Food & Beverage TrendsMay 14, 2024

Simplicity & Health Meet Sustainability By
May 14, 2024

Food & Beverage Trends

Simplicity & Health Meet Sustainability
Providing buffets is an easy way to give attendees options. (Pictured) An event for SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Councils and Networks members at the SEMA Show last year in Las Vegas. Courtesy of SEMA

Providing buffets is an easy way to give attendees options. (Pictured) An event for SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Councils and Networks members at the SEMA Show last year in Las Vegas. Courtesy of SEMA

One key challenge for association planners is keeping up with the attendee preferences for food and beverage while at events. Today’s trends reflect a growing interest in simple, healthy, sustainable and memorable culinary experiences — everything from customization, interactive experiences, and global flavors to healthy foods and artisanal, zero-proof beverages.

Preferences for healthy and sustainable cuisine have been finding their way onto menus for meetings, trade shows and events, with a focus on local and seasonal ingredients and plant-based options. The rise of plant-based diets in recent years has led to a greater demand for vegetarian and vegan options and continues to be a trend at events.

“Plant-based requests are not going anywhere,” says Victoria Chivers, MGM Resorts vice president of convention services & catering. “The shift is moving toward whole plant-based proteins like legumes, nuts, seeds and mushrooms that align with both health and sustainability goals. Additionally, we see guests enjoying simpler dishes that celebrate the vegetables themselves and highlight fresh produce.”

For breaks and packaged snacks, attendees are looking for food and beverages made with simple, whole ingredients, according to Chivers. “They are moving away from overly processed foods with long ingredient lists containing unrecognizable ingredients and want packaging that is sustainable and products that meet several dietary requests.” One of their favorite cookie suppliers, Love + Chew, provides superfood treats that are vegan, paleo, non-GMO and gluten free.

Tina Wehmeir, president & CEO of AMC Institute (AMCI), agrees that healthy options are still popular. The AMCI 2024 Annual Meeting was hosted at Mandalay this winter for some 250 attendees, and included a menu filled with vegetarian options such as cauliflower steak.

According to Michele Polci, CPCE, CMP, director of Citywide Catering Sales, Las Vegas, for Caesars Entertainment, the current trend they are seeing this year is also an increased interest in wellness and health food. “This doesn’t necessarily mean diet food though,” she explains. “What we’re seeing is an interest in nutrient-rich catering with fresh, high-quality ingredients to support overall health and vitality. This could include anything from the always trendy avocado toast to specially designed continental breakfasts with healthy choices and refreshment breaks themed around immunity shot drinks.”

In response to the wellness trend, Caesars has adapted its catering menus to include wellness items that are marked with leaf icons on the menu to ease the process for planners of sorting through all the options.

Sustainable Foods

Sustainability is a growing concern in the food and beverage industry, leading event planners to prioritize eco-friendly practices. This includes reducing food waste, using compostable or reusable serving ware rather than single use plastics, and sourcing ingredients from sustainable suppliers.

Chivers says attendees are becoming more interested in what they are putting into their bodies and the impact their food choices have on the environment and communities. She notes that MGM Resorts’ focus on sustainability starts with its sourcing strategies. “Educating our customers of these efforts during menu planning allows them to select items that meet their sustainability goals.” Some groups are very interested in sustainability as a company, and it gets carried over to their meetings and events, according to Polci. “This usually looks like sourcing food as locally as possible, seasonal menus, and incorporating innovative vegetables into menus.”

Tom Gattuso, vice president of events for SEMA (Specialty Equipment and Marketing Association), which organizes the annual SEMA Show for some 160,000 attendees at the Las Vegas Convention Center, also sees attendees leaning toward healthier options.

“At the same time, I think there’s a balance to it, so you can’t just skew all the way to healthy,” Gattuso says. “You’ve got to have a good mix because you do have a big variety of dietary preferences when you’ve got an event the size of the one we produce.”

Food costs are another focus for associations. Affordability is always on the minds of SEMA’s attendees when it comes to show floor concessions and meals, Gattuso says. “We try to work with our partners on having some options that are good, valuable and affordable. I think one of the things that you run into is that sometimes the pricing can be different from one marketplace to another. And depending on the region, or the specific city that show is in, pricing can vary.”

Polci says she recommends planners work with the hotel service managers to work with F&B budgets, and to remind them to be flexible. “By leaning into seasonal ingredients that are readily available, you’ll typically find a more economical price point. Your service manager will also know what other groups are doing, often if you can marry the menu with the other group, budgets can be accommodated as the property is already producing the food, which will save on labor.”

Customizable Menus

There is also a trend toward customization and personalization of menus. Event planners are offering more customizable food and beverage options to cater to individual preferences and dietary restrictions, including build-your-own stations for tacos, salads, or even customized cocktails.

Wehmeir says, “Some of our groups are doing more action stations which gives the attendees more opportunities to try a different variety of foods, as well as offer a little something for everyone — providing vegetarian, vegan and gluten free options. Also, it’s great for networking.”

Polci notes that banquet menus can be purposeful in offering a host of possibilities to cater to dietary preferences. “You can have an event for 1,000 people and can count on at least a 100 of them to have different allergies or dietary restrictions.” She says there is an advantage of hosting a cocktail reception-style menu over a plated meal, with the biggest benefit being the networking opportunities. “You can move around, chat with more people, and select exactly what you want to eat. There’s also the opportunity for additional creativity that can be injected into a small bites menu or incorporation of a carving station, poke station or dessert station that can incorporate unique activations by one of our chefs or team members attending to specific options to the delight of attendees.”

