After a half-century of relative predictability, with “rubber chicken” becoming a clichéd reference to the typical food and beverage served at many meetings and conventions, the fare being delivered to attendees has undergone a transformational upgrade.
Rubber chicken and traditional buffet lines have been supplanted by fresher foods and more creative choices, notes Karla Spaeth, chair of hospitality management program and director of facilities and events management at Northwood University in Midland, MI, and operations director at a small hotel owned and operated by the school.
Erik Pedersen, food and beverage director at the Garden of the Gods Club in Colorado Springs, a rustic venue located at the boutique hotel Lodge at the Garden of the Gods, also observes a sea change when it comes to F&B. “What we’re seeing is more customized menus,” he says. “Planners can no longer assume that one meal or menu will suit every attendee. Many people are allergic to or sensitive about certain foods, such as salt or gluten. Others, such as vegetarians or calorie counters, prefer to eat what they want rather than what someone else chose for them. And people are also more cognizant, in general, about the foods they eat. So all of those things are contributing to the change in how F&B is being handled.”
Eddie Allen, executive chef at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, CT, is on the same page. From a banquet perspective, Allen finds that most planners are looking for things that aren’t on a standard menu. “The days have changed when you email a client a menu, they pick what they want, and we make it happen. Now, our catering team works with clients to develop menus that meet their needs. We talk to the client about their customer base, the theme of event, what they are trying to achieve. Then we customize. We find ways to bring the client’s event to life through food.”
And after a recession that led to an unprecedented slowdown in the meeting industry, the notion of fun is finally returning as a critical component of a successful meeting, says Lyndsay Picciano, director of catering and conference services at the Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston. “And that trend is not just about the food,” says Picciano, who also serves as the current president of the New England chapter of the National Association of Catering and Events. “We’re also seeing it with florists and decorators and entertainment companies. Companies are personalizing events and making them memorable more and more now that the market is returning to normal.”
And, she emphasizes, the overarching trend is putting the fun back in meetings. “For example,” she says, “we’re seeing fewer sit-down dinners and more heavy receptions where people can move around and network and enjoy the company of their coworkers and colleagues. And that means more music and dancing and more themed events, rather than just a meal.”
Chef Allen says “the days of thinking about banquet food looking like banquet food are long gone.” He says the chafing dish is out because planners want individual plated items and interactive food stations. “Action stations serve two purposes for planners — the food is fresh, prepared right there, and it allows people to interact, move around the room and socialize.” Allen adds, “Food is a catalyst for interaction. Also, with cooking shows becoming incredibly popular, meeting planners and attendees alike want that ‘wow’ look. People like to see beauty on a plate.”
Food is no longer an isolated consideration, Picciano says. As the meeting industry continues its long-awaited recovery, food and beverage is being more integrated into the overall experience.
Courtney Ermac, event specialist at third-party planning company Dynamic Events in Vancouver, WA, says that ever-growing demand for special dietary restrictions or preferences is another current trend.
“We do a lot of meetings for Microsoft that have a very international attendee base,” says Ermac, who hosted a 10,000-attendee conference for the software giant at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas last November. “So our dietary requirements often go beyond just simple religious restrictions like kosher or Halal diets. We’re now seeing a lot of requests for gluten-free food. That is skyrocketing. We also see a lot of requests now for vegetarian food.”
Ermac sees the broadening trend as a natural evolution of the increased role of attendees in shaping and personalizing meetings to their personal preferences. “It’s no longer about attendees just checking off chicken or beef on a card,” she says. “We ask them if they have allergies or any special requests for food. And as a result of that, we’re seeing a lot more requests. But we’re also definitely seeing more requests for kosher and Halal food, too.”
A related and growing trend, Ermac says, is growing demand for more healthful food. And that, she says, is a natural outgrowth of the ever-increasing awareness of and interest in health and wellness. “They are understanding more and more that lighter, healthier food means more alert, attentive attendees and therefore a more successful meeting,” Ermac says. “Lighter food usually makes people less likely to fall asleep.”
