Karen Shiell has a passion for food and entertaining. Back in her native South Africa, she always loved cooking and helping throw dinner parties for her parents' friends. From her early years employed in hotels as a teenager, she earned a hotel management diploma, working in various hotels as a student and moving after graduation to the front office.
But her interest in food and entertaining beckoned her to return to her first love: catering. After moving to England, where she and her husband ran a pub for a year, they decided to get involved in the family deli catering business in Canada. Then they opened their own catering business, Catering by Karen, combining corporate and social functions.
Karen manages a staff of three, her husband works in operations, and they hire servers, bar staff and chefs as needed.
"I love being creative," she says. "I love it when a customer comes up and I have to create a menu, create recipes and make them in the kitchen. We want to make an event look the best, the food must look the best as we see it laid out on the table. People love it, they thank you, and you see their enjoyment."
At the other end of the catering spectrum is the job Ayisha Rogalski performs as Director of Catering and Convention Services at the Westin Harbour Castle, a large downtown hotel catering to the convention trade.
Ayisha has an MBA in international hospitality from England, and she is a Certified Meeting Planner. She started at the Westin Harbour Castle 10 years ago in the front office as an assistant front office manager before moving into catering. She's held her current position for three years. A lot of her experience comes from operations, and she credits much of her success in catering to that hands-on hotel knowledge.
"Catering people have more and more education coming in, but you also have to have the experience to go with it," she says. "Even if you've gone into catering from a completely different field, you need the hands-on experience. You could come from a 9 to 5 desk job and get into catering. You might be good on the floor, but must know how to sell, how to reach your goals, how to manage an event, how to plan every aspect."
Her job comprises three basic components: selling and booking; servicing the event; and rebooking. She's catered events as large as 3,000 and organized conventions for 10,000. Three catering managers deal with the small events, while larger events go to the four catering and convention services managers.
In a large hotel chain, technology has made profound changes in the work of the catering manager. "Before, it used to be a very personal profession," Ayisha says. "Now, with technology, everything is done by email. You don't meet your client until the day of the event or you sign the papers. You build the relationship electronically but we still try to have the personal touch, even if it's just a phone call. We still sell service."
While Karen Shiell and Ayisha Rogalski are catering managers in entirely different settings, they offer similar advice to would-be catering managers:
Both Karen and Ayisha can work for weeks without a day off, while other times are slack. Ayisha has been able to organize her days so she works mainly from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. - handling paperwork early in the day, meeting clients, doing site inspections and ensuring events run smoothly before calling it a day - but even she has to work odd hours in special circumstances. For Karen, the day can start at 2 a.m. to prepare for a big event and end at 11 p.m.
"These are the ups and downs of the catering business," she says. "It can be hellishly busy one day and really not busy the next. You sit there and wonder, what have we done wrong? You have to learn how to manage the ups and downs, go with the flow. It's a business of highs and lows, crazy crazy busy and then nothing."