What’s on Your Plate?

By: Linda C. Chandler

While value and "bang for the buck" remain important, association food and beverage budgets are beginning to show signs of recovery. Chefs and conference venues in the West are ready to respond with menus that reflect current trends and tastes.

At the San Diego Convention Center, Executive Chef Jeff Leidy, who does double duty as a regional executive chef for the hospitality company Centerplate, is cautiously optimistic about his industry.

"Association planners are still holding counts and numbers close, but things are loosening some, maybe 10 to 15 percent," Leidy says. "Revenue is heading back up toward where it was before the slowdown. With more food and beverage events being scheduled, our outlook is improving."

Dave Larson, director of operations at the Inverness Hotel and Conference Center just outside Denver, agrees: "Although we see no splurging, planners may be spending additional dollars on a pre-dinner reception or upgraded dinner."

These observations reflect survey results published by Meetings & Conventions magazine last September, in which 49 percent of the planners responding said their food and beverage (F&B) budgets had increased over the past two years and only 16 percent said they'd decreased. More than half the planners said their attendees had become more demanding in their expectations of convention food and beverage.

"The proliferation of food [television] channels and cooking shows has resulted in more educated food consumers, and meeting planners can't just get by now," says Shaun M. Beard, senior vice president of Savor, the catering arm of SMG, which manages 31 convention centers across the United States. "And the demand for value is higher than ever, making creativity important."

Here's a look at what may be found on plates and trays at upcoming meetings and conventions.

Healthier Choices

Convention centers are seeing a demand for healthier foods and healthier approaches to food. "I think serving lighter meals is a great trend. Baked chips in boxed lunches, salad power, and more organic foods are big—but our members still like cookies in the afternoon," says Chris Vranas, executive director of the American Association of Orthodontists, whose 112th Annual Session will be in Hawaii in May.

"People are saying yes to more salads and are requesting less butter, sugar, and salt," says Leidy. But he cautions, "When serving what's perceived as healthy, the flavor has to be good and the presentation inviting. For instance, add fruit to your oatmeal, have a build-your-own granola buffet instead of packaged bars, or serve crudités in stemware with dip on the bottom to make it appealing."

Not everyone is into the trend. "While healthy options are standard," says Larson, "the majority of attendees we see tend to opt for the items that would not fall into that category."

Local, Fresh, Sustainable Foods

Part of the greening of meetings over the last decade has centered on local sourcing. It reduces an event's carbon footprint by minimizing transportation, while it also supports local suppliers. Fortunately, a large portion of the West has a longer growing season and abundant resources.

"We're going back to how our grandparents ate—fresh, local, seasonal, and not so processed," says Tahira Endean, CMP, creative and production director at Cantrav, a destination and meetings management company in Vancouver, British Columbia. Endean has seen local sources grow in importance. "Vancouver is one of the few places that has mapped local farms and wineries, so we can say where produce, cheese, and wine is coming from," she says.

Similarly, Larson touts Colorado's local meats—beef, lamb, buffalo—and trout. "Produce is plentiful but seasonal. The Palisades peach is among the world's best. Local and sustainable products are preferable from a culinary perspective, but they are usually not the most cost effective," he says.

Fresh produce, seafood, eggs, and dairy products are abundant in San Diego, too, says Leidy. "When we can buy in season, produce may cost less than commodity produce. … The bigger issue is whether local farms have enough capacity for the needs of larger groups, which could have thousands of people at a single meal function."

Chefs are also tuned in to sustainable seafood guidelines that look at the long-term environmental and ecosystem effects of producing and harvesting various species. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch and Canada's Sea Choice provide lists of best options, alternatives, and seafood to avoid. "Even if you're in Dallas," Beard says, "it's worth consulting with your chef because they are educated about suitable options for your menu."

Portion Control

Beard and Endean agree that smaller plates and smaller sampling portions are popular. "People love small plates for tasting the different flavors. We see it a lot. The more knowledgeable consumer is into that," Beard says.

Even better, says Endean, are smaller but interesting food and beverage pairings. For example, she's seen pulled-pork sliders served with apple cider and ribs nested on a scoop of potatoes served with a shot of dark ale.

Presentation does make a difference, says Leidy. "You have to be sure mini-portions like desserts look like someone took great care in preparing them. There's great appreciation for the artistry involved," he says.

Smaller portions and fun menus with multiple offerings are trends Larson sees on the rise. But he warns about trying to control costs through portion size: "Should attendees leave hungry, there is likely to be negative sentiment toward the planner and the facility."

Michele Polci, CPCE, CMP, director of citywide catering sales for Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas, agrees. "We would not want to lose the property's integrity. We are sensitive to the perception customers have of their overall experience, and we want to make the planner look good. You can go from 10 to 8 ounces of meat or do two different smaller meats on a duet plate, but it's important for your attendees to stay fueled," she says. "We'd rather help our customers find ways to streamline the linens or the centerpieces if a compromise is needed."

