In the not-so-distant past, hotel cuisine easily outshined that of convention centers. But that generalization no longer holds, as convention center catering staffs have been upping their game.
That’s good news for association groups who find it convenient to dine at convention centers or have certain strategic reasons for doing so. The American Healthcare Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL), for example, stages a buffet lunch in the expo hall for 2,500 to 3,000 attendees during its Annual Convention & Expo. “It’s not just about feeding people and having them be on their way,” says Ramón R. Santiago, MTA, CMP, director of exhibits and conferences. “Having lunch in the expo hall is a traffic driver for exhibitors. It tangentially becomes part of their ROI calculation. They’re purchasing booths that are strategically located next to where we serve lunch.” In that kind of scenario, the promise of great food serves to maximize the number of diners and, consequently, the exposure for exhibitors.
But what exactly makes for a standout catering experience at a convention center? Many of the general trends in meetings F&B have found their way into convention centers, to positive effect. Healthy food, local and global flavors, special-diet meals, sustainably sourced ingredients and overall menu creativity are hallmarks of convention center catering today. From a business perspective, the first trend is arguably the most important: Healthy meals tend to be lighter and thus provide energy that busy attendees need to be attentive at sessions and navigate a trade show floor.
It begins with breakfast. “We try to keep breakfast as healthy as possible,” says Matt Walbaum, executive chef at America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis, Missouri, a venue serviced by Levy Restaurants. “We find many people are not eating the five pieces of bacon and the big muffins anymore; they want to get something light.” The aforementioned creativity of convention center chefs can make that healthy breakfast engaging. Walbaum’s staff, for example, often serves up “build your own” fruit skewers. Such items cater to what many association clients want in their F&B options, according to Kari Messenger, CMP, meetings manager with the Association Management Center, based in Chicago, Illinois. “Across the board, our clients are looking to have a healthy meal, so we’re definitely getting away from the heavier buffets of the past,” she affirms. Many attendees are “staying away from white breading, and we have been changing out menus to focus on that. So, for instance, breakfast will lean toward having more fruit available, as well as hard-boiled eggs and some other type of protein.”
“Being here as long as I have, I know the dos and don’ts of this kitchen and what we can and can’t produce in a timely fashion. I can also give them recommendations on the menus that have worked well in the past.”
America’s Center Convention Complex
St. Louis, MO
But in following any menu trend, balance is always important. Some attendees will still want to treat themselves to those richer items, so why not have them available? While offering their signature granola bars with flaxseed and dried cranberries, Walbaum’s team at America’s Center also serves a “St. Louis Slinger,” which he describes as a fried egg topped with potatoes, cheese and onions. It’s a staple of Walbaum’s hometown, and its presence on the menu is just one example of how local flavors are represented — another major trend.
During a busy convention, an attendee may not have the time to explore the local restaurant scene and get a sampling of the city’s signature dishes. So it’s convenient when a convention center can serve up some of those items. Moreover, planners ask for St. Louis flavors on the menu about 75 percent of the time, says Walbaum. “When they’re here, they really want to get a flavor of St. Louis and the Midwest.” The city is well-known for its barbecue, and America’s Center partners with one of the best in the business, Sugarfire Smokehouse, to give delegates a taste of that fare. In addition, Walbaum describes three other not-to-be-missed St. Louis staples on offer: toasted ravioli, invented in the city’s Italian neighborhoods; Budweiser-braised pork steak; and gooey butter cake, customized based on the season. On the concessions side, indigenous coffee is available. America’s Center is partnering with Thomas Coffee, a local roaster since 1905, to open Center Café by the end of July.
With the popularity of global culinary tourism, many convention centers are also incorporating a greater variety of cultural dishes beyond their local fare. Beth Faubel, senior manager, meeting services with HIMSS, has observed that trend. “I’ve seen less entrees that are your short rib in a red wine reduction, and [instead] a lot more spices and flavors that are globally inspired. I’ve seen more Indian food, Middle Eastern flavors and Latin infusion.” It’s not only about catering to the globetrotting foodie. It’s also about providing more variety for attendees that have eaten their share of convention center meals. “You can only eat so much potato and chicken,” she says. “We’ve been able to work more with the global cuisine to really elevate [the F&B experience] and to make it more interesting throughout the week.”
Given the proliferation of special dietary needs, however, care must be taken with exploratory dining that may expose attendees to undesirable or even dangerous ingredients. Attendees themselves are becoming more proactive to ensure their needs are met. “People are being much more vocal about being vegan and gluten-free,” says Faubel. As a result, she has seen such options already on the menus of many convention centers. Of course, that does not obviate the need to inventory all the dietary restrictions for a given group. For example, America’s Center recently hosted the National General Assembly of Presbyterian Church, and Walbaum’s staff met the specific dietary needs of more than 700 attendees over 10 days. “It could be anything from no shellfish to no nuts; I had one no-mango yesterday,” Walbaum says. “Obviously, when we’re serving large groups we try to steer clear of shellfish or nuts, being the ‘big two’ of the allergens, and then we kind of work around the other allergens as we see them. These requests have become a lot more prevalent in the last five years.”
Special dietary needs can’t be met without effective communication, and that involves more than simply recording the restrictions at the time of registration. “I will literally be running around as lunch is being served making sure that people are identifying themselves to the catering staff to make sure they’re getting the meals they have requested,” says Santiago. Given the seriousness of some allergic reactions, coupled with the sheer numbers involved in large conventions, the extra effort is justified. “Overcommunicating, I think, is the key when you’re dealing with the masses,” Faubel adds.
