Even if the meeting content is stellar — from the presenters to their presentations — the attendance is robust and the destination is unforgettable, when the food and beverage fall below expectations, the entire event is undermined if not forgettable. The difference in today’s meeting environment, compared to even just five years ago, is that attendee F&B expectations have never been higher, more complicated or the meeting of them within budget, more challenging.
The popularity of Food Network shows such as the “Iron Chef” or National Public Radio’s “The Splendid Table” — not to mention the hyper-local “yelp” reviews and Twitter buzz about which restaurants are hot and which are not — has made nearly everyone a “foodie.” Planners and facility executives are recognizing that attentive organizing means partnering to create a menu that reflects this new sophisticated-eater reality.
“Foodie culture means that you need to make sure you are knowledgeable on the newest culinary trends,” says James Kim, vice president of operations for Access Destination Services, Northern California. “You can still have classics on the menu, but you want to provide something new and refreshing. For instance, instead of plain mac ’n’ cheese, you can serve truffle mac ’n’ cheese; or instead of mashed potatoes, you can serve sweet potato mash with goat cheese and chives. It’s out-of-the-box thinking.”
Satisfying these heightened expectations has shifted the roles of planner, event manager and chef. Jennifer Squeglia, principal at RLC Events, Warwick, RI, has more than 20 years of experience as a planner specializing in meetings and other events for insurance and financial services industries. Instead of burdening the event manager with the role of mediator between planner and kitchen, she recommends going directly to the source. “I tap into the chef more than ever before when devising a menu,” she says. “I am dealing directly with the chefs. I ask them what they are excited about. The chefs know what people are looking at on the Food Network. They want to kick up the culinary offerings.”
For effective F&B planning, she adamantly recommends, “Make the chef your creative partner.”
According to Squeglia, how gourmet the food can get, especially for insurance and financial services, is often determined by the event. The uninspired convention chicken dinner may be gone, and in general, higher caliber cuisine may be more the rule than the exception, but how high still depends on the setting. “The more straightforward meeting banquet, maybe things are not as fancy, but incentive-type gatherings, the red carpet is being rolled out. It depends on the nature and scope of the event,” she adds.
“Palates are more discerning now; they want more flavors and don’t want to see the old rumaki on the menu,” says Patty Phelps, vice president of sales for Access Destination Services, Texas. “They want what is new and hip and on the food channel; planners want the haute cuisine not only on the buffet but in food trucks as well.”
The foodie trend has caused even in-house catering at many convention centers to undergo a radical makeover. Meeting attendees and other business travelers are certainly pleased about the scarcity of rubber chicken on the rubber chicken circuit. However, this new culinary awareness means not just better prepared food, but more healthful food. But a gourmet sensibility now widespread among meeting attendees is only the tip of the ice sculpture. Meeting attendees and other business travelers are insisting that they no longer leave their healthful eating habits at home. Meeting planners, event managers and facility chefs have heard and responded, even though the result can be a more complicated — and diverse — menu.
“With heightened awareness on diet — whether it’s a true dietary restriction based on allergies or religion or Atkins, Miami Beach (diets) — it is important to have an appropriate menu,” says Jennifer Beam Johnson, CMP, The Johnson Meetings Group, Raleigh, NC. “Guests are more health-conscious and also have more allergies these days. You need to spend extra time planning menus to make sure you cover all bases.”
Those bases now include gluten-free and other food allergy-conscious categories, which include dairy-free, soy-free, rice-free, wheat-free, peanut-free and pine-nut-free. Food allergies are better understood and identified by today’s consumers. While food allergy sufferers may seem as commonplace as vegan-vegetarians, it is important to understand that demand for these options transcends the actual allergy. The reason gluten-free and other “free” food items are being requested is they are perceived as healthful, often regardless of an individual’s medical sensitivities. Like vegetarianism, this “free” movement in food has become a personal preference. Planners must create menus accordingly.
In addition, fitness- and weight-consciousness have long been part of the culture, and meeting attendees can be especially wary of waistline inflation while attending conferences.
