Christina Devlin, CMM, events manager with Associated General Contractors Oregon – Columbia Chapter, says when it comes to F&B, her members just want to have fun. “My attendees like to work hard, and they play just as hard,” she says. “In our evening events especially, we need to have appetizers and foods that are really good and also easy to eat, foods that don’t require a lot of silverware, for example. We like to keep the group engaged while they eat, so our receptions are very interactive with games and activities for the entire family.”
In August, the group’s summer convention at Sunriver Resort near Bend, Oregon, drew 296 attendees. Food and fun combined for a highly creative event themed around the movie “Talladega Nights.”
“We tried to incorporate several of the movie’s elements into our F&B choices. The food at our reception was sophisticated in what we offered but also fun, such as corn dogs,” Devlin says. “We had shake ’n’ bake pork tenderloin for the entrée because, as anyone familiar with “Talladega Nights” knows, that’s one of the key phases through the movie.”
Travis Taylor, Sunriver Resort’s executive chef, says, “That was a really fun event for us to put on. It was a NASCAR/carnival theme, full of hot rods, games, entertainment and fun street food. With a movie like ‘Talladega Nights’ for inspiration, we had no lack of fun concepts to play with. Shake and bake!”
Taylor says the reception was part of a larger trend in group F&B, that of one-of-a-kind, highly customized events. “What I’m seeing is that groups want to do something totally different from what they’ve done at any other place they’ve been. We are doing a lot of customized events, where we may only do one like it ever, then start the whole process over for the next set of guests.”
“Guests want to be informed that we’re using locally procured items and seasonally appropriate menus. However, when guests have a particular dish, ingredient or theme in mind, many of these notions go by the wayside.”
— James Perry
Themes are increasingly popular, whether meetings are set in hotels or convention centers. “We have been seeing more and more carnival and street-fair requests,” says James Perry, director of catering and premium services at the Phoenix Convention Center, where catering is provided by Aventura, part of Aramark. “Food trucks, which we thought had passed their prime, continue to go strong and are a subject of regular conversation in meeting circles. In addition, we’ve had quite a few requests for ‘Across America’ regional themed parties, where we display a menu item from each region of the country.”
In conjunction with creative themes, unusual presentation and fun foods, a move toward more healthful, balanced menus and local and sustainably produced foods is the overarching theme still driving F&B these days. “Everyone is watching the cooking shows,” Taylor says. “As a result, people are more aware of gourmet food and some of the mind-blowing things that the world’s best chefs are doing.”
Yet gourmet doesn’t equal huge entrées or meat. “Now it is OK to offer an amazing salad as an entrée for a lunch,” Devlin says, “where 10 or 15 years ago I would have heard complaints that the beef was never served.”
Paul Cohn, director of events at Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, agrees, noting that today it’s often vegetables rather than meat at the center of a plate. “This is especially important for meeting and event attendees — not just for vegetarians or vegans, but for most people. That is the focus these days.”
The farm-to-table ideal also remains strong. “That core concept is always on the tongues of our guests and meeting planners,” Perry says. “Guests want to be informed that we’re using locally procured items and seasonally appropriate menus. However, when guests have a particular dish, ingredient or theme in mind, many of these notions go by the wayside a bit more than they did in the past.”
Terry Ross, who directs a catering staff of eight for Centerplate at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), says planners continue to request fresh and healthful options for their attendees. “Meats free of growth hormones, free-range poultry, product origins and concern over processed foods are part of the discussions between planners and catering personnel now,” he says. “Concerns over use of chemicals or genetically engineered foods have increased in recent years.”
To meet the demand for farm-to-table and sustainable menu items, OCCC grows some of its own greens. “The recent installation of 88 aeroponic growing towers prominently positioned inside a large entrance lobby provides the freshest greens, herbs and edible flowers visible to all who enter the building,” Ross says. “Every six weeks a full harvest at the Center-To-Table Gardens produces approximately 3,500 plants ready for consumption.”
The downside to farm-to-table options for large groups, however, comes in terms of production capability and cost. “For large groups,” Ross says, “the farm-to-table concept exceeds what many individual small farmers can provide. And the cost of local farm-to-table products many times limits the farm-to-table option for planners’ budgets.”
In addition to a local/sustainable focus, Ross notes that requests for very specialized menus and foods are increasing as public awareness of food trends and options increases.
“Convention center food continues to evolve as the general public becomes better educated about food, its nutritional value, and how and where food products are grown,” he says. “Providing food for large groups now must satisfy the diverse dietary needs of attendees. In the past, there were menu accommodations for vegetarian and kosher. Today, we’re asked to accommodate gluten-free, halal, low-carb, dairy-free, nut-free and paleo requests, to name a few.”