Sustainably sourced foods might be considered a special dietary request, but from an attendee perspective, it’s not as significant a trend as one might think. Convention centers routinely promote their use of locally sourced ingredients, organic ingredients, onsite produce and herb gardens. “I have noted that when I speak with the chef that there is a lot of pride in the way they are sourcing their food, trying to use more local purveyors. I would definitely say that’s a huge trend,” Faubel says. “But I don’t think our attendees necessarily care because I don’t think they necessarily know. Especially with our global conference, we would not get the opportunity to really explain how the food is sourced. As it’s not a major concern for attendees, sustainable foods are understandably not a major concern for planners. According to Walbaum, his team receives requests for sustainably sourced foods only about 25 to 30 percent of the time. Nonetheless, “sustainability is obviously key with all of our convention centers, and I try to keep things as sustainable as possible,” he says. “I have the luxury of being here in the Midwest, so I can get virtually anything I want any time I ask for it. St. Louis is centrally located to so many farms.”
There are several ways to showcase convention center cuisine, from plated meals to buffets to food stations. The “station approach” to food service is becoming more popular. It creates a busy, engaging ambience where attendees can interact among many themed stations. And it’s a less common format, which can be a refreshing change. In May 2015, the Association of Legal Administrators met at the then-brand-new Music City Center in Nashville, Tennessee. “We wanted to create something different for our exhibit hall lunches — the standard buffet just wasn’t doing it for our attendees,” says Patricia P. Olejnik, senior manager, conferences and meetings. “We discussed our challenges with the catering team at MCC, and they suggested we do concessions. They had several stations set up — salad, paninis, pizza, Mexican, deli, BBQ — and our attendees showed their badge, went to the concession of their choice, and received an entrée, side (like a bag of chips or piece of fruit) and a beverage. Service was quick, the attendees appreciated the options, and we saved money, as this option is budget-friendly at MCC. Win-win-win for all!”
HIMSS attendees have also had a good experience with the food stations approach. This past March at the Sands Expo and Convention Center, HIMSS had its opening reception for about 8,000 delegates in the exhibit hall. “We needed it to be easy grab-and-go, playful but elevated. And we don’t like a lot of lines,” Faubel explains. “We went back and forth with the chef numerous times to come up with a protein-forward menu that also had some vegetarian and vegan options.” The result was a menu that “had a little global inspiration, including basil chicken sliders in little paper bags and a couple of salad options,” delivered via stations throughout the hall. “It was a really easy experience, we never had lines and the food was really plentiful. An attendee told me at the show that the food was amazing at the opening reception, and that it was the best service they ever had.”
America’s Center has capitalized on the popularity of food stands, which dovetails with the trendiness of food trucks. Greater variety of concessions is achieved with the “Stand Takeover” program, where local restaurants take over a stand for a day. This exposes delegates to even more local cuisine. “We do a great job of promoting it, using signage and props so people actually see it,” says Walbaum, who relies on his many local restaurant contacts to run the program.
Whatever a planner’s vision for the menu, service format and schedule, that vision should be communicated to the chef and staff sooner rather than later. “The more information that we have ahead of time, the better we can plan,” says Walbaum. “When we meet with the meeting planners, I like to get that information from them first and foremost. I was in a roundtable a couple of months ago, and I had a planner ask me when do I like to be involved [in the planning process]. If I’m not the first person they [meet] with, then the second or the third. Being here as long as I have, I know the dos and don’ts of this kitchen and what we can and can’t produce in a timely fashion. I can also give them recommendations on the menus that have worked well in the past. We have a library going back 15 years of menus that we have done for groups.”
Faubel confirms that it’s advantageous for planners to work with chefs early in the planning process. “The earlier you can work with a chef to say, ‘This is what I’m going to want,’ the longer they have to source the different ingredients and potentially get better pricing on it and extend that to you,” she explains. Stretching those F&B dollars is generally a goal of association planners, and most convention center chefs know ways of accomplishing that. “You can ask them, ‘OK, I need to feed 4,000 people. Give me a couple items that are going to be higher end and have some nice proteins in them, and then find me a couple of items that are going to stretch your dollars more that still allow me to have an elevated feel.’ For example, you can have a pricier cut of meat served thinly sliced on a bed of [e.g., risotto] so they can control the portions.”
Added precon time with the planner allows the chef to brainstorm and devise these options. “I have found that for the most part, the chefs are really responsive to it and kind of enjoy being able to think outside the box,” says Faubel. That creativity is especially important to HIMSS, whose convention alternates between Las Vegas and Orlando. “We need to work closely with the chef and catering staff so people don’t get the fatigue of ‘Oh, we had all this last year.’ ”
Pre-planning with the chef ultimately allows a convention center to show off its culinary best, in terms of creative, customized and budget-conscious fare. It also enables the planner and catering staff to determine the best service format for meal functions given the attendee numbers involved and the time constraints. Quality food makes a strong impression and helps to set the tone for the convention, but so does effective service that does not keep diners waiting long.
Nevertheless, occasionally a catering staff must adapt to unanticipated service needs. “Last year at Mandalay Bay Convention Center, the AHCA/NCAL had a session end almost an hour early, and the majority of those folks in that session were transitioning to a catered event,” Santiago explains. “We were still about 45 minutes or so from being ready, and then all of a sudden I get word over the radio, ‘Hey, we’re ready and heading over right now.’ It’s like a five-minute walk [to the dining area]. I have to say, the banquet captain had nerves of steel: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.’ And they sped things up as best they could. You just have to understand as a planner that when you have a time line crunch like that you have to be full of grace. It’s not going to get done exactly as you planned.”
As convention center food evolves, one aspect to food service should not need much improvement: staff proficiency. No matter what kind of food is being served to however many delegates, a great catering staff will find a way to deliver those meals exactly as planned — or very close to it. AC&F