Food & Beverage: ‘The New Interactive Experience’March 1, 2015

March 1, 2015

Food & Beverage: ‘The New Interactive Experience’

At the Walt Disney World Resort, keynote speaker Bobby Flay explored the design decisions made in the cooking process while preparing delicious dishes on stage at Learning 2014. Credit: Ed Burke

At the Walt Disney World Resort, keynote speaker Bobby Flay explored the design decisions made in the cooking process while preparing delicious dishes on stage at Learning 2014. Credit: Ed Burke

This may or may not be good news. Kale salad is out. So are beets, caviar, Asian fusion and the appletini (was that even still in?).

For 2015, the trending foods, flavors and drinks are cauliflower, sea urchin, umami (a word borrowed from the Japanese meaning a pleasant, savory taste) and cocktails made with 15, yes 15, ingredients. French cuisine is apparently returning to favor and salad lovers will be munching on cabbage.

Just when you thought nothing could make coffee trendier, along comes nitro, which has already ignited the craft-beer world. Aficionados swear that the gas improves coffee, too, reducing acidity, increasing creaminess and making a cuppa joe naturally sweeter.

Not to worry if your favorite foods have dropped off the trending list. It will all change again, at least that’s the word from Andrew Freeman & Co. (AF&Co.), a San Francisco-based restaurant and hospitality consulting, marketing and public relations group that publishes a much-anticipated annual F&B trend report.

AF&Co.’s Food Trends Index reveals that instant gratification, education and participation will be recurrent food & beverage themes throughout restaurants and hotels in 2015.

Millennials rule nowadays. Thus, the economic upturn, coupled with the desire to attract millennials, has led to a surge of hip new concepts, personalized service and customized experiences geared towards satisfying this “demand” generation, according to AF&Co.

Chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers are providing experiences that are less formal yet high in quality, more interactive and rooted in catering to the pleasure-seeker, says Freeman.

The one thing unlikely to change is that food is no longer just about filling stomachs.

Brain Food

One dominant meal concept involves foods that help boost or maintain cognitive power, of particular importance for attendees at all-day conferences. Over the past few years the meetings industry has begun to embrace the science behind healthful, low-sugar meals and snacks that help keep attendees focused rather than launching them into a sugar high followed by an energy low.

Brain-boosting foods include blueberries, nuts and seeds, wild salmon and broccoli.

No hotel company has done more work in this area of food & beverage than Radisson Blu, which offers nutritionist-developed Brain Food menus specifically for groups. Brain Food is the culinary component of the brand’s Experience Meetings concept, which launched in 2013 in North America at IMEX America in Las Vegas and a year earlier in Europe.

Menus are built around six brain-food principles:

  • Lots of fish, whole-grain products, fruits and vegetables.
  • A focus on fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
  • Pure ingredients with minimal industrial processing.
  • Less meat and a maximum of 10 percent fat content.
  • Natural sweeteners and never more than 10 percent added sugar.
  • A focus on good taste as well as satisfying diners’ senses.

According to Christer Larsson, vice president of Food and Beverage, Ameri­cas, for Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, parent company of the Radisson Blu brand, the brain-food concept is particularly popular for morning and afternoon meeting breaks as well as breakfast and lunch. “This is a trend that’s here to stay,” Larsson says.

Anne Madden, CMP, president of the Philadelphia Area Chapter MPI, held the chapter’s 2014 spring board retreat at the Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel, Philadelphia and found the brain-food menu a plus. “Our goal was to keep the attendees fed, satisfied and energy levels up. We wanted to avoid any crashes, which happens so often with high-carbohydrate and high-sugar foods.”

She says the menu’s breakfast options, including turkey sausage and egg whites, allowed attendees to indulge in favorites without feeling weighed down or guilty. “And those individuals who were not egg-eaters had a nice alternative option with the yogurt parfaits; there was something for everyone.” There also was a lot of variety in snacks from one break to the next, she adds, so attendees felt they had many choices.

For Madden and her group, Radisson Blu’s brain-food menus were a success. “The menus offered were consistent with meeting goals that included keeping attendees fed without inducing a food coma after lunch,” she says, particularly important because the meeting was a very intensive two-day retreat with heavy financial discussions. “The food kept our energy levels up and was (healthful). It was not your typical empty-calorie, high-sugar menu that so many attendees experience.”

