper dedicated to weddings or community websites that promote local businesses and destination tourism. Armed with a list of regional and local media sources and contacts, you can hone in on those that make a good fit for the type of catering services you offer and your budget.
Reflect, too, on how your catering differs from your competition. Your target audience needs to know about the ethnic cuisine or barbeque specialty you offer that other caterers don't. Use any advertising you place to draw attention to your distinct approach to catering.
Traditional advertising outlets -- radio, television, magazines, newspapers and billboards -- are sound choices only if they target your key catering audience, according to MustHaveMenus.com. Concentrate on publications and websites targeting bridal shows, for example, and that reach venues with banquet facilities such as resorts, hotels and community centers. Investigate organizational magazines and newsletters for local chapters of national groups such as the Elks, Chamber of Commerce or Daughters of the American Revolution that host catered events, have members that use caterers or perhaps facilities rented for social occasions needing catering services.
Listing your business on free websites that relate to catering or the venues and events you cater, such as local photographers, bridal shops, tourism bureaus, and event planners and restaurant supply firms, expands your reach.
These types of businesses also represent potential promotion partners. For example, you could recommend photographers, bridal shops, chapels and florists with mentions on your website or in your blog, in return for similar plugs on their sites and leaving your business cards or logo-printed pens in their waiting areas. You could offer package deals to clients that book with you and one of your partners and vice versa. A partner also may be open to hosting a free tasting event with you to attract attention to both of your businesses. Denise Vivaldo, author of "How to Start a Home-Based Catering Business," suggests using partners to share advertising costs for prime publicity opportunities such as the special issue of a city magazine that kicks off the wedding season.
Broadcast media can be effective depending on your target audience. Your local PBS or news station may have cooking segments in which you can participate to reach the business community, while a radio spot on a country-western station may make sense if country cooking and barbecues are your specialty.
Include a blog on your website to cement your expertise through regular postings of photos, videos and events you've catered. You don't have to be a journalist to offer recipes, practical advice on how to choose a caterer and anecdotes about your work. Keep your posts short and informative and encourage discussions. Be sure to get permission from clients before writing about their event, however.
Expand your online presence with Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook. As Gourmet Marketing notes, catering clients frequent these social media sites. Update your accounts on these sites frequently with photos of your food presentations, tweets and posts that encourage discussion. Don't overlook the opportunity a LinkedIn profile on your company offers, especially if you cater corporate and nonprofit functions. You also can create a group on the LinkedIn site dedicated to the catering industry to establish more authority as a caterer of choice.
Interested clients can pick up a business card while enjoying your food at events. Consider including a statement in your standard catering contract that gives you permission to place advertising pieces near the food service area, or at least to have your trifold brochure, flier or cards at the facility entrance.
Make sure all of your paper products and any leave-behind items you provide for drop-off catering jobs such as the food bags and pan lids also carry your logo. Have your staff wear wear logo-adorned aprons or shirts. The Food Service Warehouse, FSW, suggests turning whatever vehicle you use to transport supplies and food to events into a mobile ad by having your logo, web address and contact information painted on it.
Catering events for free can provide exposure that wins clients. Should an appropriate opportunity arise to donate food service for a nonprofit fundraising event, a school activity or other community cause, consider the goodwill and free promotion it can generate, including a profile in the newspaper food section or an interview on the local news channel or radio.
If providing free catering, ask the hosts to mention your business in the event program or give you free advertising space in return.
You also can recruit corporate customers by hosting tastings for managers from local companies charged with organizing catered events. FSW suggests reaching social-event prospects by buying space at local festivals or farmers' markets to let people sample your wares. Be sure to have plenty of fliers and business cards to handout. This type of advertising gives potential clients the chance to discover your culinary skill and gives you an opportunity to demonstrate your capabilities and winning personality.
Trudy Brunot began writing in 1992. Her work has appeared in "Quarterly," "Pennsylvania Health & You," "Constructor" and the "Tribune-Review" newspaper. Her domestic and international experience includes human resources, advertising, marketing, product and retail management positions. She holds a master's degree in international business administration from the University of South Carolina.