“Attendees are more conscious of eating healthy foods and appreciate that there are those selections,” says Pamela J. Martin, managing director, Creative Meetings and Incentives, Fairfield, CT. “It falls to us to plan for attractive presentation and to offer creative (serving techniques) for smaller portions, such as serving salads in martini glasses or soups in shot glasses.”
Johnson suggests: “Offer a three– or four-course plated meal with lighter fare. If you offer a heavy entrée, then consider a lighter salad and broth-based soup. Include a plate of petit fours on the table in addition to the dessert. If someone doesn’t want a slab of cake, then they have the choice for just a bit of something sweet.”
We all love dessert, but since it’s a major culprit in weight gain, planners and chefs are reinventing the concept. “Years ago a big slice of chocolate cake or pie and ice cream would suffice, but that has changed, says Martin. “Smaller portions, even a tasting combo of three similar desserts are popular. Who doesn’t like a variety of cheesecake in bite-size portions? Just enough to satisfy the sweet tooth.”
Squeglia has found a subtle way to lighten the impact of the final course that disguises the downsizing trend while maintaining its allure. “I’ve been serving dessert family-style, which means small portions of two or three plates of dessert, which people pass around the table. People eat less dessert, have more variety, and it lends itself to more interaction at a table, which is important for most meetings.”
Compared to other mealtimes, breakfast and breaks, the healthy makeover trend is blatantly unconcealed. People may end the business day by going off their diets with the decadence of dessert, but by morning everyone is nutritionally enthusiastic for what tradition has told us is the “most important meal of the day.”
“The continental breakfast is going the way of the dinosaur,” says Johnson. “No one is satisfied with a sweet roll or bagel and schmear, as not only is it not healthy, but it certainly doesn’t help you feel full until lunch. You must have protein, some type of egg and/or meat and possibly cheese. Fruit is a good idea as are yogurt cups, and now the yogurt cups need to be more along the lines of the healthier Greek yogurt and not the super sweet traditional products.”
Anyone who identifies himself as a “foodie,” is also by default a locavore — an aficionado of in-season, local foods. The popularity of locally sourced and sustainable menu choices has probably been the longest lasting trend redefining meeting and event menus, a fact not lost on insurance and financial services meeting planners.
“The foodie culture means wanting to experience something of the region,” says Johnson. “Many times, meeting attendees don’t have the option of going offsite or away from the program for a meal. …(But) if you can incorporate local cuisine, in both menu choice and food product, it gives them some local flavor and a bit of variety from the normal meeting.”
Diversifying the menu often makes the event more memorable. Local food, Johnson continues, “is often, better food quality as it is fresher. In the South, we can use a lot of local produce, locally farmed meats, regionally caught fish and locally produced cheeses. That makes planning a ‘regional’ type of menu much easier and oftentimes, a change for the attendee from the regular chicken breast with rice pilaf and green beans.”
In addition to providing culinary distinctiveness and quality, the smaller producers are also noted for their flexibility. They often more easily produce specialty goods, such as gluten-free and other food allergy-conscious items, than larger suppliers.
Along with the benefits of using locally produced foods comes the downsides of cost and availability. “People want to support local farming and manufacturing, but this often limits choices and can sometimes be more costly,” says Martin. In addition, while some local artisanal — handcrafted — food items, such as honey, breads and meats, are available year-round, produce availability is seasonal.
Regardless of category, the challenge is finding cost-effective common ground where local foods can be provided within budget. As the locavore movement has gained momentum, suppliers are more plentiful and often larger, thus able to produce in bigger quantities. Buying groups — in this case, essentially a coalition of meeting facilities that can bring economies-of-scale to purchasing — are now forming locally (they have long been part of independent facilities when it comes to non-local, more mainstream food items).
“People are excited about the regional experience,” Squeglia adds. “It is up to the planner, and the serving staff, to inform the attendees, either one-on-one and/or with small signs, about what they are eating and create excitement. Food is a great conversation starter and something to network around. People love talking about what they are eating.” I&FMM