Madden believes healthful foods are increasingly important for hotels to provide to groups. “The brain-food concept is great,” she says. “We all know food can make or break your meeting. In addition, everyone is doing more with less. Management expects to get the most out of employees’ time out of their office while attending conferences. Supplying healthier alternatives to attendees will help keep their physical and mental capacities to the optimum level. With so much emphasis on health consciousness and food allergies being so prevalent, venues cannot afford to fall behind on what is requested for our convention attendees today.”

Food & Beverage as Fun

Food & beverage also can be fun, and for that reason it’s a natural ingredient in programs seeking to bond attendees and provide a forum in which networking takes place organically. Case in point: MGM Resort’s wine vs. beer pairing, during which attendees sample beer and wine pairings and vote on favorites. It’s an event that highlights the ongoing craft brewing movement in this country, which has elevated beer into a sophisticated beverage with nuances similar to those in wine, its tastes and aromas varying with regional ingredients and techniques such as barrel aging.

Typical of the selections is Bigeye Tuna Tartare paired with Easy Jack, Session IPA from Firestone Walker Brewery and a 2009 Herman Story Tomboy Southern Rhone White Blend from Santa Barbara County, California.

During the 2014 IBM Insight Con­‑ference at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nevada, conference manager Martha Moreau used the pairing event as a new way for attendees to experience the expo and to connect attendees with sponsors and partners. “We had tasting stations set up throughout the exhibit hall,” she says. “We paired one food item with a beer and a wine (chosen by the certified cicerone and sommelier) and had all three on a station. We had one large station in the center of the exhibit hall with all of the food and drink pairings, and the cicerone and sommelier were walking around talking to attendees and telling them why each beer or wine worked with each food selection.

“Stations were placed near sponsors so sponsors could take advantage of the attendees being close to their booths, giving them the opportunity to meet new prospects and continue conversations with existing clients. The reception-style food and atmosphere allowed for the attendees to be more relaxed and to walk around and talk to people throughout the event. The food and drink pairings provided an instant talking point.”

The reception-style food and atmosphere allowed for the attendees to be more relaxed and to walk around and talk to people throughout the event. The food and drink pairings provided an instant talking point.” — Martha Moreu

Moreau says the event was successful on all levels. “We strive to deliver an exceptional attendee experience. We know this fun, hands-on activity helped us deliver exactly that.”

After a packed day of general sessions, keynotes, breakouts and meetings, Moreau says attendees want the opportunity to continue networking albeit in a more relaxed and entertaining atmosphere, which is what the pairing event provides. ”By the end of the evening,” she adds, “there was a nice vibe in the Expo, and we heard from several partners that they were pleased with the turnout.”

Moreau sees the experience as one that demonstrates IBM’s commitment to both its attendees and sponsors. “We know the No. 1 reason people attend Insight is to take advantage of networking opportunities. The pairings event allowed us to capitalize on that in a different and fun way. The experience allowed new relationships to be forged in a way that may not have happened otherwise.”

The event was so successful it’s already on the schedule for Insight 2015. “We will absolutely do the beer vs. wine pairing again,” she says. “The experience helped us deliver an exceptional attendee experience in a fun, low-pressure atmosphere while ensuring our partners and sponsors saw strong booth traffic.”

Although some groups actually vote for beer or wine, Moreau says her group didn’t take a formal vote. “In my mind,” she says, “both options were winners.” And regardless of favorites, everyone learned something during the event. It was win-win.

Stay Well Meetings

Like Radisson Blu, MGM Resorts also has developed a program focusing on healthful eating as part of its overall Stay Well Meetings initiative, which was launched at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in August with the help of Dr. Deepak Chopra, world-renowned health and wellness expert. MGM Resorts is responding to what it sees as a comprehensive trend in which wellness is penetrating the hospitality industry and work environments in a significant way.

The program includes everything from air purification and new cleaning protocols to lighting, acoustics, ergonomics and aromatherapy. More attention to hydration for attendees and healthful menu options are important components. The menus, which have the designated Go! Healthy seal from nutritionists at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, are available for all meals and snack breaks.

The break menu includes such options as honey-chia muesli bars; a farmer’s basket with raw, roasted and pickled vegetable dips and spreads; baked and dehydrated fruit and vegetable chips; and nuts as well as infused waters and tropical-fruit nectar.

