“The biggest unknown in any event budget is the food & beverage,” says Eldy Nodal, president and global events director of trade show and association management company LD Event Management in Fremont, California. And one of the most important components of an event is the overall food & beverage experience. One of the joys of planning an event is making the food & beverage shine and stand out as a memorable and integral part of the whole. At the same time planners are tasked with ensuring that the needs of attendees are met in a healthful and safe manner. Requests for gluten-free options, demands for ethnically diverse choices and dietary needs are growing in leaps and bounds. Fortunately, convention center chefs and kitchens are meeting the challenge by offering increasingly diverse selections as well as making customized menus based on planners’ needs and wants. Here’s a sampling of what’s new in convention center food & beverage.
“Clients are asking for upscale, better service, and they’re willing to spend more for it. Long buffet lines are going away, as we provide more small bites and increase our service level with every event.”
— Chef Matt Roach
Keri Coté, event director at SmithBucklin in Chicago, finds that chefs are becoming more flexible and open to customization. “I like to use the set menu as a starting off point and customize from there,” she relates.
Matt Roach, executive chef at Georgia World Congress Center, agrees. “Clients are asking for upscale, better service, and they’re willing to spend more for it.” He sets up interactive food stations with the chefs in front serving the guests. “Long buffet lines are going away, as we provide more small bites and increase our service level with every event,” he says.
Planners and providers agree that the shift has been towards more customized menus, more chef interaction and more memorable food experiences. Of course, convention centers provide standard menus, but they function more as a starting point to craft more creative food experiences.
Chef de Cuisine Oscar Sanchez at the Anaheim Convention Center says that they also are offering fresher menus and more healthful options. “We have a chef attendant offering choices in our urban farm salad station. Attendees could get a custom-built meal made to order.”
Moreover, the food experiences offered in trade show booths is evolving. According to Nath Morris, vice president-expo, U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, food & beverage trends in Europe and South America are somewhat different. Morris says he hopes that American convention centers pick up a few pointers from their European counterparts: “In Europe and South America, we have seen more exhibitors entertaining inside their booths. It might be a happy hour-type event after the shows close or even a meet-and-greet with entertainment.” He adds, “Cooking something on the trade show floor adds to the experience. It’s something the attendees will remember.”
Steven P. Schuster, executive chef and culinary director at Kelber Catering at Minneapolis Convention Center, says he is introducing international flavors at interactive food stations. “For instance, we had a ramen station with chef-served options for one event. At a different event, we had a bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwich) station, where attendees could build their own sandwiches. Both were hugely popular with attendees.”
These new creative food presentations allow diners to go from station to station and pick up small bites without the trappings of the stodgy buffet line.
“People are asking for more food breaks during their events,” claims Nodal. “They want things that are outside the box — more ethnically diverse menus like Indian, Thai, Mexican. They want more variety. No one wants sandwiches anymore.”
And, of course, everyone wants the wow factor. David Skorka, senior executive chef at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, says, “We’re always looking to provide the wow factor in our food presentations.” For example, when he coordinated the catering for the Women’s Foodservice Forum, a group of roughly 2,200 discerning business owners, he developed an urban theme with food truck façades positioned inside the convention center. The menu, which ranged from street tacos made with sea bass to yakisoba noodle salads, was well received.
Many convention centers have achieved great success with food truck events. The Anaheim Convention Center partners with local food trucks during their events. The trucks are invited onto the center’s Grand Plaza, which includes 36,000 sf of open and multifunctional outdoor space ideal for events, networking and enjoying the sunshine between meetings.
Bringing in the trendy food trucks has been a revenue boost for the center, too. According to Debbie Juliani, director of marketing at the Anaheim Convention Center, “Our food truck receptions have been hugely popular. They have been wonderful networking opportunities for the attendees, and it keeps them on the campus.”
The Las Vegas Convention Center, which also uses food trucks in their parking lots, is experimenting with a new concept akin to an inside food truck. The center serves as one of the test locations for Aramark’s “Launch Test Kitchen,” a pop-up restaurant they rolled out in December 2015. (See box below.)
