Creative, Engaging Dining Experiences Leave Attendees Satisfied With More Than Just the Meal
Denice Waldhuetter, vice president of PEC Meetings Company headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, never underestimates the power of keeping attendees well fed. “Food and beverage is such an engaging entity of every occasion,” she notes. “(We’re always asking) How can we make it unique? How can we make it different?”
One way her company makes meal functions stand out is by creating a series of interactive food and beverage stations where attendees can observe their meals being prepared, choose their seasonings and do a little sampling to help them decide what they would like to eat. She also says that placing food stations in strategic locations on an exhibit floor can help move traffic through the show floor. “They’ll head for the food,” she explains. “It is definitively the driver.”
Waldhuetter describes another interactive element her company is using. “We are doing a coffee station where we’re having a barista at the station. We can’t have a barista preparing every single cup of coffee, but they’re there engaging people. They’re talking about where the beans are from and how they’re roasted, and people are absolutely loving it.”
She’s also seeing a trend toward chefs making themselves available to interact with guests. She says the chefs may engage the customers by leading them to one of the food and beverage stations and describing how the dish is being prepared. “People love having the ability to speak one-on-one with the chef.”
“People love having the ability to speak one-on-one with the chef.”
— Denice Waldhuetter
Waldhuetter says that groups are moving away from having formal sit-down dinners unless there’s a specific reason for it, such as a presentation by a keynote speaker. She notes that this is especially true when a goal of the event is networking. In that case, having a series of food stations makes it easier for attendees to interact.
As the foodie trend has taken off with the proliferation of celebrity chefs and popular television cooking shows, attendees have become savvier and more health-conscious than ever before.
Travis Taylor, executive chef at Sunriver Resort, A Destination Hotel in Sunriver, Oregon, explains. “We’re seeing group requests focus on dishes made from healthy foods that cater to a range of dietary needs. (We’re offering) more diversity, more options on a buffet, more snack-throughout-the-day options vs. a 30-minute lunch window. We’re also seeing groups putting food selection vs. price as the primary driver of their menu planning. In years past, groups were very price sensitive and would care less about the food they were offering than the price. Today, that’s changed, and we see meeting planners and group heads selecting a menu based on diversity and their groups’ dietary needs.”
Thinking Outside (the Meeting Room) Box
Andrea Strauss, president of Classic Conferences in Hackensack, New Jersey, came up with a creative setting for an opening night food and beverage reception she planned for a pharmaceutical company’s national sales meeting in February. The event had 1,800 attendees and was held at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel in Orlando. The group bought out the 758-room Swan as well as two-thirds of its sister property, the 1,509-room Dolphin.
Strauss worked with the hotel to have her event on the causeway that runs between both properties. “The property is really big, and I felt that it was a great way of tying both properties together so they’re treated as one property,” she says. She wanted to hold the event outdoors since the attendees would be spending their days indoors in meetings. “The hotel was great in working with me on this,” she added, noting that not all properties would have been up to the challenge of bringing in the power, lighting and other elements that would be required to host the event. The theme she chose was a wine and art festival, and since the group was so large, they also arranged to use the Lakeside Terrace at the Swan for additional seating.
She notes, “This was not an inexpensive evening, but it was so worth it. I basically had one big, clean canvas, and that’s what I had to work with, so I had to bring everything in. We had all kinds of food stations and highboy tables, and the food and the wine was indigenous to Florida. It was really nice.” She also booked a variety of “walk-around entertainers,” including musicians, caricature artists, palm readers and a stilt-walker. Strauss did another event for the group at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which she said was fantastic, but with the causeway party, she was able to avoid the cost of arranging ground transportation.
Proof of the success of the causeway party came on the group’s evaluation forms. “It was the highlight of the trip,” Strauss notes. “I honestly thought it would be Hollywood Studios, and it wasn’t. That’s a really big endorsement. I think they should do them more often.”
The Local Focus
Waldhuetter says that the farm-to-table (also known as farm-to-fork) concept continues to be popular at food and beverage events. “I don’t think it’s anything new, but it’s trending in an upward way. People love to know that their food items at a specific location have been grown and prepared locally. They like to learn a little bit more about these artisans that have prepared these foods, and it just makes it a much more engaging experience.”
“It has been taken to a new level,” explains Rick Shell, executive chef at Suncadia, A Destination Hotel in Cle Elum, Washington. “Today, many of our conference diners are travelers and desire and demand local ingredients. Staying true to local growing seasons goes a long way with ensuring menu continuity. If possible, onsite gardens, no matter how small or large, add a strong presence to ensure that food practices and quality are adhered to. Having your fingers in the dirt gives you more respect for the product that you work with, and in return, gives the guest a great dining experience and memory.”