Cohn points out that farm-to-table now extends into the larger ideology of social responsibility; it’s about the vendors and ethical practices, not just the food. “Meeting planners and groups want to do business with organizations that have a higher purpose. For us at Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, it’s what we call ‘Food. Thoughtfully Sourced. Carefully Served.’ It’s the philosophy that we live by as we execute food and beverage in the hotel. That means using ingredients such as cage-free eggs and choosing sustainable agriculture.
“A part of that higher purpose is local,” Cohn continues. “It makes good sense from an environmental standpoint and leads to a better experience. If a hotel can feature local food and beverage items, attendees will more likely have a memorable experience. We make sure to work closely with local breweries and farmers to capture the unique taste of Jacksonville for out-of-town guests and local customers.”
In conjunction with sustainability and local sourcing, there’s also a movement to minimize waste, whether a meeting is based at a hotel or a convention center. “Waste is still a very big issue,” Devlin says. “Planners need to know their audience members and what they will eat and what functions they will attend. I have tried a few times to get creative with my menus. Sometimes they’re a hit and other times they get ‘lost in translation.’ If you set it up ahead of time to have safe, leftover food sent to a shelter, that at least makes for a happier ending to food overages.
“I’m constantly looking into my crystal ball to figure out if a fully registered attendee will get up in the morning for the breakfast, or if an attendee will actually attend the lunch while enjoying a beautiful day at a wonderful resort such as Sunriver,” she says. “Food counts are a challenge, and I take full advantage of any percentages the kitchen might incorporate into my guarantee. You are just never going to get 100 percent attendance at an event.”
Taylor says Sunriver Resort partners with groups and local organizations to minimize waste. “Some groups are concerned about the meeting environment, whether from a brand prospective or because they feel strongly about waste management,” he says. “Certain groups help us with the local food bank and shelter outreach we do. We box up unused, safe-to-eat leftover food and deliver it to Bethlehem Inn in Bend, one of our local shelters.
“Some groups want to lessen their environmental impact,” Taylor adds, noting that they “might want to recycle everything or make the majority of their meals totally vegetarian — and the resort is willing to help. Really, it’s us educating (planners and attendees) that it’s OK to ask for recycle bins and compost cans and OK to move away from the normal meat-and-potatoes kind of food.”
At some centers, mitigating waste is now standard practice. “As meeting planners and clients began asking venues and caterers more questions about sustainability, the basic level of their expectations increased,” Ross says. “In a paradigm shift, operators began implementing standard waste and recycling procedures for their daily operation versus only upon request. This ‘raising of the sustainability bar’ has not only broadened the appeal of participating venues and caterers, it has increased revenues in both the front and back of the house.
“At the Orange County Convention Center, minimizing landfill waste and increasing recycling capabilities have become the norm. Guests are provided both waste and recycling receptacles in all public areas including meeting rooms and exhibition halls. The increase in sustainable waste options has brought more visibility to what is now considered an industry standard. In response to the increased focus on waste diversion, the center has added dedicated compactors for each waste stream generated during regular business.”
The keys to success regarding most new initiatives are communication and ease of participation, Ross adds. “If you invest on the front end by putting the right methods in place, the results will usually exceed your initial expectations.”
Perry says nearly every planner who visits the Phoenix Convention Center on a site inspection includes the issue of waste among his or her questions. “We are constantly asked what we do with leftover food. Partnering with the community has made this process much easier. Any food we can donate to local soup kitchens, diocese and shelters, we do. And we just revamped a food-waste removal program through a partnership with our city.”
As for trends related to waste, Perry believes that in 2017 there will be a bigger push toward waste-based cooking, thanks in part to the raw movement as well as a new focus among such famed chefs as Dan Barber and Massimo Bottura.
As in the case of farm-to-table items, larger groups are sometimes at a disadvantage in terms of incorporating the latest beverage trends into their programs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be creative or up-to-date. Group size, time available and budgets dictate what beverages are served at events and how.
Everyone agrees that “craft” continues to be the major buzzword, related to beer and to cocktails, and their various ingredients. Local is critical, too. “Sourcing local beverages is as important as sourcing local food; local craft beer and wine are a must,” Cohn says.
At the Phoenix Convention Center, Perry notes, “Craft, craft, craft” is the trend, along with local. “Our guests want fresh, innovative beverages with a Southwest flair. We are in the midst of rolling out different approaches focusing on specialized cocktails. The bitters market continues to grow and expand. We have recently partnered with a local bitters lab that has created some great bitters themed for our area, including mole/chocolate, cactus blossom, figgy pudding, amber mesquite and orange/citrus.”