Monica Sober DeNio, vice president, meetings & special events for NAHB (National Association of Home Builders), also focuses on networking opportunities with meal setups. For executive networking dinners, she says they prefer family-style service for the main course and a reception-style format for desserts. “This approach enhances networking opportunities, offers a diverse range of food options, and significantly elevates the overall experience.”

Dinners begin with elegant displays, including charcuterie boards or antipasto displays, followed by two to three additional courses, depending on the cuisine, served at large-format tables. “Afterward, we transition to a reception-style dessert, featuring chef stations pairing interactive dessert presentation with after-dinner style cocktail pairings. This setup fosters more organic networking opportunities and consistently receives positive feedback,” she says.

For larger parties, NAHB can offer a variety of chef-led, composed small plate stations. For instance, one station might offer a few slices of filet with bites of risotto, another a crudo station, and another a small mezze plate. These arrangements are more visually appealing than buffets and the composed plates feel more sophisticated.

“For our trade show activations, we have been focusing on expert-led experiences such as mozzarella pulling with a local chef paired with a sommelier-led wine tasting or a mixologist making varieties of expresso martini’s paired with artisan chocolates on a beautiful display,” Sober DeNio says.

She is also focusing more on “build your own” market-style event lunches, where attendees are given a container and market bags and they can select from a variety of cut sandwiches, an assortment of pre-packaged side salads, pastas or options like hummus cups with vegetables. They then go to a beverage station where there is an option of sodas, vitamin waters, flavored sparkling waters, artisan iced teas and more. “It feels like they are stopping by their favorite gourmet grocery store at home.”

Global flavors and fusion cuisine are also trending, as event menus incorporate international flavors for added diversity. Attendees can taste everything from Asian-inspired street food to Latin American fusion dishes.

“Third culture cuisine is an ever-evolving trend we expect to see more requests for as people continue to travel and connect across cultures,” Chivers says. “We’re also seeing a rise in popularity for mash-ups of traditional foods such as macaroni and cheese, pizza and French onion soup, in addition to bringing back nostalgic comfort food from the ‘80s and ‘90s with a modern twist. A great example of this is Retro by Voltaggio at Mandalay Bay, which serves nostalgic throwback dishes and drinks like VoltaggiOs, Wagyu Beef Pot Roast and Jungle Juice.”

She adds that with cooking shows and culinary experiences continuing to grow, and as attendees and planners expand their travel, groups can expect to see even more innovation, and fusion dishes emerging featuring global influences.

At the SEMA Show, Gattuso says there is a focus on having regional options so attendees can taste a variety of foods. He suggests an important first step in the process is aligning with the partner and supplier. “Make sure they understand the vision that you have for the event and make sure they understand, to a certain extent, the demographic profile of your main core attendee, because a lot of people will miss that. And you really do have to play to that core attendee. We spend a lot of time understanding who our audience is, and then going to our partners and making sure that they understand that. We’re able to come up with options that we are proud to present.”

When it comes to beverages, artisanal cocktails, small-batch wines and local craft brews are in high demand. There has also been a shift toward zero-proof and low-alcohol options, including alcohol-free mocktails and alcohol-free beer and wine.

“Attendees love to have the option to alternate between a drink and a zero-proof cocktail during events,” Polci says. “This offers flexibility as we all are on different health journeys and may choose not to drink. It also makes the experience more inclusive.”

She adds that lower calorie options are still popular, such as vodka soda and lower calorie seltzers, which she says are a “home run” for outdoor events in the summer months.

Wehmeir is also seeing more mocktails at the bar. “We are beginning to look at an alcohol-free wine to serve at lunch for some associations.”

Chivers says that functional beverages that offer health benefits are still trending and growing in requests. “While zero-proof cocktails are requested, the focus is more on beverages infused with ingredients that improve overall health.”

For those who do choose an alcoholic beverage, Chivers says, savory cocktails using ingredients you would traditionally see in the culinary world are becoming very popular. For example, the Tomatini from LPM at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas is quite popular, made with lemons, tomatoes, vinegar and Ketel One.

The SEMA Show audience also still favors alcoholic beverages. “We’re probably a little bit old school where we still have a good number of people who are drinking alcohol. But we definitely make sure to have some non-alcoholic options available,” Gattuso says. “And we have had a few events where we’ve had the partner make a signature drink. That’s always fun.” He says whether the drink is alcoholic or non-alcoholic, having signature drinks makes for a fun networking icebreaker as people like to see which drinks fellow attendees choose.

Sober DeNio says for NAHB shows and events, they collaborate with venues and chefs to introduce local bar activations, which make the experiences feel unique by featuring local distilleries’ spirits or craft beers from local breweries.

“The venue can work with the local supplier to source the inventory, and the costs are typically comparable to other hotel offerings. This approach adds an experiential element. For example, having a couple of local breweries provide an expert to discuss their beers at a few different stations can create an instant theme event with beer garden atmosphere, or you can partner with a local distillery to do tastings or offer mixology demonstrations featuring their spirits.”

Whether featuring locally sourced and seasonal ingredients, plant-based menus, or customizable and interactive food and beverage stations, the trend toward simple, diverse and health-conscious F&B offerings is a driving force for meetings and events. | AC&F |


Back To Top