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What's on the menu?

What’s on the conference menu in 2018, and is the industry getting what it wants? CN flicks through the list

Conference and meeting catering can often prove a sticking point. Sometimes event bookers do not question its quality in advance, but it is sure to be the one-thing delegates remember over anything else. Add to this the fact that delegates are increasingly looking for healthier options and with the rise of vegan and vegetarian requests, it’s never been more important to get it right.

In January, the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) held its annual Convening Leaders event at the Music City Centre (MCC) in Nashville TN. More than 4,500 attendees from all over the world were on site over fours days, which meant meal timings, food intolerances and the demands of an international audience all had to be considered.

MCC executive chef, Max Knoepfel, said: “We wanted to feature local dishes, however, not the typical heavy dishes often associated with Southern cuisine. We worked with local farms to source greens and vegetables. Then we looked at the event flow and attendees’ origins and determined what would be suitable to consume on the go that was also easy to eat.

“As the only REAL (Responsible Epicurean Agricultural Leadership) certified centre in the country, it was important that we provided a well-balanced menu, using compostable, sustainable and recyclable items.”

Closer to home, how often do event bookers raise catering as a serious issue with venues? Chris Peacock, director of agency Conference Care, told CN: “Catering is an important factor in selecting a venue, however requirements vary between clients. One of our wealth management clients for example will want to see menus prior to confirming any event, whereas others won’t be as rigid at the enquiry stage and are more likely to address menu choices after venue selection.”

Best of British

Jennifer Young, head of ConferenceLeeds

With such a vast amount of choice on offer when it comes to venues and their services, it’s essential that high standards are maintained across all aspects of an event. This is reflected in the recent British Meetings and Events Industry Survey (BMEIS) 2017, with both quality of food and service among the top 10 key influencing factors for venue and destination selection. Interestingly both of these factors were deemed more of a priority than the overall conference facilities themselves, so with this in mind it is important that conference venues ensure that their catering is exceptional. It is not only one of the largest expenses when putting on an event, but it also gives delegates the time to discuss ideas and network – which is vital for the success of a conference.

What's on trend in 2018

Julian Frost Wilson, regional head chef at The Jockey Club, Epsom Downs 

A good bacon sandwich on arrival remains a strong favourite for our delegates and sets the day up nicely. Sandwich lunches are also a keen choice for conferences, with speciality breads and gourmet filling options proving popular in 2018.

Byron Hayter, executive head chef, Ashdown Park Hotel

The food trend for meetings and events at Ashdown Park Hotel is definitely healthier than ever before, and the new menus I’ve been writing for 2018 very much reflect this. 

Jean-Michel Viala, executive head chef, QEII Centre

Traditional English options are still extremely popular for London events; fish and chips and sausage and mash are very popular with international audiences who want their delegates to receive a rounded London experience. We have recently returned spotted dick and custard to the menu and our crumbles and custard are always very popular.

Rodney Jones, group executive chef, The Cairn Group

There’s been a sharp rise in demand for juice ‘shots’ such as those with apple, ginger and turmeric. We’ve introduced our ‘Brainiac Shot,’ which includes spinach, kale, wheatgrass, yoghurt, lime and honey with a ginger, turmeric, lemon and apple cider vinegar chaser. This gives delegates a real boost in the morning and gets them ready for the day ahead.

Richard Harrison, head of conference centres at Warwick Conferences 

Our head of food has been seeking inspiration from the High Street to see what the latest trends for 2018 are. From this we have seen that street foods are starting to overtake the traditional catering offer, and there has been a growing preference for Cuban and Mexican cuisine.

Chris Mouyiassi, executive head chef, Luton Hoo Hotel, Golf & Spa

Delegates are always looking for something a bit different, whether that’s their venue, teambuilding activity or mid-meeting food. Individual bowl foods are looking to be popular this year; having small portions of different hot and cold foods allows delegates to enjoy a variety of dishes whenever they wish. 

