The playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” And if he were to go to a meeting today, he’d very likely see that planners, chefs and other food and beverage professionals are helping make sure that meeting attendees can take their love of food to a whole new level.
“I’d say the biggest trend we are seeing in food and beverage is the need to have healthier options and more attention to gluten-free items,” explains Melynda Hilliard, MBA, CMP, who is director, events for Skillsoft, an online learning company with U.S. headquarters in Nashua, New Hampshire. “Having restrictions really forces event professionals to think more creatively while planning meals and breaks.
“Our attendees are becoming more educated about the amazing gourmet options that are available on a regular basis,” she adds, “therefore, we have to be open to make our chicken something different and present the potatoes in a way that isn’t just mashed. Yet, while being creative, we also have our budgets that provide further restrictions to these options. It’s no longer the simple buffet with basic items; it’s the fancy, yet reasonable options that have people walking away feeling like they ate a good and healthy meal that didn’t clog their arteries.”
One ongoing trend is that hotels and conference centers are doing a much better job of accommodating attendees who have special requests such as entrées suitable for vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free diets or if they have allergies to certain food items such as nuts or shellfish.
Chef Mike Jackson, director of food and beverage for the Deloitte University Hotel and Conference Center in Westlake, Texas, which is managed by Benchmark Hospitality International, “reminisced” about the days when meeting attendees who were vegetarian often would be served the same thing: pasta primavera. Luckily for them, those days appear to be long gone. “We’ve really had to up our game on our banquet menus,” he says. “We really have to take (special dietary requests) into consideration and make sure that each one of these guests has an interesting and unique dining experience.”
Jackson explains that he and his team take these special requests into consideration when planning plated banquet meals as well as buffets. “I want to make sure that there’s a lot of vegetarian choices. I want to make sure that there are a lot of choices that I can label as gluten free. That really starts with your basic preparation in the kitchen, and there are some simple things that we do at Deloitte University. Instead of using roux as a thickener, we’ll use cornstarch or arrowroot or vegetable purées. A lot of things that might not have been accessible to guests in the past because of the gluten, suddenly are available, and, if anything, we’re making the dishes a little bit lighter and healthier.”
He adds that the more advance notice the food and beverage team receives about guests with special dietary requests, the more prepared the team can be, and that 72 hours’ notice is a good guideline. That being said, even if no one requests, for example, a vegetarian meal in advance, his team still will be prepared to meet last-minute requests.
Since there could potentially be a wide variety of special menu requests within a single group, it takes some skill and planning to identify those guests. Jackson describes the system he uses. “We give our guests that register with special dietary needs a special card that has a purple dot on it, and whenever they sit down, they put it by their place setting. It’s not very obvious to any of their dining companions, but that alerts us, and especially our wait staff, that that guest has a special dietary need, and so the waiter is going to discreetly ask them what we can do to make sure they have a good dining experience. We want them to have a seamless dining experience like everyone else. We don’t want everybody else at the table to be enjoying dinner while they’re waiting for us to scramble and prepare a plate for them.”
Tom Garcia, vice president of food and beverage for Benchmark Hospitality International, explains that when planning breaks for meeting attendees, his company likes to involve more than just the sense of taste. “It’s the music, the ambience, the smell, the lighting. As we put our breaks out there, we’re trying to enact all of the senses.” He shares an example. “We have an apple break where you have that cider smell as you walk in, and the colors that we use focus on reds, and the music is jazz. We have dried apples, a fresh baked apple tart and other items like that.”
“We also did a tea break that really engaged all of the senses,” Jackson adds. “We were steeping some very aromatic teas and had some food items that were going along with it. Oftentimes, meetings are very heavy with a lot of information in your face, so we’re really trying to make the break more of a relaxing period so (attendees) can softly recharge and reinvigorate themselves before going back in for more meeting content.”
As Hilliard notes, many meeting attendees are trying to focus on eating more healthfully. But there are still plenty of people who enjoy a special treat now and then. “We’ll still have those fun foods out there,” Garcia notes. “If somebody wants an M&M or a gummy bear, they can have them.”
“Talking with other planners, we are ready to find out what’s coming. …We survived the recent cupcake trend, are wading through the farm-to-table trend, and are really ready to see what clients come up with next.” — Emily Boykin
Jackson notes that there is now more of an emphasis in using fresh products in the creation of cocktails, including the use of custom-made bitters and mixers. “People now tend to be a little bit more adventuresome with their dining, and they’re doing that with their beverages, as well. They’re not necessarily stuck in that rut that ‘I’m a chardonnay person.’ We try to create craft cocktails that are a little bit more seasonal in nature that go along with the more traditional beverages that we would serve in a private banquet event.”
Garcia says that Benchmark is bringing techniques used in freestanding restaurants to the banquet room, such as hiring the right staff. “We’re especially looking at bartenders that are emotionally connected and that are invested in what they’re doing. Instead of going to the Boston guide for drinks, they’re creating their own. We’re just trying to have that connectivity. Whether it’s a gathering for upwards of 200 or a smaller, intimate one with 15 or so, guests still like to have that interaction with the people that are actually serving them.”
Garcia also says that having action stations, where chefs prepare food in front of attendees, also fosters that sense of connectivity. They give attendees an opportunity to interact with the chef and ask questions about how the food is prepared, and it also gives them a chance to connect with nature if the event is being held outdoors. Garcia gives a few examples, such as Benchmark’s Eaglewood Resort & Spa near Chicago that offers golf course views or Snow King Resort in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where attendees enjoy being next to the mountains.
