Food and beverage predictions for 2024 shows there will be more vibrant and bold culinary palettes and flavors with lighter and healthier dishes. Plant-based foods like meatless hamburgers made with quinoa, chickpeas and walnuts represents the transparency and purity of ingredients that are now popular. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten- and dairy-free options; quicker meals and mocktails are also among the trends planners and chefs will see in conference dining. Those same trends shape the meals we typically make and eat at home, so why should conferences be different? Not surprising, no one says they miss those interminable, heavy meals of conferences past — and no one is going hungry, either.
Matthew Samuels, program manager with SAP Global Marketing, a global producer of software for business management processes, sees a focus is on balance. “We’ve observed a shift in our approach to event dining, transitioning from the COVID-19 era when we primarily offered 100% grab-and-go options. Today, we’re moving toward a balanced mix of grab-and-go selections and traditional hot buffets. One notable trend we’ve noticed is the increasing demand for vegetarian and gluten-free options. Attendees are conscious of their dietary choices and seeking healthier and cleaner eating while traveling, which aligns with the broader focus on well-being.”
Another noteworthy change, he added, “is that we’ve shifted away from serving liquor at our events. Instead, we now offer wine and beer exclusively. This adjustment encourages responsible alcohol consumption, which creates a safer environment for everyone. In response to this shift, we see a rise in popularity of mocktails, which are often used as sponsorship opportunities.”
While the trend toward healthier eating has been on the rise for several years, Samuels said the pandemic prompted many of us to prioritize our health as we had more time to experiment with cooking and focus on nutritious meals. “Attendees have become more conscious of their food choices and the impact of nutrition on their overall well-being. An increasing number are selecting vegetarian and gluten- or dairy-free meals. Catering to this trend by offering nutritious and sustainable meal options at events and conferences is in line with current attendee preferences.”
Regardless of food trends, Samuels said a key objective of the SAP events team is to offer attendees an exceptional F&B experience at events, while also staying within budget.
“A prime example of our approach was with the Sodexo Live! team at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) where we introduced a fresh and innovative lunch experience centered around a ‘build-a-bowl’ concept, which can also be deconstructed to provide a more traditional hot plated meal,” said Samuels.
“This experience empowers our guests to craft their own customized bowls, choosing from a variety of bases, including greens or starch, a selection of protein options that include vegetarian and vegan alternatives, a hot vegetable component and a huge selection of toppings and dressings. By all accounts, it was a huge success; it resonated with all of our attendees and our food and beverage survey scores had never been higher.”
Another top priority for the team is sustainability at all SAP-hosted events. They make sure to align their food and beverage offerings with as many sustainable practices as they can. They’ve eliminated single-use plastics at all events. Water is always served from a bubbler with paper cups and/or a reusable bottle provided to all attendees.
According to Samuels, all grab-and-go item packaging and service ware must be eco-friendly, promoting reusable and recyclable materials. “We ask that all food be sourced within 50 miles of the event venue in order to use local, seasonal ingredients whenever possible,” explained Samuels, who’s mindful to reduce their carbon footprint and supports local communities, aligning with his company’s sustainability goals. To this end, they have also expanded their plant-based menu options to reduce the environmental impact associated with animal agriculture.
It’s important that venues are on board. “We like to work with venues such as the OCCC and vendors like Sodexo Live! who take into account energy-efficient food preparation methods, reducing food waste and donating unused food items to local charities,” Samuels added.
As to whether sustainability and health affect the budget, Samuels said yes, but that’s not a problem. “Locally sourced food product and sustainable, eco-friendly service ware often come with a higher price tag compared to conventional options. However, the decision to prioritize these elements should not deter companies from incorporating them into events as costs can be offset through sponsorships and marketing opportunities. It also aligns with the growing demand for responsible and eco-conscious event planning and helps enhance your brand.”
