As corporate meeting and event patrons become food savvy and demand a wider range of flavors, unique food and beverage options are now viewed as a straightforward way to please attendees and keep them coming back for more.
Today’s meeting and event attendees are looking for more in their food and beverage choices. They are seeking healthy, nourishing and wholesome selections, presented in a unique and eye-catching way to create a more meaningful experience.
According to Susan Harper, CIS, program manager at Bishop-McCann, today’s experiential food trends mean meeting and event planners need to think outside the buffet line. “Menu selections and food presentation is one component of meeting planning that is often overlooked,” Harper says. “At the same time, it is also one of the top experiences that your attendees will remember. Put in the time and research to make it exceed expectations.”
Indeed, as Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, at Thrive! Meetings & Events explains, the idea of attendees coming together for a meal seems the most normal thing in the world for event planners. It is a quintessential aspect of any event. However, there’s a distinct difference between sharing a meal and making food together. “Simply sitting down at a banquet table with colleagues to get a pre-designed menu doesn’t have the same bonding effect as cooking a meal with someone else,” Stuckrath says. “By incorporating experiential food and beverage into the event, planners provide attendees another means to engage with each other. Experiential learning and sharing encourages the formation and reinforcement of relationships, fosters teamwork and togetherness, promotes creativity, teaches problem-solving and organization, and it promotes social responsibility.”
One way to promote attendee engagement is to incorporate local specialties into all of the menus. Include brands such as community-specific craft beer or local dishes that celebrate a region’s flair, e.g., paella or jambalaya in New Orleans.
“Locally sourced food is a huge one right now,” says Kim Sayatovic at Belladeux Events. “People are looking to have items that are from the area. People are more health-conscious than ever, so having snacks that cater to that is always a good idea. This can be done with a yogurt bar with offerings of different flavors and types along with toppings.”
Belladeux Events is based in New Orleans so Sayatovic and her team love pairing experiential elements with the menu. Crawfish boils are a regular favorite, as well as an oyster bar where attendees can learn to shuck oysters.
“We bring in food trucks as well. This can actually be a particularly fun surprise at the end of the evening, Sayatovic says. “I mean, who would ever turn down a beignet night cap?”
“Attendees appreciate the food quality, menu diversity and bringing a taste of the outside world into the meeting room,” Harper says. “Clients will enjoy the positive feedback and buzz. And with a few tips or tricks, the budget will also welcome it.” Recently Harper incorporated an experiential food experience for an event for Motorola. To highlight Motorola’s new Droid Maxx 2 mobile phone with shatterproof display, Bishop-McCann created an “Ice Cream Shatter Bar.” Guests used custom placemats to select ice cream mix-ins, shatter them with a mallet, and then have their mix-ins folded into the ice cream flavor of their choice. “At another event, we challenged the W Chicago City Center to create an interactive Burrata Bar for a welcome dinner,” Harper says. The result was a huge hit and the reaction was so positive that the hotel decided to add the station to their standard menu options.
“Every food experience is dependent on the chef,” Harper says. “Great experiences are the result of a positive engagement and partnership between planner, CSM and chef. Challenge the chef with new ideas.” Collaborate by having the chef create parts of the custom menu. Ask them: What have they always wanted to do? What new technology have they been eager to incorporate into an event?
One of the key ways to enhance experiential food and beverage events is by incorporating meeting themes or messaging within the menu selections, food displays and labeling. “And a new setting can refresh your attendees,” Harper says. “Ask if there are unique areas to hold one or more of the daytime meals other than a meeting room. Is there a hotel restaurant that is closed during the day that can be utilized?”
Kristin Healy, CMP, owner and creative director at Swank Events, says that food and beverage offerings are all about the attendee experience. In addition to the food being delicious, it is also important to consider current trends and how the food will be presented. “Considering how attendees will interact with the food and how it will contribute to the attendees’ overall experience is critical,” Healy says. “It will have guests talking about the event for months.” Healy is seeing a lot of create-your-own bars, such as tacos and mashed potatoes. “There is also a big focus on food presentation, such as a doughnut tower or wall,” Healy says. “We’re also seeing a shift from buffets to interactive food stations complete with a chef to create-your-own pasta dish.”
Swank Events has planned corporate events where they have had interactive food stations, such as a create-your-own hot cocoa station and coffee carts with several different flavors and toppings. They’ve also done cordial tastings, milk and cookies stations and popcorn bars.
“One of our favorites was from a corporate party we planned that had a cannoli station,” Healy says. “It was a huge hit with the guests. We’ve also planned events with food trucks — from Mexican to burgers, cookies and dessert trucks to ice cream trucks. All have been a fantastic part of the event and one that keeps people talking.”
When it comes to breaks or refreshment services, meeting planners recognize that groups don’t just want healthful foods, as was the trend a few years ago. While they are still requesting the high-energy items such as hummus and vegetable shooters or energy bars, they also include a sweet and decadent element such as truffle lollipops or chocolate-dipped pretzels.