Chef Allen says dining in the U.S. is changing, especially from a nutritional standpoint. “The industry is aware people are worried about their health, salt intake, fat and calories, so, at Foxwoods, we use herbs to utilize and enhance flavor. We find ways to do breaded products without the fryer or bring back the long-lost poaching method instead of pan frying.”
However, even though people are leaning towards a more healthful approach, desserts are always the trump card at Foxwoods, Allen adds. “Again, it’s all about the visual effect. Planners want a mind-blowing experience. For chocolate desserts, it has to be beyond chocolate; an explosion of chocolate. With desserts, we are going for a sensory journey.”
An increasingly important part in the experience is now being played by locally sourced food and beverages, from beef, fruits and vegetables, to locally made wines, beers and cheeses, explains John Zahn, CMP, director of catering and conference services at Stowe Mountain Lodge in Stowe, VT. F&B is no longer confined to banquet rooms and standard menus, he says. “There’s much more emphasis on seasonal foods and ingredients that are unique to the region,” he says.
In fact, says Picciano, a trend toward fresh seasonal bounty sourced from local producers is now the No. 1 trend driving change in how planners perceive and practice F&B.
“Because New England has so much to offer, we focus on locally sourced artisanal products,” she says. “We’ve even gone ‘hyper-local’ by incorporating honey from our own rooftop hives into menus and dishes. Another good current example of what’s happening is a food station that serves fresh local mushrooms with items such as locally sourced goat cheese. And that kind of thing doesn’t just mean better food. It also means there’s a story behind your food.”
Fairmont Copley Plaza now follows what Picciano calls a 100-mile menu. “We try to source everything from within 100 miles of the hotel,” she says. “That means fresher ingredients, but it also reduces a meeting’s carbon footprint, which is increasingly important to corporate groups. It also helps clients get a little more for their money because they’re not paying the shipping costs to bring food in from across the country or around the world.”
Pedersen notes that when local foods are served, attendees tend to comment more on — and better remember — what they’re eating. “They also go home and talk about the food when they get back to the office,” he says. “For example, we hear more attendees talking about the fact that they’re eating locally sourced Colorado beef or a micro-beer from a local brewery.”
Kendra Clough, director of conference services at the acclaimed The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center near Houston, agrees that a powerful trend toward local foods is changing how planners execute their F&B. “We hit our local farmer’s markets and local producers,” she says, “before we go anywhere else to do our sourcing from national distributors.”
Related to that is increasing interest in and participation by the farmers and ranchers and other producers who supply the food.
“For example,” Zahn says, “we now see a trend toward meetings featuring a local cheesemaker who serves and talks about his artisanal cheeses and how they’re made. Or a local winemaker who talks about the wines and his winemaking process. And often now, creative planners will combine a cheesemaker with a winemaker and turn that into an interesting evening. Attendees love those kinds of things because they’re very interactive and educational.”
As a result of such basic trends, another trend is evolving: planners are becoming more creative in their use of F&B. And the reason is simple, Spaeth says. “Attendees are tired of the same old chicken and vegetable combinations. Today’s catering is about more uniqueness and variety.”
That’s especially important to younger attendees, she says. “They are demanding a lot more variety in what they eat and drink. They want more options. Younger people do not like to be dictated to and told that ‘these are your choices for dinner.’ That is no longer acceptable to young attendees. Their palettes are more sophisticated, and their expectations are higher.”
Picciano also sees a lot more F&B creativity and innovation. “We’re seeing more specialty bars and more creative food and drinks,” she says. “And the food and beverage are being more tied to the company, whether that means incorporating corporate colors or naming dishes or drinks after significant milestones in the organization. For example, we’ve recently seen a lot of anniversary celebrations and the companies are being very creative in how they tie the F&B to that.”