According to Perry, “Aperol Spritz was the cocktail of 2016. Other cocktails we’ve seen on the rise are gimlets, Negroni variations, Sazeracs and Bellini variations.”
In keeping with the trend of highly customized events, Ross says requests for cocktails designed specifically for a particular group have increased. In addition to more requests for craft beers at OCCC, requests for Scotch and bourbon tastings are also on the rise. He notes, however, that while “mixologists” are prominent in upscale restaurants and lounges, there are limited applications for them at group events with a large attendance and limited time frame due to costs and the time needed to create specialty cocktails. “Smaller events, however, such as board of directors’ receptions, provide an opportunity to showcase the creatively of a good mixologist,” he says.
Non-alcoholic drinks and lower-alcohol drinks also are gaining popularity. “Non-alcoholic beverages now include a variety of energy drinks, vitamin water, infused water and cold-brewed coffee,” Ross says. “These are displayed along with standard sodas and bottled water. Show management offices and exhibitors love coffee options that include single-serving pods, providing staff and attendees with many flavors to enjoy. Even coffee condiments have expanded with flavored creamers and the vast array of sugars and sugar substitutes.”
Serving non- or low-alcoholic options is definitely a trend according to Cohn. “Session beer is a term for beers that have lower alcohol content, and we are seeing that in cocktails and sparkling wines as well. Non-alcoholic drinks such as mocktails and smoothies are something meeting planners and hotels should consider in order to provide a diverse experience for everyone.”
An evolution in break foods isn’t new. For several years, planners, attendees and catering staff have minimized traditional sugary snacks served during breaks in order to avoid giving attendees a sugar high followed by a crash just as afternoon sessions demand their attention. The trend has been toward whole foods, proteins and, yes, sweets but more healthful options.
Cohn says there are new trends as well. “Adding a twist to an old favorite is one of the rising trends. For example, miniature fig grilled cheese and bite-sized macaroni and cheese provide that familiar comforting taste yet make the meeting break more fun and generate conversation among attendees.
“Another way of doing that is having a story that goes with the food — items made from a chef’s family recipe, for example, add a personal touch to the taste. Our chef at Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront recently served peanut-butter balls. They are small, bite-sized protein options that taste amazing and also help energize guests for the rest of the day. Serving food responsibly and maintaining a healthy balance for guests is key.”
Perry agrees that more healthful options are requested — mostly. “This year we have had requests for homemade granola bars, a variety of hummus and baba-ghanoush shooters, even ‘ants on a log.’ We had an entire group request all breaks to be paleo. On the other side, we’ve done more and more donut walls, pretzel and popcorn breaks.”
Ross says popular morning breaks at OCCC include brain foods, Greek yogurt, dried fruits and nuts. “And breakfast cookies high in fiber and nutrition are requested in addition to the standard breakfast pastry selection.” Popular afternoon break foods include yogurt-covered raisins, trail mix and whole fruit, and vitamin and infused waters are offered next to the standard selection of soft drinks and bottled water.
It’s no easy feat to provide healthful, delicious, creative foods at conventions while also staying on budget. So how can planners and catering staff work together to create the best events?
“Planners have to select food and beverage options for thousands of attendees from around the world, within a budget,” Ross says. “They report food and beverage costs as one of the largest event expenditures they have. And when the conference budget is squeezed, it often falls on food and beverage services to try to come back in line.
“To help planners be creative, food and beverage professionals need to be part of the planning team early in the process in order to learn about the group and conference,” he says. “The key is to create special menus to accommodate the budget and also satisfy attendees. These menus are designed to accommodate the demographics of each group and allow the executive chef to feature local ingredients or new food trends while maintaining the desired budget — a win-win for all.”
Perry says themes are helpful to the creative process, noting that his crew focuses on how the food is presented and delivered. “What type of equipment are we using to present a buffet? What kind of tables? We are constantly bugging reps about new, innovative equipment, and we’ve moved to customizing our own décor and tables through a local artisan. We look to best match a theme to what the planner is trying accomplish or the background of the group. Sometimes,” he adds, “talking away from a menu is helpful to the creative process. Then, when we better understand the direction the planner is going, we return to the menu to fill in the gaps. When we get to the ‘why’ with meeting planners instead of focusing so much on the ‘what,’ we see creative and impactful events come together.”
Cohn offers one last thought for planners. “Don’t be afraid of adding new elements to your meeting and truly making your event authentic,” he says. “You don’t always have to match all the décor and food items. Mixing up some colors or settings might just spark an even better turnout.” AC&F