And when it comes to drinks, today’s attendees want to be entertained. They don’t want the average soda products. They want drinks such as lavender-flavored soda water, cucumber-infused water, garnishes such as muddled blueberries and mint or classic cocktails with a new twist. “Another major trend we’re seeing is the use of artisan cocktails, craft beers and organic and sustainable wines,” says Kala Maxym, founder of Five Senses Tastings, a Los Angeles-based special events company that designs experiential events based on fine wines and food. “These are very much front and center in today’s event industry, especially as the popularity of tasting events continues to grow.”
Many event planners are opting to feature a particular winemaker or distiller and have him or her attend the event and engage with patrons. “This is a great idea as it really creates a brand intimacy that we haven’t seen before,” Maxym says.
Many of the clients for whom Maxym produces events say they want their guests to learn something. The goal is for attendees to leave with knowledge, new connections, and hopefully, a memory of this experience for months and years to come. “Our approach to achieving this is to purposefully engage as many of their senses as possible,” Maxym says. “Offering experiential food and beverages is a wonderful start, but I’d suggest taking it even a step further and connecting each element of food and wine with the story or theme of the event. Experiential just for the sake of it is fine, but it becomes truly meaningful only when connected back to the actual purpose of the event or meeting.”
“Technology will heavily impact the direction of experiential events,” Sayatovic says. “We’re seeing an increase in video mapping to add interactivity with lighting, for example. I’ve also seen companies have selfie stations that will use edible ink to transfer attendees’ photos onto coffee, cookies, etc.”
Harper suggests that meeting planners think of other ways to create synergy between technology, like a meeting app, and food experiences. For example, cater doughnuts from two top local doughnut shops for a morning break. Have attendees vote, via a mobile app, for their favorite. Other ideas include:
Maxym has seen an extremely positive reaction to her company’s offerings. Attendees are particularly engaged if they can find a point of familiarity with an ingredient or a method of preparation. And guests are always interested to know whether the ingredients in their dish are sourced locally or from a small producer as it makes them feel more connected on a personal level.
“If they’re particularly interested in something, they are also always interested to know that they can purchase it themselves, that it isn’t some ‘froufrou’ cheese that can only be found in the foothills of the French Alps,” Maxym says.
At Five Senses Tastings’ events, for example, they almost always have a chocolatier present. “Our guests love that they can go right up to that person and ask them about their process because, let’s face it, how many of us have ever actually made chocolate?” Maxym says. “People feel a deep connection to the elements of an event if they can see the faces behind the products they are consuming.”
That said, Maxym and her team like to strike a balance between familiarity and experimentation. They always start with a piece of music that most attendees have heard before, thereby encouraging a feeling of casual intimacy and comfort. The same goes with food and beverage. “Introducing a new product or flavor is great, but I’d recommend presenting just one or two per event or meal, allowing guests to focus on each one rather than becoming overwhelmed by too many new flavors,” Maxym says.
While experiential food and beverage stations are typically enjoyed by most attendees, there are two common decisions that planners need to keep in mind when trying to incorporate this trend:
Sayatovic says that corporate meeting planners have to make sure to get to know the attendees and the type of event a company is looking to produce to ensure the experiential elements the planner suggests fit along with the company’s needs. “I have an extensive intake form to try and capture as much information as possible up front,” Sayatovic says.
Planners also have to know what is logistically possible when it comes to creative partners. “Say you want an aerial artist who pours champagne while being suspended from the ceiling,” Sayatovic says. “It sounds like a great idea but a planner has to know that the venue has space and structural beams to handle something like that.”
Experiential food and beverage is ever evolving alongside food trends, technology and social preferences.
Stuckrath does think experiential food and beverage offerings are trendy, but food and beverage are essential for life and regardless of the way we eat or what is in season, people will be intrigued to learn about it.
“Using these types of events not as just eating events, but as learning and networking opportunities will keep it alive as long as its fresh,” Stuckrath says.
According to Sayatovic, millennials continue to push the envelope when it comes to events, and she’s seeing that guest experience is a major factor when planning. It’s no surprise that planners want them to feel engaged and involved with the activities at the party they are planning.
“Guests always love when we have an experiential element in a gathering,” Sayatovic says. “It helps promote mingling, and it makes them an active participant instead of sitting on the sidelines.”
Experts agree that the meeting and event industry is going to see even more opportunity to involve attendees with things like onsite cooking classes where they help prepare their meal with the help of a chef.
Ultimately, experiential food and beverage events will go mainstream as the focus continues to be on the overall guest experience.
“Millennials want new and customizable food experiences,” Harper says. “Experiential food and beverage is the answer. And since millennials make up the fastest growing segment of the workforce — and thus attendee audiences — it is safe to assume that experiential food and beverage is here to stay.”
While exploring these trends one must also remember dietary issues. As Harper explains, the number of gluten-free attendees is still going up. Veganism is the fastest rising meal preference among millennials, and popular diets for 2018 include DASH, Mediterranean, Flexitarian, Keto, Whole30 and Mayo Clinic. C&IT