Savvy convention center operators such as the Georgia World Congress Center partner with local vendors to provide extras for their event delegates. For example, Jittery Joe’s in Athens provides the center’s coffees including their own proprietary, signature blend at their café — Southern Roots. Visitors can enjoy the roast onsite or buy the beans to take home.
Working with local businesses has been a boon to craft beer vendors and microbrewers as well. Juliani says the Anaheim Convention Center has been taking advantage of the boom in the craft brew industry in Orange County, California, as local brewers not only provide beer for their concessions, but the chef also uses the beverages for menu pairings and as ingredients for innovative menu items.
The Minneapolis Convention Center boasts an onsite craft bar and lounge that features four local brews on tap. They work with the Minneapolis Craft Brewers Guild to set up a rotation of local providers. The center also partners with local micro-distilleries that have recently popped up in Minnesota, and now offer Prairie Organic Vodka, a corn-based vodka as well as rums, gins and other liquors. In addition, another local company Dunn Brothers provides fresh coffee beans that are roasted onsite producing free-trade, single origin and cold brew options.
These partnerships work well with planners’ demands for “craft everything,” Coté says: “We have been seeing huge popularity in craft beers, especially if there are any local to the area we are having the event in, as well as local wines. I like to pair the craft beer and wine with food stations that they complement. This has gone over really well with attendees.”
Nodal says, “We are seeing more requests for alcohol not just for welcome receptions, but also for mini receptions at the end of the day. It keeps the attendees in the location and keeps them happier.”
Bottled water and soda are on their way out as chefs everywhere arrive at innovative and creative alternatives. Chef Roach relates, “We’re doing more with infused waters as people are drinking less soda.” And chef Skorka makes beverages with infused waters and agua frescas: “Not only are these healthful alternatives to sugary drinks, but they add great color to a room and are a tasty alternative to bottled water.”
Coté echoes their sentiments. She says, “We are seeing more waters infused with fruits and fewer soft drinks. There are also more options for smoothies and other healthy beverages.” She adds, “There have been more requests for healthy food options as well such as whole grains, and no artificial sweeteners. Chef Schuster agrees, “Whole grains have been increasing in popularity. We’ve been working with different recipes, both cold and hot salads using ancient grains like wheat berries and jasmine rice.”
Planners and providers also note an increase in specialized dietary needs, too. Not only are health issues and food allergies, such as diabetes and celiac disease, on the rise, but attendees are getting more specific about their food and beverage needs.
Begin from a healthful starting block, says chef Schuster. “We try to make our menus gluten-free or diet friendly from the start, so we don’t have to change the menu. We might use rice flour as a thickening agent for soups, or offer a flourless chocolate cake or a Greek yogurt cheesecake for dessert. Luckily, we have our own bakeshop. We’ve been baking with different flours to provide gluten-friendly options. Although we can’t be completely gluten-free, we are very diet conscious.”
How does chef Skorka reinforce this effort? “I get involved from the get-go, helping the catering support staff meet dietary preferences. For large events, we’ll create a totally different station that can support specific needs, be it kosher, halal, nut-free or gluten-free, to accommodate attendees’ needs.” He adds, “We want them to feel just as important as anyone else. You shouldn’t miss out on a special meal opportunity because you have dietary restrictions.”
Nodal notes that attendees are becoming increasingly more health-conscious. “More people are asking for more different kinds of food, specialty meals, vegetarian and gluten-free options. ”
Both chefs and planners agree that it’s important to start the conversation early to make sure that dietary requirements are met. F&B providers always are willing to accommodate requests, as long as they are given guidelines and requests early on.
More and more convention centers are finding innovative new ways to reduce waste and increase environment responsibility. Dallas’ Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center is a LEED Silver-certified building. As they work towards the LEED Gold prize, they have switched to 100 percent biodegradable disposable items in both their concession and catering departments. They also launched a composting program to recover all their food scraps.
The center also provides a linen-less banquet table. Instead of the tablecloths of old, they have stainless steel serving tables and use recycled butcher paper to cover dining tables. The serving dishes are made of sustainable bamboo, and they use recycled parchment for lining.