For planners who haven’t used action stations lately, it’s time for another look. “To me, one of the biggest things that has happened over the last five years is that the technology has changed,” Jackson explains. “That gives us a lot more versatility to do the action stations, especially in a banquet setting. You used to have those little butane burners where you were pretending to be cooking, but you really couldn’t do serious mass production out there. Now there are people like Evo that make the electric griddles that will get up to 550 degrees. You can do induction woks that could easily produce food for a couple of hundred people at a time.
“Right now, where I am,” he continues, “we’re looking at a ventless convection oven that we can actually put out at our coffee breaks, so we’re baking our croissants and muffins and cookies in the afternoons right in front of the guests and pulling them out of the oven. It has a built-in filtration system and a built-in fire suppression system, so it meets all of the codes, and really your only limitation on where you use it is having the power source. Those are the things that really help us take the kitchen into the ballroom, so to speak. In the past, it was more that we would be doing these things for show. Now, with the new modern equipment, we can actually be cooking and creating complex dishes in front of the guests.”
Garcia also says that in terms of food and beverage, what’s old is new again. “That’s going to continue out there as a trend. “We’ve been kicking around ideas like it would be cool to experience a chateaubriand, or it’s pretty cool to have those old chef salads.”
Says Jackson, “From a chef’s perspective, I think a lot of the classic cooking techniques are really having a resurgence.” He mentions an upcoming James Beard dinner that he and several other chefs from Benchmark are participating in. “Part of our theme for our dinner is ‘preserving the past,’ and all of the chefs are making a play on classic food preservation techniques like making charcuterie.
“A lot of the steps that for a long time were being outsourced are now being craft made in-house like smoking your own bacon and creating specialty condiments — ketchups and steak sauces, things like that,” he explains.
Mark Cooper, CEO of the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), notes the major trends his organization is experiencing worldwide. “Not just destination-themed food, but locally sourced food (and knowing the provenance of it).” He gave the use of local microbreweries as an example. “You feel like you’re experiencing a little bit of the region you traveled to for the conference.”
He adds, “On the drink side again, the trend at the moment is to use tea in cocktails. We’ve seen tea as a popular drink from a health perspective and how it’s been embraced around the world, and we’re seeing tea-infused cocktails for drink receptions.”
Another trend Cooper identifies is the use of food to support networking. “This is probably the most important trend. The objective around meetings is to meet people, share ideas and build relationships. The time you do that is generally outside of the sessions of the meeting itself, which is during your food and beverage events.” He says that the scenario of sitting around a 6-foot round table and only meeting the people immediately to your left or right no longer works. “This is especially true for the people now who come together for meetings who are remote workers working from home,” he describes. “They’re not meeting their colleagues that they’re talking to every day in the corridor in the office anymore, so these are important times to get together to build relationships and share ideas.
“The way that food can influence that is to offer easy, accessible, unplated food so that people can reach out and eat and drink while talking and walking and meeting other people.” Cooper continues. “There’s nothing worse than having a reception where the food that’s on offer is food that you can put on a plate and you walk out into the room and realize that it is totally impractical — you need to cut it up to eat it or it’s got rice in there and there’s no chance of eating it. It’s about food and service almost like Spanish tapas where you can sit there and be talking and the waiter or waitress is continually bringing options to you. Without knowing it, before the night is done, you’re almost through a starter, a main course and dessert, and you’ve met 20 great people in an hour and a half. That’s where I think food is really important. It brings people together, and great relationships are born in that way.” Like the other experts, Cooper also notes that the focus on health is a key trend. “Small portion sizes are important,” he states. “It’s ‘in with the flavor, out with the fats.’ ”
Cooper mentions another trend: “The change from having big gala dinners to now having more finale events where they’re innovative, more imaginative and not just your sit-down, three-course plated gala dinner at the end of the conference.”
He gave an example that was very close to home — a recent conference for his own association, IACC, where they had an awards ceremony followed by food station buffets with a chef presence. “We had different types of seating areas to suit different people. There were some chairs at rounds and other areas with sofas and others with high stools and (bar-type) tables. We provided different styles of food in different areas of the room and different styles of seating for people to come together in different environments, and we even had a dance floor in the corner, as well. We had all of that going on. It was a finale instead of making it a gala dinner.” He explained that this format is also more comfortable for those attendees who feel they can’t leave when they’re ready to because they don’t want to be the first ones to leave the table.
“These are all global trends,” Cooper stresses. “We have over 400 conference venues in 22 countries, and we’re seeing these all the way through Asia, Europe and the Americas. Food and beverage trends are key. They’re very important.”
“One of the biggest, longest-standing trends I’ve been seeing in food and beverage is that clients want to have more of a creative element in their selection,” explains Emily Boykin, CMP, meeting planner for Onyx Meetings and Events in Overland Park, Kansas. “They really want to wow their guests with the latest and greatest, unique ideas. Thanks to sources like Pinterest, clients are really pushing the boundaries on food and making chefs break away from their standard menus and embrace the opportunity to show off. I would often show clients a basic menu as a drawing board, more or less, and work with them and the chef to create their ideal display/option instead of forcing them to pick from a normal, basic selection. You want each guest to have an authentic, memorable hospitality experience, and food and beverage is a great way to make that happen.”
The very nature of trends means that they are guaranteed to change over time, and Boykin wonders what the next trend will be. “Talking with other planners, we are ready to find out what’s coming. …We survived the recent cupcake trend, are wading through the farm-to-table trend, and are really ready to see what clients come up with next.” C&IT