The Theater of Food

"When done correctly, theater—action stations, bands, strolling entertainers, and other sorts of diversions—tends to slow people down, giving them more chance to converse," says Leidy. "If food is the only focus, they tend to eat more."

One example: Vancouver's wine fairies made their first appearance at the MPI conference in 2010. They're now a regular attraction, says Endean. "Suspended fairies float away to fill your wine glass and return to you. We can do it in the convention center, hotels, or other venues, even outdoors. People are more willing to wait during such an experience."

Beard says planners should consider food integral to themed events. "The successful caterer wants to complement the event," he says. "We want to know the goals of the event and understand how food plays into the planner's goals. For some, it's more important than others."

Even comfort foods take on entertainment value when the presentation is unique. Larson cites a macaroni and cheese bar, where people make their own creations using a variety of meats and toppings.

The entertainment value of food is growing on the tradeshow floor, Beard adds. "It's not just a nicety to have food and beverage in your booth," he says. "Now we see a lot of exhibitors theme their food to match the booth experience, with a more sophisticated and quality focus. It's one more opportunity for the customer to say, 'Wow! What's that?'"

Special Meals

In another trend, convention centers and meeting planners are becoming more attuned to food allergies and dietary preferences. "Ten years ago, we didn't know what gluten was, much less that a lot of people need to be 'free' of it," says Endean.

In San Diego, Leidy says, not only are vegan and vegetarian big, but caterers are getting more requests for kosher and halal options. "It's a big challenge to address, since most convention centers don't have kosher kitchens and may have to bring in food from outside sources. Sometimes it feels like running a big restaurant with the number of different platings we need to do," he says.

Polci sees increased interest in sugar-free desserts and diabetic options. On buffets, using menu cards that indicate nuts, no sugar added, dairy, vegan, or kosher is becoming standard, she says.

The American Association of Orthodontists surveys its leadership and maintains dietary profiles of each board member, Vranas says. Of course, registration forms allow attendees to indicate their special meal needs in advance. "Eighteen percent of our members are international," he says. "When hosting a breakfast buffet for presidents of affiliates from 120 countries, it's essential that everything on the buffet is labeled."

Since meetings in the West tend to attract more pan-Pacific attendees, planners and caterers are prepared. Breakfast is the meal most affected, and many associations accommodate their attendees by featuring fish and rice on the breakfast buffet.

Tips for Success

Nothing replaces the planner's familiarity with what the association's attendees like. Keeping a history, surveying after the event, and talking to the kitchen staff about what was wasted can help better prepare for future meetings.

All our sources agree that planners must ask for a personal sit-down with the chef, where budgets, goals, and desires are shared. With everything on the table, the chef can make recommendations that creatively work within budget restraints and appeal to attendees' tastes.

Finally, people need time to enjoy the experience.

"One of the things I hope people understand is that the conversation that happens with a meal is so much more important than just consuming food," say Endean. "Let people slow down and learn from their peers. Don't dim the lights and show slides."

Linda C. Chandler is a freelance writer and editor based in Tyler, Texas. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Avoid What Doesn't Work

Sometimes, the best thing planners can do is learn from their mistakes and those of others. We asked, "What trendy thing have you tried—or seen tried—that failed?"

A few answers:

  • Tahira Endean, CMP, creative and production director at Cantrav: "One word: tofu!"
  • Dave Larson, director of operations at the Inverness Hotel and Conference Center: "The healthy burger. Whether turkey, veggie, or Portobello mushroom, if it isn't beef, it doesn't go over well."
  • Jeff Leidy, executive chef at the San Diego Convention Center: "Anything too contemporary, too difficult to eat, too different a flavor. It needs to be at least recognizable."

And what's the solution for serving unfamiliar foods? "When people are intimidated by 'authentic' food, it helps if is attractively presented and they know what the menu items are," says Michele Polci, CPCE, CMP, director of citywide catering sales for Caesars Entertainment. "Explain with labels on the buffet or information at the table."

Sidebar: Learn to Eat to Learn

With a master's degree in organizational psychology, Andrea Sullivan has a natural interest in how the brain works to absorb knowledge and learn. For the past several years, she has been speaking and writing about the effects of nutrition on the brain. Diet has a long-term effect on the brain, she says, but meeting planners who want their audiences to be alert and attentive for the short term can follow a few simple tips:

  • Keep meals light to minimize the amount of energy the body must spend on digestion.
  • Restrict the amounts of salt, sugar, and refined flours.
  • Balance proteins that perk up the brain with complex carbohydrates, which tend to aid relaxation and help with stress.
  • Offer fruit, cheese, and nuts at breaks.
  • Encourage hydration. Make water available throughout the day.
  • Save "comfort foods" for the evening meal.

Linda C. Chandler