Trends aren’t always brand new. Often, they’re a continuation of changes in an industry that evolve over time and as the knowledge, experience and expectations of stakeholders shift accordingly. New or not, evolution in an industry is bound to raise the bar, and nowhere is that truer than in food and beverage.
Planners, like almost everyone else these days, are acutely aware of the food scene across the country, thanks in part to a slew of food and restaurant shows on TV and the corresponding contingent of celebrity chefs, along with a social media network that allows everyone to share what they see and know.
That “foodie” mentality is not new this year, but it continues to evolve and to drive planners as well as chefs and catering departments to up their game in terms of what is expected, what is possible and what is offered at meetings and events in the realm of food. There also seems to be an evolving dynamic between chefs and meeting planners in terms of partnering in the creative process, and a willingness on both sides to experiment.
“Chefs in hotels and specialty venues today really encourage creativity…and they are so enthusiastic about sitting down with meeting planners to create new and exciting experiences.”
—Koleen M. Roach
Koleen M. Roach, director, meetings and conference management, for Securian Financial Group, agrees. “I love how chefs and planners are more willing to incorporate spices and more unique flavors into standard banquet type foods,” she says. “Adding a hint of truffle oil to scrambled eggs or vanilla to pancake batter on a breakfast buffet, or fresh rosemary sprigs to a carafe of lemonade served with lunch, or using lightly scented candles during dinner to stimulate senses a bit and warm the atmosphere — these are simple touches that make something rather boring a bit more exciting.”
But it’s the partnership potential between chefs and planners that Roach believes has high value. “Our incentive programs demand a sense of uniqueness and creativity from destination and promotion to lodging and environment; food and beverage commands the same approach. It’s what sets our events apart from each other and what keeps our qualifiers coming back year after year,” she says. “Going beyond the new norm of offering healthy, colorful, fresh and flavorful cuisine can be a challenge for sure, but the foodie scene and chefs in hotels and specialty venues today really encourage creativity and thinking outside the box, and they are so enthusiastic about sitting down with meeting planners to create new and exciting experiences for any size group.”
The locavore movement is hardly new but it is not just about local farm produce and products, and it isn’t specific to areas known for remarkable cuisine. It works just as well on your home turf as in any other location. Roach talks with enthusiasm about an event for Securian, a Minnesota company, held at a Minneapolis hotel and based entirely on a Minnesota theme. “We had a great time working with the chef and his team on food stations that represented all of the wonderful traditions that are uniquely Minnesotan,” she says. “We started with the décor by bringing in lots of fresh birch and pine trees, sunset up-lighting colors, plaid linens in reds, blacks, whites and greens, wooden barrels in place of tall boys, and wood and candle centerpieces.
“Passed apps included maple-glazed bacon on a stick, Walleye cakes and Lake Superior-stout-braised short-rib tarts. The food stations were fantastic and included a soup-and-salad station of White Earth wild rice soup and locally grown greens, vegetables and cheeses for topping; another station included tater tot hot dish, whipped potatoes and sweet potatoes with all locally sourced cheeses, sour cream, maple syrup and other toppings. Another station was called Prairie Meats and included Swedish meatballs and egg noodles, and locally raised turkey with wild rice and cranberry stuffing. The dessert station was a make-your-own s’mores and hot apple crisp with all sorts of local toppings and locally made ice creams.”
Beverages for the event included Minnesota craft beer and locally distilled gin and vodka, touching on another trend that is still evolving — local craft beer and local distilled spirits. “The response was great,” Roach says. “Everyone had a terrific time, many eating tator tot hot dish for the first time ever.”
Roach says creating an experience around food is important today, recalling a sensory extravaganza she experienced at one of her own events and most recently at an industry event she attended. “Each course was prepared to inspire a sense, e.g., taste, sight, sound, smell and touch. Before one course,” she says, “we placed masks over our eyes and were asked to breathe in the aroma of what was served, and then to take a taste while blindfolded. We then removed the masks and tasted the food again, learning that the taste was far more intense while blindfolded. One course was just so visually beautiful, very colorful and decorative, while another required us to pour pop rocks over it, and that, of course, was the sound sense. During the touch course it was not food related; rather it was a lesson in unique napkin folds, which everyone very much enjoyed. The women were serious and meticulous during this course, the men turned into five-year-olds, but it was great fun and a nice way to break up a five-course meal.”