Furthermore, the center has been food-recovery certified by the EPA, in conjunction with the USDA and EPA’s first-ever food waste reduction goal.
As part of their food recovery program, the Dallas center’s used cooking oils are reclaimed for local biodiesel dispensers. Much of their excess food is donated to a local network of organizations that serve the needy. Danielle McClelland, who coordinates media and community relations for the center, notes, “We provide fresh hot meals to a network of shelters and assisted facilities in the area. Sure, there is an expense to that, but we believe that unconsumed food shouldn’t go to waste.”
In San Jose, teen entrepreneur Kiran Sridhar’s brainchild Waste No Food has partnered with nonprofit Hunger at Home and San Jose’s Convention Center to take the center’s leftovers and deliver millions of meals to Silicon Valley’s hungry.
The Las Vegas Convention Center, for instance, donates their leftover meals to Three Square, a Feeding America affiliate and nonprofit food bank distributor. Whatever can’t be served to the local hungry gets donated to a nearby pig farm. Then, the center composts the rest of their food waste. They’ve converted their plates and utensils to biodegradable options, as well as shifting their condiments to large, refillable, self-serve dispensers rather than using high-waste, individual packets.
Minneapolis uses custom-designed, compostable wine glasses that are recyclable. The building itself has solar panels on the roof, and there are recycling bins available throughout the center. Like many other convention centers, they donate their food over-runs to more than 26 regional food banks and homeless shelters.
In Anaheim, they use compostable products made from recycled water bottles, and also have an onsite composting center, which they use to fertilize their rooftop garden. As an added bonus, the center gets local Anaheim students through a WorkAbility program for youth with disabilities. These kids get hands-on job training a few days a week in the garden, as well as with the ACC’s recycling center.
Healthful and sustainably farmed food is widely requested by guests attending conventions and events. Within the past couple of months, Aramark launched its brand “Locally Rooted,” which offers fresh, local fare in recyclable, modern packaging. These sustainably sourced, grab-and-go options are offered in their concession stands.
Most centers have been making a concerted effort to buy locally whenever possible.
The Compass Group, parent company of Levy Restaurants which operates the F&B at the Georgia World Congress Center, recently launched a program to buy more “imperfectly delicious” products. These vegetables and fruits may be slightly misshapen, oddly sized or just be too funny looking to make it to grocery store shelves. Chef Roach says, “They may be flawed, but the flavor is still there. Instead of letting them rot in the fields, we turn them into delicious meals.”
The Anaheim Convention Center has taken local to an extreme level by planting a rooftop garden. The chef simply walks up to the roof of the center’s box office to gather crops he may need for an event. “I can get basil, rosemary, herbs or micro-greens I may need,” says chef Sanchez. “Although the garden doesn’t provide everything we need for large events, we do pretty well.”
The Anaheim Convention Center, which is an Aramark service location, introduced a new mobile app called “ACC-EATS.” It was first introduced to exhibitors at the Craft and Hobby Show in January and received an enthusiastic response. The app also was offered to NAMM’s exhibitors (the largest trade event for music merchants), and it was used during the UBM Advanced Manufacturing Conference with great success as well.
ACC-EATS offers convention exhibitors the ease of purchasing food and beverages directly from their smartphones, with delivery directly to their trade show booths.
The mobile app was built on an innovative mobile platform to expedite the ordering process for exhibitors who may need to place an order for express catering services or express meal services. The service options of ACC-EATS include catering for guests and executives in their meeting space, or express meal service from the local and fresh fare offered in the ACC’s retail food outlets.
Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center also launched a similar app, called the “Mobile Table.” The application also allows exhibitors to order food, pay and have the food delivered right to their booths.
A combination of increased communication and technological innovations bodes well for a more delicious future for meeting attendees and delegates worldwide.
Most planners spoke highly of the increased willingness of chefs to customize menus and work beyond the standard, protein-and-two-sides plates. Coté says she would like to see an even larger increase in healthful options. “I’d like to see less white bread and more whole-grain options, including wholewheat pasta.”
Morris hits the nail on the head with his observation on the future of F&B: “The sky’s the limit! As long as convention centers provide quality product and good value, I think anything is possible.” AC&F