F&B should also be part of providing ample networking opportunities. “One of our primary considerations when planning an event is the importance of networking,” said Samuels. “We prioritize creating an environment that facilitates and maximizes networking. To achieve this, we strategically position our food and beverage offerings in areas where attendees gather to consume content or engage in meetings throughout the day. This approach allows attendees to enjoy meals at their convenience without the need to interrupt significant conversations or networking opportunities.”
In addition to ensuring seamless networking, Samuels aims for culinary variety and accessibility. He likes to maintain a balance between traditional hot buffet areas and readily available grab-and-go options. This ensures that his attendees have to spend less time contemplating where and what to eat, enabling them to focus more on taking full advantage of the diverse offerings and opportunities that the conferences provide.
Looking ahead, Samuels said, “Given the attention attendees are putting on what they eat and where they eat it, I think service and setup will be geared around easy, quick access with a priority given to keeping attendees consuming the content they came for and having uninterrupted meaningful conversation that helps them and the companies they work for.”
At the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), Sodexo Live! Executive Chef James Katurakes sees much the same. “One of the biggest trends we’re seeing here is the rising need for buffets to be inclusive for everyone. Planners are looking more for vegetarian and vegan options, and for dietary restricted meals to be part of a buffet or meal function rather than making someone feel left out by having to eat from a separate meal area.”
As planners have become more knowledgeable about sustainability, Katurakes said they also want to know more about a venue’s operations. The main question he gets asked by event planners is, “How are you operating sustainably and how can we decrease our footprint?”
“By focusing on minimizing the footprint of our operations and partnering with local businesses that support sustainable initiatives, we’ve become a hub for sustainable events,” explained Katurakes. “We started a hyper-local onsite garden. Our team partners with local ‘farmerpreneur’ Urban Smart Farms to operate the Center-to-Table Gardens — a 2,000-sf indoor aeroponic farm with over 80 grow towers. Annually, the gardens produce 50,000+ fresh, nutritious non-GMO lettuces, herbs and edible flowers. We’ve received positive feedback from both meeting planners and guests. They love that they can see where their food is gown and sourced. We also started a new partnership with The Honey Frame Co. Honey is sourced straight from a bee farm just north of Orlando.”
In addition, he noted, OCCC uses compostable, disposable service ware, which is popular with groups but had been challenging to procure. “With the upward trend of people better understanding sustainability, there’s a new market for compostable service ware. It’s easier for us to secure these items now,” he said. Asked what excites him in convention F&B these days, the chef said he loves the freedom to create new and custom menus for OCCC guests. Andy Baker, founder & CEO of RISE Health Group, recently had a program at Mountain Shadows Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“We’re seeing a trend toward healthier, lighter and more moderated meals. The days of three heavy, protein-rich meals seem to be fading,” said Baker.
Many of us don’t eat that way at home and don’t want to feel the need to detox after a conference due to an overload of heavy food. Balance is the solution. “If we offer a heavy dinner the night before, we aren’t going to have sausage, bacon, pancakes and eggs in the morning buffet. Instead, we may do a continental breakfast with pastries, fresh fruits, granola, yogurts and other light options that mirror what attendees would likely have at home. We’ve seen a positive response to that approach,” said Baker.
“It’s easy to say it’s stabilized but I think it’s grown. The perception of stabilization is because there’s now an expectation of healthy. It’s no longer a big topic because it’s not new. We’ve experimented with our meals over the last two years where we offered lighter meals instead of the heavy ones traditionally provided at conferences. The feedback we received about the food not being ‘typical’ was positive,” he said.
Sustainability thus far has not had a big impact on his group. They request water stations and try to leave as small a footprint as possible, but that’s a byproduct of their lean nature as a company and event, he said. While his program doesn’t include exercise or other activities, it does include an intentional 1.5-hour afternoon break between the education sessions and dinner to allow people to use the time for themselves, and many attendees use that time to exercise.