Fresh, local, healthful, colorful and from scratch are continuing themes for 2017, according to hotel chefs across the nation. Also important is creating an experience around food and drink. And there’s this novel idea: group and banquet food can and should meet the same standards as restaurant dining.
Chef Paul Nagan, executive chef at Range in the Renaissance Denver Downtown City Center, which frequently hosts corporate groups, says, “The focus is still local, local, local, as well as bringing the trends of great restaurants into your meeting space. Groups and hotels appear to be transitioning away from the tables-and-chairs mindset to focus more on the experiential side of meetings. This focus ranges from the flow of the room to the presentation of food. Individual portions with custom displays are incredibly popular.”
At Westgate Park City Resort & Spa in Park City, Utah, where many corporate, insurance and financial meetings are set, Ivan Ruiz, executive chef and director of food and beverage, says the biggest trend he sees for groups today is the continued expectation that banquet food meet the same standards as a restaurant dining experience. “To achieve that, farm-to-table is still important and making more items from scratch is important. It’s a huge point of emphasis here at Westgate Park City, as our groups look for that consistency in quality from their banquet lunch to their dinner at one of our signature restaurants.”
Tony Porcellini, director of food and beverage at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, known for executing creative group events, says people want to know what they’re eating. “It’s not necessarily farm to table, but knowing the source of the product and what’s in it is important. The trend is going to be about fresh ingredients,” he says.
Beyond that, Porcellini adds, “I believe that gluten-free will continue. Comfort food will always be here to stay but in 2017 it will have a bit of a twist. We’re going to clean up the burger a little bit, clean up the hot dog a little bit — you don’t have to smother it in cheese and all these bad ingredients. It’s a way to extend the use of good, healthy ingredients so you can eat what you want to eat as far as comfort food. And barbecue will continue to get bigger. I think the cooking method of smoking foods will continue to be a growing trend because it can be a healthier option.”
In terms of beverages, from cocktails to breakfast and break drinks, Nagan says, “We’ve seen a lot of different things, but probably the hottest trend is personalized beverages. Each group has the option to work with our team to create custom punches or barrel their own cocktail for an evening reception. In the morning and afternoon, groups like fresh and a lot of color. Get away from the traditional juices and offer custom smoothies with protein or an energy boost.”
Ruiz believes that beverage options that pair well with foods, beyond just wine, will continue to play out in 2017. “We’re really seeing the classic cocktails like the martini and old fashioned make a return. It makes sense, as there is a reason they’re classics; everyone loves them. For beer, local craft brews remain very popular. We’re partnering with a local crafter here in Utah to offer unique brews and ones that we can pair with our banquet food to create a truly complimentary dining experience, just as if the attendees were dining in a restaurant.”
Porcellini thinks craft cocktails may be slowing down a little bit but that, “People want to see fresh ingredients in drinks. People want to drink less, but better quality. I don’t think the mule is dead yet,” he adds. “The mule is alive and kicking, whether it’s a Kentucky mule or Moscow mule. In fact, we’ve just added a mule station in our banquet department for groups to purchase.”
As for craft beer, Porcellini notes, “Craft beer is definitely here to stay. It’s not going away, and it’s not taking a backseat to anything.”
Of all the evolving trends over the past few years, the greatest changes may have come in the area of meeting break foods. In one of those why-didn’t-anyone-get-this-before scenarios, there was a sudden collective realization in the industry that loading attendees up with sugar during breaks would ultimately send them crashing, and nodding off, during afternoon sessions — hardly a productive strategy for meeting organizers or presenters.