Josh Berry, executive chef at Stowe Mountain Lodge, A Destination Hotel in Stowe, Vermont, puts a unique twist on locally sourced foods. “Here at Stowe Mountain Lodge, we are experimenting and seeing success with ‘globally local’ menu items. Guests come to Stowe Mountain Lodge to experience the best in Vermont cuisine. We provide a unique dining experience by using products from Vermont purveyors and farmers, but then making them interesting with the addition of an exotic, far-away spice blend.”
He shared an example. “I love seasoning New England venison with Ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice blend. The warming spices in the Ras el hanout (cinnamon, clove, cardamom, ginger, mace) foil the gamey flavor of the venison, and it works perfect! (We do) the same for our local cheese displays with our groups. We also grind fennel into our mustards for that little something special. Star anise is blended into our fruit chutney, or Italian white truffle is added to Vermont Mac & Cheese. This is not the fusion cuisine of the ’90s; this is the enhanced local cuisine of our times.”
The Balancing Act
While the trend is toward offering more healthful menu choices at meetings, not all attendees are on board with that idea. “Our company has found that we do have to offer healthier items,” Waldhuetter notes, “but on our evaluations, people are still going to complain if they don’t have their bacon-wrapped water chestnuts. We certainly want to meet all the needs of our attendees, and one of the things we’re looking at, too, with the less healthy options, particularly on breakfast buffets, is that we’re requesting that the hotels cut the doughnuts and pastries in half. Individuals that are more health conscious, but don’t necessarily want to cut out a nice jelly-filled doughnut, can have an option of tasting it or having a little morsel of it.”
Tom Garcia is vice president and general manager of Eaglewood Resort & Spa in Itasca, Illinois, an IACC-certified conference center that is part of the Benchmark Hotels & Resorts portfolio. “The experience that we try to create is unique, creative, memorable and thoughtful,” he says, adding that for coffee breaks, for example, they are using fewer processed or prepackaged foods. We’re putting things out that are warm from the oven that are good for you, that are creative, such as vegetables that are grilled. We’re doing fun pizzas with beet crusts, or tamale crust pizza. We’re trying to give our guests a little bit more excitement when they come to the break.” His team is now developing a concept for fruit sushi to be served at breaks. “Instead of it being fish in the sushi, we’re going to put things like papaya or kiwi for color, or maybe banana. They’ll be wrapped up in our seaweed and laid out just like sushi, and we’ll maybe add a strawberry coulis or some type of coulis that will add the flavor so that it not only looks good to your eyes but you feel good about eating it.
“What we try to do is that thoughtfulness, like the superfoods or the antioxidants. We try to make sure the proteins are there and the healthy fats. There’s a lot of labeling that we do here. We want to be very transparent to our guests and keep up with healthy trends. We want foods that are healthful and high in flavor. For locally sourced, sustainable food, we try to bring the story to the table: ‘This is our region. It’s a local item. Here’s how we’re preparing it.’ ” He noted that in the future, Eaglewood would like to take this transparency a step further by labeling items with their nutritional content.
While offering healthful choices is undeniably important, Garcia also acknowledges that some groups still want their sweet treats. “We still have fun stuff. If somebody says ‘We’ve really got to have M&Ms or we really need to have some gummy bears,’ I tell our chef, ‘Just make it small.’ They’re still there, just not in large containers.”
Addressing Special Requests
Waldhuetter says that there is a growing need to address food allergies. “It is definitely something we have to pay attention to every day now. There were always food allergies, but this has really escalated in the last three to four years.” She says that her company learned how to handle this issue the hard way. When they were working on a convention for 3,000+ attendees, the registration form asked attendees if they had any food allergies. What PEC got back, instead, was a list of every food item the attendees didn’t want to eat. “So what we do now is when we’re asking for a food allergy, we term it better.” They now ask attendees if they have a doctor-diagnosed food allergy and list the top five, such as peanuts, lactose, gluten, etc.
They also ask attendees if they want a vegetarian option. “Otherwise, we will be inundated at the time of the event,” she describes. “If we’re going to do a food buffet or do passed hors d’oeuvres or a food station, we are going to have meatless options.” As for any attendees who may have any other special dietary requests, it is up to them to make their needs known.
In response to the high demand for gluten-free menus, PEC recently did a buffet that was all gluten-free. She said that it spared the expense of having to prepare two versions of each dish, and they were able to do it without compromising the quality of the food.
