Whether corporations are going through lean times or living high on the hog, planners know all too well that skimping on F&B is a surefire recipe for a meetings flop. A great food experience can be the best binding ingredient for attendees who are meeting face-to-face, and can be one of the best memory-makers. Expectations run high these days, too, as the foodie trend is turning average attendees into discerning critics who believe that great meals are defined not just by great food, but by the total culinary experience. Sprinkle in some budgetary and dietary restrictions, and it’s clear that planners have a lot on their plates.
“Food plays a significant role in our everyday lives, is a large part of our social makeup and a driving force in bringing people together to celebrate anything from a birthday to a retirement party, and from a corporate awards dinner to a new product launch,” says Lisa Hopkins Barry, CPCE, CMP, president of the National Association for Catering and Events (NACE). “Learning better ways to accommodate food requirements for a great group experience is a trend that planners, hoteliers and caterers should embrace and advance together through collaborative efforts.”
Planners have taken note. F&B stakeholders are doing more with less and still producing incredible culinary creations using the fresh, local meats and fish, as well as produce, spices, herbs and other ingredients, all the while paying homage to sustainable programs.
“People in metropolitan cities, particularly members of the younger generation, have become far more savvy about food and beverage than ever before.” — Guy Genis
Planners such as Guy Genis, founder and CEO of Eventmakers, based in Toluca Lake, CA, notes that most of these changes have occurred within the past five years alone. “First off, people in metropolitan cities, particularly members of the younger generation, have become far more savvy about food and beverage than ever before,” he says. “And, with the advent of the Food Network and reality food competitions like ‘Iron Chef America,’ the general public has also become more aware of where their food is coming from and how it is prepared. These new preferences affect how and what the public orders, and what guests and attendees would like to have served at conferences, meetings or other corporate events.”
Lydia Janow, CMP, director of events and trade shows for NYC-based Aviation Week, adds that the success of any F&B event depends on how well the planner knows their audience and how much they are willing to work with the chefs and caterers in terms of what they can and cannot do — and vice versa.
Janow is responsible for Aviation Week’s annual MRO Americas Conference & Exhibition (Maintenance, Repair And Overhaul) and the magazine’s Aerospace and Defense Programs Conference as well, which has been held at the award-winning Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, AZ, for the past six years. For these events, Janow has a tried-and-true formula for the menus for approximately 150 attendees.
“These are attended by engineering, strategy, supply chain and program leaders from around the world. I keep the dinner simple by making the main entrée a prime cut of beef like filet mignon or a juicy steak,” she says. “They expect it and look forward to it. But, by working with the chef, I let him have a chance to do his thing and be creative with the side dishes and desserts, which he does beautifully, especially in its creative presentation, so that there’s always something new on the plate in that respect.”
Janow also schedules two lunches and a sit-down, deli-buffet with lots of salad for this group. She adds that they stopped doing heavy meals “many moons ago,” so that people would not feel sluggish heading back to the conference room.
“Lighter fare keeps attendees more awake, and hotels have adjusted their menus accordingly. We also offer vegetarian and gluten-free offerings as we are getting more requests for these now,” she says.
Pat Ahaesy, CMP, CSEP, president and partner of P&V Enterprises in New York City, observes that budgets are still a huge concern — and that doesn’t appear on any F&B trends lists.
“Otherwise, I agree with the findings like locally sourced foods, including their ingredients. Kale is still trending, as well as anything called artisanal, particularly breads. Cupcakes have not lost ground in popularity, including ‘decorate-your-own,’ following a conference or meeting. Signature drinks named after the event, as well as craft beers, are still in vogue.”
Genis adds, “Of course, there is a trend toward local, green-grocer vendors and sustainable foods grown locally in prospective cities and, with that, the quality of all categories of produce, poultry, meat and fish has increased but, the downside is that the cost has become higher and some budgets have had to adjust.”
But, perhaps it’s Bonnie Wallsh, CMP, CMM, and chief strategist of Bonnie Wallsh & Associates, located in Charlotte, NC, who cuts the problem down to size. She targets these three super cost-effective strategies:
Ahaesy also believes that there are still deals out there. She recommends that planners should look at set menus first, but then sit down with the executive chef and discuss options based on the capabilities of that chef and the venue.
“Sometimes, there are some fun options that can seem like they cost much more than they do,” observes Ahaesy. “A budget-saving tip is to have ‘butlered’ hors d’oeuvres as you have more control of portions.”
An inexpensive lunch idea Ahaesy recommends is to have pre-made sandwiches served buffet-style, as well as easy-to-eat fruit available, too. “And don’t use bottled drinks. As far as beverages go, limit choices to an event-themed beverage, a white and a red wine, and sparkling water,” she says.
To save on beverage, Janow finds that coffee by the gallon is budget-friendly. “Also, stagger appetizers throughout the cocktail hour. Cut down on the order: If there are 150 people in attendance, order 100 pieces per appetizer served instead. I also cut back on bar time by as much 45 minutes depending on time of day.”
NACE’s Hopkins emphasizes that dietary restrictions are a top consideration in meal planning, noting that chefs and caterers are now getting creative with these requests.