Does healthy food come at a cost?

Tom Gore, food director, The Brewery

The idea that good food has to cost is an absolute myth. Often you have to be a little more creative, but it shouldn’t mean an increased spend. We focus on obtaining our ingredients from independent suppliers whenever possible and champion the incredible locally sourced produce that is often underappreciated in this country. The fact that suppliers avoid costly transportation fees means the savings can be passed onto clients and allows us to reserve budgets for the uniquely international produce that cannot be sourced locally.

Alex Darby, general manager, Royal Institute of British Architects

Simple healthy foods do not have to be expensive. It’s the luxury items added to dishes that can increase the cost; for example, adding a selection of seeds and nuts to a simple mixed vegetable salad. We work closely with our clients to ensure their healthy options are exciting and within budget.

Alan Dickson, head chef, No 10 Restaurant, Ten Hill Place Hotel in Edinburgh

Having healthier options during an event shouldn’t carry a bigger price tag. If planned correctly you can provide a nutritious meal without worrying about costs. We offer a ‘five-a-day’ package that swaps juice for smoothies, sandwiches for salads and crisps for vegetable chips which is the perfect choice for those wanting the healthy option. 

Is it about time?

Magnus Karlsson, head chef, Food by Dish

We work with the event organisers to make sure appropriate meals are served at the right times. We want delegates to get the most out of their time and a big part of this is the right health and nutrition. It's important we help to keep delegates focused and energised and a part of this is making sure they have breakfast, lunch, dinner and intermittent breaks for snacks and refreshments at the right times. 

Richard Storey, general manager, Woodlands Park Hotel

Traditional meeting set ups for an 8-hour day will ask for breakfast on arrival between 8-9am, then lunch between 12-1pm but we know that delegates now more than ever want to graze, so we provide mid-morning savoury snacks and afternoon fruits and snacks, too, so they can top up the tank all day if desired. Working lunches that are served in the meeting room will often be grazed upon for an hour or two – never more – so hence the smaller bites, and more bowl foods which are easier to eat on the go, form the basis of our in-room lunch options. We try to encourage delegates to take a break from the meeting and offer lunch in a separate space – we have an extensive new outside patio for break out lunches and post event drinks which we’ll open up in the summer months. We’re looking at outside dining options, too, such as a purpose built BBQ; a result of the growing demand for outside catering.

Alison Edwards, director of sales, The Grand Brighton

The ‘graze-all-day’ culture is set to stay and we have certainly seen more requests for all-day rolling breaks. It is important for these all-day refuels to be nutritionally balanced, as heavy snacks with a high sugar content are not good for maintaining energy levels. Organisers are opting for healthy fruit presses and platters, helping delegates to remain alert and engaged throughout the event.  

The gala dinner is less important in this context; social eating, tasting options or bowl food are trends set to stay. Clients want to create a memorable and engaging event, with food playing a big part in this. That said, when we do deliver a gala dinner format, we are seeing the need for restaurant style cuisine brought to the banqueting environment.  

How have trends changed?

Dave Shilling, meeting, event sales and planning manager, Park Plaza London Riverbank

We have seen an increase in organisers requesting locally sourced produce, and requests to know where food has been purchased. By providing this level of detail about our menus, we can show that we are both focused on cutting our carbon footprint, and on showing that everything we serve is fresh and sustainably sourced. 

We have also had a strong uplift in requests for ‘vegetarian only’ meals.

Tracy Carr, executive head chef, University of Sheffield

We keep abreast of the latest food trends and hold regular focus groups and conduct surveys to gain feedback from our customers. Through this we’ve noticed an increase in requests for special diet options such as gluten free, lactose free and vegan food. Due to this trend we have made sure to include foods that are suitable for these diets as standard in our menus. 

From our findings we have also developed a new vegetarian food only outlet on campus that is proving popular with our customers.