“We feel that offering the option to maintain a healthy lifestyle, along with the business side of the conference, enhances the networking experience. After all, if you don’t feel like yourself or feel you’ve overeaten or need to exercise, you’re not going to feel like talking and being social — at least that’s our philosophy,” said Baker.
Missy Holmes, director of catering and conference services at Mountain Shadows Resort, sees a build-your-own-menus trend. “This year, we introduced a Build Your Own Protein Bowl lunch menu. Attendees start with their choice of a base (greens or rice), have a variety of protein choices and many toppings to complete their bowl. Guests create a delicious plate for themselves and can accommodate allergies or preferences without the need for a custom option. Another trend,” she added, “is to provide a mocktail option in addition to a signature cocktail.”
Eco-friendly practices aren’t new to Mountain Shadows. Their team has long-focused on partnering with reputable, sustainably minded vendors with a passion for quality. They source the majority of their produce from a local organic farmer and their standard menus incorporate vegetarian options on every available buffet, many that can be easily adjusted to be vegan. We’ve also curated allergy friendly options for desserts that can be substituted on a menu to accommodate requests for vegan, gluten free and dairy free.
Holmes said planners want “readily available swaps to accommodate allergies and healthy modifications versus having to create entirely customized menus.” That includes snacks. “We have house-made protein bites and granola bars that are always a hit. Local fresh-press juices are popular, too.”
What Holmes finds exciting today is that planners understand the importance of quality F&B at conferences. “They want to impress C-Suite guests and are more willing to trust our culinary team and events team to be creative,” she said.
Bernard Foster, executive chef with Aramark at the Anaheim Convention Center, said taste and quality are always paramount regardless of time constraints. “It’s the duty of the chef to provide a meal that’s nourishing, satisfying, rejuvenating and, most importantly, flavorful,” he said.
Foster sees meal periods for large groups being streamlined to optimize attendees’ availability to attend program sessions. The shift is providing meals on-the-go via boxed lunches, food trucks, portables, grab-n-go options and added food stations to alleviate lines. Receptions, however, are still celebrations to welcome and thank attendees. These menus focus more on providing memorable experiences, where individuals can mark their moments in social gatherings where the food is themed, creative and fun.
He said reducing animal proteins and providing more plant-based options is now the norm. “It’s no longer a trend in the conference/meeting setting; it’s a fundamental part of menu creation,” he said.
Sustainability has long been front and center at Anaheim Convention Center. “As a LEED certified facility with green programs and initiatives already in place, planners and attendees are assured that the food being prepared is sourced locally, the disposable service ware is eco-friendly and food waste is being composted or donated,” he added.
That said, Foster noted some planners drill down on sustainability, seeking data on the distance the food traveled and details about disposable-product labeling to ensure compliance with California legislation. The center continues to have answers.
“We’re reducing our carbon footprint by sourcing new kitchen equipment that’s more energy efficient than decades prior, and we implemented our rooftop garden last summer,” he said.
In the immediate future, Foster believes spicy foods will take center stage this year as chefs understand more about how they ignite one’s tastebuds when paired with savory and sweet flavors, and how the capsaicin in peppers is extremely beneficial to an individual’s gut microbiome.
And then there’s every fusion imaginable, he continued, as chefs pair foods from different cultures in different ways to create experiences. “It’s a playground where we’re able to try new ideas and recipes without discrediting the origins of the dish,” he said. “For it to be successful, a chef needs to have a strong foundation and understanding of the culture’s flavors to create an item that works synergistically.”
The bottom line is this: Planners and attendees are asking for healthier, more creative, sustainably produced foods aligned with today’s diets, and chefs and venues are responding. Planners can expect next-level menus at their conference — not as a custom add-on, but as standard.
For Baker, the healthy trend is a positive professionally and personally. “Sitting down in educational sessions all day, eating heavy meals and drinking at nightly mixers isn’t the healthiest of lifestyles and it’s not consistent with my regular habits. I’m excited to see options to maintain my lifestyle on the road versus give up on it for a few days.”
Most attendees would agree. C&IT