Today, break options are increasingly part of the healthful foods trend, with planners typically ordering more proteins and fresh ingredients to complement some sweets, and local plays in here, too. “Every group meeting has a purpose, and you must build breaks around that purpose,” Nagan says. “The way food affects the body and mind is important to the meeting and the attendee. We offer a variety of items from local jerky, an assortment of local trail mixes, housemade sweet snacks, energy beverages, etc. Almost all of our break offerings also showcase a local offering.”
Porcellini says in addition to healthful options, less is more when it comes to break foods. “Before, it was an array of food everywhere for everybody to attack,” he says. “Now, less is more. Break foods need to be meaningful. Breaks are there to energize people as they’re coming out of a meeting, so breaks are going in a way where the food should energize. Now, it’s more about taking raw and natural foods that will really energize people rather than just give them a sugar high. You’re starting to see foods like dark chocolates, bitter chocolates, cranberries, natural antioxidants and natural energizers and less carbs and sugar.”
Breaks also can be experiential, and that’s one of the trends Ruiz sees at the Westgate Park City, in addition to the healthful focus. “Planners are looking to get away from your standard breaks and instead use them as an opportunity to create something exciting, memorable and that helps the productivity of their meeting,” he says. “To appeal to that need, we offer colored themed breaks that highlight a particular color. For example, our red-themed break features strawberries and raspberry tartlets. We then add some red lights and accents to bring it all together and create a wow moment for attendees. Breaks are steering away from heavy foods and instead offer lighter fare such as quinoa, kale and fish that won’t make attendees drowsy.”
It’s not just about the break foods, however. It’s also about getting attendees up and moving during meetings, another way to keep the brain and body alert for sessions and to keep attendees happy and engaged with a meeting overall. Hilton Worldwide has taken a lead in finding ways to do just that. In September, the company launched the next iteration of its Meet With Purpose program. It was prompted in part by the results of a May global survey conducted by Hilton that found, not surprisingly, that attendees struggle to focus in the afternoons, often due to heavy lunches, no chance to exercise and a letdown after the high of sugary break foods.
One in three respondents said they’re drowsy in the afternoons during conferences, with 2–4 p.m. the least productive time period. Fully half of all respondents said they were not satisfied with their ability to stay on track with diets or normal eating and exercise during conferences and 7 out of 10 said they consider good diet and exercise an important part of daily living. When asked how to promote a more satisfying meeting experience, 46 percent were in favor of fitness activities in the local area, such as guided walks or runs, and the same number thought spa promotions to unwind after meetings would be helpful. As for food, 52 percent voted for balanced menu options, including locally sourced and seasonal ingredients.
If these options are available, the survey found that four out of five attendees would be more likely to participate and to be attentive during sessions, which would increase overall meeting satisfaction and, as a result, ROI.
Hilton Worldwide took that information and created combination menus of healthful foods paired with activities, such as Yogurt & Yoga, a 50-minute, instructor-led yoga class paired with a menu featuring such items as watermelon, yuzu and mint salad with citrus-basil dressing; house-made granola with nuts; a chef’s choice of protein and savory; and seasonal fruit-infused yogurt. Other activities on offer: a one- or two-mile fun run or power walk and a 25-minute stretch session. Hilton’s Meditative Moment pairs a 10-minute meditation session with a customizable lean protein plus veggies or a fruit smoothie. Health and wellness menus are available at more than 40 Hilton hotels in the United States, a clear mandate for wellness and healthy food trends at meetings.
“Really, there is so much going on in the food and beverage industry right now it’s almost hard to keep up, Roach says. For planners who are faced with continually upping the ante in terms of creating spectacular and memorable meals and events, she has a few suggestions to help.
“Study menus when you are out to eat at new and unique restaurants and watch shows like ‘Top Chef’ and ‘Chopped.’ Take time to network with industry peers to share experiences, engage in culinary events at industry shows and work with your catering manager and culinary team as early as possible to create the new and unique experience you are looking for.”
There’s a good chance the chefs and catering managers will be very excited to partner in creating those experiences, and the event will be better for the partnership. I&FMM