Serving meals or feeding attendees at a reception is also making a transition from a passive process to active engagement, Spaeth says. “One good example of that is a setup that includes pasta bars or yoga bars,” she says. “And it’s not just about putting out an array of items. It’s more about inviting attendees to be creative and build their own parfaits in a martini glass or make their own mashed potato dish from a potato bar where they can choose the ingredients and condiments they want. That’s just another good example of how attendees today are looking for more personal satisfaction from the food they eat. But they also want to have more of a part in creating it.”
Yet another trend is one toward small plates or small bites, as opposed to traditional three- or four-course dinners. “That allows attendees to taste more things and hotels to show more creativity and uniqueness in their presentation,” Spaeth says. “And chefs like to do that because it provides a better showcase for their talents.”
A companion to that trend, Clough says, is a move toward fully inclusive F&B packages, as opposed to more traditional menus that vary more in final cost.
“More and more planners want to develop a package and negotiate a price up front so they don’t have to use standard buffets,” she says. “And that allows them to provide more options to their attendees than just standing in a standard buffet line with food in chafing dishes.”
It also allows planners more precise pricing and budgeting. “You know ahead of time exactly what the package includes and so there’s no nickel-and-diming for various add-ons or enhancements that carry additional charges,” Clough says.
Jacy Russell, CMP, senior meeting manager at independent meeting planning company Spear One in Irving, TX, sees an evolution of the popularity of food trucks as a current trend.
“The concept originally was to actually bring in local food trucks to an event as a way of adding variety to the meeting,” Russell says. “People had the chance to walk up and get a burger and fries or a taco. But then planners started to realize that if you’re having an event in a ballroom or some other venue inside a hotel, bringing in a real food truck isn’t feasible. And in other instances, it was just that hotels started to view food trucks as competition for their food-and-business operations. So what I’m seeing now is that people are still doing the food truck concept. But instead of a real food truck, you have your normal banquet table with food on it, but behind it you have a life-sized cutout of a food truck that also portrays the kind of food that is being served at that food truck station.”
Russell actually experienced that iteration of the concept at MPI’s 2012 World Education Conference in St. Louis. “They did it as part of their opening night reception,” she says.
There are a few notable exceptions, Russell says. “The new Omni Dallas hotel, which generates a lot of traffic because it’s located next to the convention center, actually invites food trucks to come and be there outside the hotel,” she says. “And that can serve as a middle-ground solution for meeting planners because attendees can leave the hotel and go a short distance to get real food-truck food. That can be a nice option if you’re not providing lunch to attendees. It gives them a chance to get a taste of real local food instead of eating every meal in the hotel.”
Russell agrees that making F&B more creative and interactive is a major current trend. “For example,” she says, “a lot of planners now treat F&B as more of a teambuilding experience by doing things like cooking contests. “I participated in one at a meeting where they gave us certain foods and people had to come up with a dish that you presented for judging.”
She also agrees that buffet lines are becoming more creative by allowing attendees more options for putting together a personalized pasta dinner or a creative mashed potato dish or dessert.
“And if you really start to think creatively, the possibilities are limitless,” Russell says.
Thankfully for planners and hotels, F&B budgets are returning to relatively normal levels, Zahn says. “Companies are finally spending a little bit more on food and beverage and functions,” he says.
But, he cautions, he also expects budgets to remain tight — and scrutinized — into the foreseeable future. “I don’t think budgets will ever get back to the free-spending days of 2007 and 2008, before the recession,” he says. “And I definitely think budgets will continue to be scrutinized. But that said, I also think planners are putting more emphasis on food and beverage as part of their meetings. They’re just looking for value and creativity.”
Picciano agrees, however, she says, “that also means that planners are being smarter about where and how they spend their money, so they can still end up being creative and also get good value.”
One concern among planners is the proverbial pendulum swinging back to a seller’s market and the resulting pricing.