“The trend of dietary restrictions is really coming into the mainstream now and, while it isn’t very glamorous, it is an absolute must that planners and caterers work together to ensure their menu plans include an appropriate offering for guests who require special accommodation for food allergies, medical restrictions, lifestyle-personal choices or religious practices.”
According to Hopkins, there was a time when guests and attendees would call the hotel, privately, and speak to an appropriate staff member about special dietary requests on an almost confidential basis, but all that has changed.
“Now, this information is reaching the catering office through the planner, as guests are disclosing their information to them more openly. Caterers also are more proactive in asking about allergy-related questions in pre-con meetings,” adds Hopkins.
To address this growing awareness of healthful food choices, Hyatt Hotels Corporation launched its “Food. Thoughtfully Sourced. Carefully Served” program two years ago. The brand-wide initiative focuses on sourcing and providing food and beverage choices that offer balanced nutrition, controlled portions and natural ingredients. Examples include reducing the hamburger size from eight ounces to seven ounces of meat; mandating gluten-free and vegetarian options on all menus; offering Stay Fit Cuisine menu items on full-service brand menus; and providing natural bacon, organic produce and hormone-free milk as menu options.
The program also embraces environmental responsibility by sourcing sustainable seafood, naturally raised beef and pork, planting on-property chef’s gardens, recycling programs, and new to-go containers and packaging.
Hyatt also supports local communities through this effort by sourcing through local suppliers and mandating that five local ingredients be utilized on the menu.
Sometimes the battle cry is for food and beverage events that are interactive and foster networking among meeting attendees. Cassie Brown, CSEP, chief experience officer of TCG Events in Charlotte, NC, advises, “We recently catered a party where we served paella over an open fire pit. We served barbecued beef, Brazilian, churrascaria-style, on skewers, which provides an easy wow factor and gets everyone involved,” Brown notes. “At a different event in Orlando for a financial firm, we’ve had the chefs prepare dessert at each of the tables, which fosters easy conversation among the attendees. Also consider serving dinner family-style and pass around the bowls and dishes, and have a dessert station where you walk up and create your own sweet masterpiece. We did this for an oil company with great success.”
But, when all else fails, Guy Genis reminds others to keep it simple and to plan with the mindset that the group in question is your own family.
“How would you honor them with a meal? Then, go from there,” he notes.
Certified healthful: The Music City Center in Nashville recently announced that it has been awarded REAL Certification by the U.S. Healthful Food Council. REAL stands for Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership and is a nationwide program that helps combat diet-related disease by recognizing food-service operators committed to holistic nutrition and environmental stewardship. The REAL Certification program launched with a restaurant campaign in Washington, DC, last year, and it has since grown to more than 80 locations that include restaurants, workplace dining facilities and public venues across the country.
Dining with sharks: When an unforgettable meal function must have an unforgettable setting, too, the 1,675-sf Seascape Ballroom and Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas fill that order. Seascape is home to 30 sharks and other amazing aquatic creatures all within a 1.3-million-gallon exhibit that comes complete with tour guides — also providing a built-in source of entertainment.
The unique venue is perfectly suited for intimate receptions, sit-down dinners and board meetings. A 175-sf outdoor patio and lounge is adjacent to the ballroom, creating an excellent option for an indoor-outdoor reception or other corporate event.
A movable feast. PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, has rolled out its new “iTruck,” a gourmet food truck available for corporate events. Serving as the “92nd Hole” for the resort’s five golf courses, iTruck fare features selections from the resort’s world-class culinary team including BBQ pork sliders, “Birdie Shrimp,” truffle fries, “PGA Signature Champ Burger,” crab fritters, meatball sliders, lobster sliders and more.
Hyper-local sourcing: Local sourcing is big but even bigger is hyper-local sourcing. That can mean an industrious chef with a green thumb and a rooftop garden.
For example, Baltimore Marriott Waterfront’s executive chef Carlos Gomez meets the demand for farm-to-table ingredients with his own rooftop herb and vegetable garden. With the assistance of his culinary team, as well as students from nearby Stratford University, the garden features a variety of fresh herbs and vegetables including basil, chives, curry, peppermint, oregano, rosemary, thyme, peppers and tomatoes. He plans to add to this garden every year and to eventually make the garden a community initiative.
Similarly, executive chef Bill Downes at the nearby Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor has recently introduced local farm products to the menu and, to support his farm-fresh mission, he, too, has created his own herb and vegetable garden on that hotel’s rooftop with the vision of building a greenhouse to support year-round growth. He also notes that he sees a trend for regional cuisine which, at the Inner Harbor property, would be Maryland “True Blue” crab cakes and even crab pretzels.
Culinary teambuilding: The Viking Culinary Studio at Château Élan Winery and Resort, located 40 miles outside of Atlanta in Braselton, GA, has been a site for various interactive culinary teambuilding exercises, such as “Winemaker Wannabe,” in which participants create and brand their own wine and try to “sell” it to the group. In the “Impersonating a Chef” event, teams prepare dishes that are judged by a panel. “Typsy Canvas” gives groups step-by-step instructions on painting their own masterpieces, while enjoying good company and Château Élan’s wine.
Considering all the ingredients that planners need to consider in concocting a successful F&B event, the right recipe really boils down to the basics: good food, good drink and good company. C&IT