As Shell explains, “With today’s busy lifestyles and work schedules, food preferences, diets and food allergies must be on the forefront of menu writing and development. We pay attention to these diets and dining habits when writing our culinary menus. We also take it a step further…by creating special dietary and allergy menus for our guests to order from. This creates a sense of respect and confidence for guests in their dining requests and shows that we are comfortable and equipped to handle such requests.”
Keeping It Fresh
Garcia stresses the importance of keeping menus fresh and exciting for the benefit of repeat guests. “We’ve got about a 60 percent return rate on our guests that come back. They want to see new things. You have to keep thinking of the next thing.
“Our key is really putting thought into the food and giving creativity back to the chef. My chefs study. We read a lot of literature. We attend shows. This year, we’re doing the James Beard in December. In our company (Benchmark), we’ve created what’s called the Culinary Council. It’s a group of five chefs that brainstorm.” He explains that the chefs come from different regions of the U.S., so they represent different types of cuisine. “(We tell them) ‘Let’s see how we can put all of this together and share it with our other properties throughout our portfolio.’ ”
I’ll Drink to That!
Trends in cocktail receptions also change with the times. Waldhuetter likes to make cocktail receptions interactive and engaging by creating a specialty drink that is indigenous to the area where the meeting is being held. “For instance, if we were in Arizona, we might do something with cactus juice. In Wisconsin, we’re known for what’s called an Old Fashioned. We also create ‘sippers’ — they’re just in a smaller glass. It’s more of a taste, and if they enjoy that type of cocktail, they can have the bartender make them one.” She adds that it’s a good way to reduce waste because attendees won’t get a full-sized drink unless they really want one.
Waldhuetter notes another trend that ties in with the popularity of locally sourced products. “Another thing we’re doing is highlighting a local distillery. There seems to be more and more distilleries and craft beers, of course, that are popping up. So we will oftentimes have the brewer or the distiller on hand who will be doing a tasting also talk to them about the process of distilling. However, we are finding that in more and more states that you can’t free pour the liquor. You’ve got to mix it with something.” She adds that she has done this at offsite venues, but that it would be up to the hotel as to whether they would allow a vendor to bring outside liquor in. “It depends on the depth of the contract.”
Waldhuetter also notes that martini luges (ice sculptures used for dispensing drinks) also are trending back. “We do a lot more lately with hyping the brand of the company (sponsoring the event). What we are also doing tons of now is an ice beer wall. It could be any dimension, but it’s carved, but in sections that are put together, and the beer goes into holes. People can self serve, pull the ice cold beer out of this bar, and there you go, once again engaging them. It’s such a unique way to bring people together.”
She explains that there’s a side benefit to using a company-branded martini luge or ice beer wall: People love to post photos of it on social media. “You can even have an interactive occasion through Instagram where people upload their picture of them at the ice beer wall with their beer bottle and everybody that participates can be put into a raffle to win a prize. It gets the company name out there in this particular city at this particular venue. It ties into the branding.”
Food and Beverage Minimums
Waldhuetter also is passionate about protecting her clients’ bottom lines by paying particular attention to how the hotel’s contract terms for food and beverage minimums are handled. She explains, “Many hotel contracts have a food and beverage (F&B) clause that requires a group to generate a minimum amount of food and beverage revenue through the course of the meeting. The food and beverage clause goes on to state that if the minimum amount of revenue is not generated, the group is responsible for making up the difference. The food and beverage clause will require the shortfall plus the tax.”
She advises how to handle this clause. “Do not agree to a contract that requires monetary damages based upon lost revenue. In the case of a breach, food and beverage damages should be based upon lost profit. If a group signs a contract with a $50,000 minimum, but only realizes $40,000, the hotel has lost the benefit of the $50,000. However, it does not make sense to pay for the full amount of $10,000 (difference between the minimum and the actualized expenditures). Despite the shortfall, the hotel never had to order the food, pay any staff to prepare it, or serve it.
“Calculations for damages should be based upon the amount the hotel did not realize minus any expenses that would have been incurred if the minimum had been met,” she continues. “A large number of hotels agree that 35 percent is the profit margin on food and beverage. Therefore, a group should only agree to pay 35 percent of the shortfall.”
The Taste of Success
The food choices offered can have a significant impact on an attendee’s satisfaction level with an event. “There is no doubt that our conference diner is a much more savvy and food-educated individual,” Shell notes. As Garcia explains, “We want them to leave feeling good about everything that happened (while they were here), including the food and beverage experience. He adds that the concept of people gathering together to share a meaningful dining experience dates back for years, if not centuries. “It’s called breaking bread.” C&IT