Sharing the Joy of Food

At Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, food & beverage impacts meetings in a variety of creative ways, including team-building programs and events. “We’ve put a lot of emphasis and energy behind coming up with these unique event concepts,” says Robert Gilbert, executive chef with catering operations at the resort. “Regardless of the size of the group, it’s all about creating a sense of camaraderie between guests,” he says. “Nothing does that like learning about and sharing the joy of food.”

The newest culinary experience, available at Disneyland Resort in California and Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, is a Create Your Own Lunch program in which participants cook together and engage all senses. Attendees work in small teams to create a four-course meal. The program is perfect for all group sizes, even up to 1,000 attendees, thanks to the use of satellite kitchens.

Elliott Masie, chair and CEO of the Learning Conference, sees F&B as an increasingly important aspect of meetings on multiple levels. The 2014 conference was held at Walt Disney World Resort, and food played an important role during the event.

“I believe food is the new interactive experience,” says Masie of The Masie Center in Saratoga Springs, New York. “When we go to a restaurant, we’re not only interested in what’s on the plate, we’re interested in what went into the food and how it was cooked.

“I thrive on going to restaurants when I can sit at a chef’s table and see the food being prepared. We believe that’s a form of interaction and engagement, and that it responds in a very modern sense to things that stimulate and arouse curiosity in our participants. That’s exactly what any meeting planner wants to do.”

Masie used food in a couple of different ways during Learning Conference 2014.

“We decided to build a multilevel food experience for people from an activity point of view. In our general session, 1,671 people spent an hour seeing Bobby Flay interviewed by me around things such as how he learns, what his background is and how he follows recipes. But he also actually cooked them a delicious Thanksgiving turkey dinner that was done in a fry pan interestingly and with a lot of humor.”

Masie says that part of the food & beverage program was an intriguing way to stimulate thinking about corporate learning, which is what’s at the core of the conference. He then added another component to move the learning from a gigantic classroom to something more intimate.

“We wanted to create a smaller and more intimate experience, even though in each case we had 120–150 people,” he says. “So we reached out to our contacts at Disney and asked them to construct a one-hour experience, which we ran with some variations twice that day.”

The program, put together by the chef at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, included a cooking demonstration and interaction from conference participants. “People were able to see what the chefs were doing and how they were doing it,” Masie says. “Attendees were able to ask questions and…actually taste some of the experience.”

Another nice component was that it also gave conference participants a chance to see the chefs who were actually preparing the food served during the three days of the meeting and to interact with them.

As for what makes food such a critical element, Masie believes the answer lies in our traditional family experiences and most fundamental human interactions.

“Nothing is more bonding than when you taste and smell the same thing,” Masie says. “When you think about it, as human beings, our bonding experiences are always about food. Anytime you talk about visiting your aunt or grandmother, food comes up. I think it ought to be a similar case for conferences, and it’s not about how much expensive champagne we pour. It’s about giving people a look at food and an experience with food in which they see it as a constructive, simple element. And so while we do have that process during the dining and snack breaks at an event, why stop there? Why not actually use food as a metaphor and a teaching experience as well as a bonding experience?”

Food as the Learning Experience

Masie sees a variety of ways in which food experiences translate to corporate learning.

He offers the example of competitions involving food, which have become so popular on TV. That same type of gamification, he says, also has become an important element of meetings in one form or another, including food competitions with attendees. Masie points out that celebrity chef Bobby Flay has been in competitions and hasn’t always come out on top. Flay’s view about that, however, rather than the specific results, is what has valuable application in the workplace.

“It’s not that I lose,” the chef Flay said, “it’s that other people win!’

It’s easy to see how that perspective can eliminate negative aspects of competition in the workplace, turning them instead to something more collaborative, supportive and productive.

For planners wanting to test those waters and make food a learning component of meetings, Masie has this advice: “I think we have to make a shift of moving away from seeing food as a break or as a dietary requirement and view it as an interactive experience. …I think what meeting planners need to do is view themselves as meeting architects. As a meeting architect, you are there to design an experience that has great content, great context and great intensity and collaboration. I think that food can play that role significantly more than just feeding people. I think it can be used as engaging and highlighting.”

The biggest trend in food may be that it is far more than sustenance in the traditional sense. It’s also a cognitive-boosting, interactive, learning, relationship-building, experiential element that meets the needs of meeting attendees and planners on multiple levels — some of them, thankfully, quite delicious.  C&IT

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