“Hotels are recovering from the recession, and their business and revenues are coming back,” says Beverly Buehler, CTC, CTIE, executive vice president of independent meeting, incentive and event planning company Wyndham Jade in Plano, TX. “So when it comes to food and beverage, it takes a little more knowledge and understanding now of what things can be negotiated and how you can get around some of their pricing. It’s more important than ever that planners know what is available and what things can and can’t be negotiated.”
Even though hotels are getting tough on pricing, Buehler says, there are ways that planners can extract maximum bottom-line value for their meetings.
“One good example of what can be negotiated these days is free beverages for your attendees upon arrival,” she says. “And depending on the type of client and the culture of the company, those beverages can be alcoholic or they can be soft drinks or juices. You can also negotiate a free cocktail reception on your arrival day. And something that is often overlooked because planners don’t always think about it is staff offices. You can also negotiate free beverages and breaks for your staff offices. And if you don’t do that, that’s one of the miscellaneous costs that can creep up on you at the end of your meeting. And not only are those costs (ones) that maybe were not planned, but they’re also costs that can be avoided if you know how to negotiate properly based on the current market.”
Unfortunately, not all current F&B trends favor planners and make for a better meeting.
Based on her experience, a key concern of Buehler’s at the moment is mistakes in catering bills. Far too many invoices contain substantial errors that result in overcharges, she says.
“We see a lot of discrepancies in catering bills,” she says. “So it’s important for planners to take steps to eliminate those mistakes. And one way to do that is to really know your group and have historical consumption data so you can make comparisons to prior meetings. That kind of historical data can also help you upfront in negotiating your food-and-beverage package going in, because you will know what your past data and metrics are.”
Equally important, however, is an effective strategy for catching costly mistakes and making sure that invoices are accurate. “I’ve seen bills come in for 20 bottles of wine,” Buehler says. “And in fact there were only 20 glasses of wine consumed. That is a huge discrepancy and an expensive mistake.”
Her recommended remedy is to require that bartenders collect corks so that bottles can be accurately accounted for at the end of the event. “Then everybody can agree on what was actually consumed,” she says. “And we get the bartenders to sign off on what we agreed to.”
Buehler and many other planners share another concern when it comes to costs — rising F&B service fees. Although fees of 15–18 percent were considered standard for years, fees as high as 22–24 percent are not uncommon now, as hotels try to recoup their losses.
“In some places, fees are a definite concern,” Buehler says. “But it also depends on what region of the country you’re in. It’s particularly common on the East Coast, in places like New York. The fees there have just gotten out of control. In New York, they just come back to you and say, ‘We’re New York. Demand is high for what we have available, and we don’t have to negotiate or make concessions. We can get the prices we want.’ And based on that, there are now some hotels that we will just not go back to.”
A countervailing tactic, Buehler says, is to negotiate an F&B credit based on total expenditures or the size of the meeting.
The larger issue, she says, is to have planners better understand what the hotel’s real costs are and where they can save money. “One good example is what most hotels charge for coffee,” she says. “In the past, planners shied away from doing soft drink breaks and did standard coffee breaks. But on a per cup basis, coffee is usually quite a bit more expensive than a bottle of soda or juice.”
Although there is plenty of good news about how F&B is recovering its role as an essential component of a meeting, there is one negative that will likely linger: Thanks to ongoing concerns about optics, or perceptions from shareholders or the media, lobster and champagne have virtually disappeared from most menus.
“Lobster has the perception of being very expensive,” Picciano says. “So these days we’re more likely to see high-end foods like tuna tartare instead of lobster. But that’s still a fabulous option. And shrimp is also very popular. And although those things might cost as much as lobster, they’re just perceived as safer choices than lobster or filet mignon.”
In the long run, however, Picciano says she expects that lobster and champagne will return to high-end meetings once the meeting market is fully revitalized. Until then, tuna tartare or shrimp — paired with a good local wine or beer — will do quite nicely. C&IT