How Event Planners & Vendors Are Adapting to F&B Restrictions

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How Event Planners & Vendors Are Adapting to F&B Restrictions

By Wendy Helfenbaum | Aug 6, 2018

As executive chef at the Wildhorse Resort & Casino in Pendleton, Ore., Jeff Sommer routinely juggles many plates. But a recent event for 145 guests gave him pause.

“We knew ahead of time that we had 20 dietary preferences, but by the end of the plate-up, we had an additional 25,” he recalls. “I’ve had many challenges, because dietary restrictions and preferences are definitely on the rise.”

For chefs like Sommer and other F&B vendors, it’s increasingly common to receive a long list of requests from planners detailing everything from severe food allergies, medical conditions (Celiac disease, diabetes), religious restrictions and personal lifestyle preferences.

“Over 10 years ago, there was a massive explosion in the number and types of requests for dietary considerations in menus and preparation,” says Ashley Mitchell, general manager at Avalon Catering in Atlanta, Ga. “I experienced a learning curve and worked to educate myself and team members as quickly as possible.”

As managing dietary restrictions and needs at events becomes the new normal, both caterers and planners are facing dwindling budgets, skyrocketing expectations and super-tight timelines.

“As planners, we don’t want to fail, and neither does the hotel or venue,” says Margie DiValerio, office services manager and special events coordinator for Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP in Philadelphia. “We want to make each other shine, so we have to partner together.

“People may not remember the meeting, the facility or the little gadget you gave them as a takeaway, but they’ll probably remember if the food was terrible or great, and they’ll definitely remember if the food made them sick.”

Implementing efficient and safe solutions to dietary restrictions can impede even the most organized workflow. With that in mind, we asked planners, chefs and catering managers how to address these challenges, stay on budget and execute top-notch F&B experiences for attendees.

Advocate for Attendees

“When people ask for dietary preferences, it’s really important to take these things seriously,” says Jessie States, CMM, head of meeting innovation for MPI. “This isn’t something planners can ignore or not do, because it’s a safety and security issue, and sometimes it’s literally life and death.”

Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM (MPI Rocky Mountain Chapter), president of Thrive! Meetings & Events in Denver, is one of 15 million Americans with food allergies. She says few planners truly understand the needs of people with dietary restrictions, but as she outlined during her recent MPI World Education Congress session “ADA: What’s F&B Got to Do with It?” planners need to get up to speed pronto. New wording added to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2008 protects anyone who has to consume or avoid specific foods to stay healthy and safe. That means planners have a duty of care at all times, especially if attendees or guests have medical conditions.

“I’m all about inclusion, and I don’t want to exclude people who don’t have food allergies, but we need to plan for the necessity, because it’s a medical need, and then fill in the rest,” Stuckrath says.

Asking for/Reporting Info

Forget open-ended questions or vague boxes on your registration forms, Stuckrath says. Instead, ask about specific allergies and medical conditions up front and very clearly under the disabilities category, and make those questions mandatory.

“If attendees click dietary needs, then you ask: Do you have food allergies? Do you have Celiac disease, diabetes or other? I always say ‘other’ because my friend Joe, who works for a CVB in Texas, has heart disease and is on medication that thins his blood. Any dark, leafy green actually counteracts his medicine and would make his blood coagulate, potentially causing him to have a stroke on site.”

After collecting dietary requests from attendees, tell your hotel and catering vendors right away, suggests Victoria Wasko, conference manager at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort in Tucson, Ariz.

“Communication is so important between planner and venue when it comes to the needs and expectations of guests with restrictions,” she says. “The earlier the planner can obtain information on attendees with restrictions or preferences, the better we can prepare for and anticipate their needs.” 

One complaint Stuckrath hears from hotels all the time: Planners who hand over a list of 400 people with dietary restrictions or preferences a few days prior to the event and let the hotel figure it out on their own.

“You can’t do that. Meeting planners need to be tracking historical information and numbers from the year before,” says Stuckrath, who suggests asking hotels how many custom meals got picked up versus how many extras had to be made.

States adds that most of your F&B needs carry over from year to year.

“Unless you’re planning a completely new event, your audience is likely not going to drastically change from one meeting to the next,” she says. “So if you had a lot of vegetarians, you can say, ‘In the past we planned for this amount,’ which can at least set the stage with the kind of requests you’re going to receive.”

In response to the rise of dietary restrictions and food preferences, some vendors have changed the way they operate, says Michael Barrett, general manager of Centerplate, the hospitality provider for the Baltimore Convention Center.

“We are more hyper-local with our sourcing than ever before,” he says. “We’ve made several menu adjustments to ensure we are consistently serving our guests with the highest standards. This means properly labeling and communicating that items are gluten free, dairy free, vegan, vegetarian, etc. On our catering menus, we ensure that our vegetarian options are also gluten free to help streamline processes as well as to reduce waste.”

Barrett’s team also tracks historical data and shares it with planners, and offers daily recap meetings to discuss food quantities.

“For example, we recently had an event where almost 50 percent of the kosher meals ordered did not end up being picked up at the meal functions,” he says. “We’ll work with planners to adjust that facet for next year.”

Hold Attendees Accountable

Relying on attendees to be proactive and accountable can be challenging, DiValerio says. When she plans her firm’s annual retreat for 120 guests, she’s very clear on her registration form. Yet, despite her diligence and advance communication with the venue for a recent event, one attendee forgot to disclose his shellfish allergy, which DiValerio only discovered the day after a shrimp cocktail appetizer had been served.

“It slipped his mind, but I won’t ever forget,” she says, adding that thankfully the shrimp was easy to avoid and not chopped up in another dish, which could have resulted in a medical crisis.

Planners also face the additional challenge of accommodating several mysteriously appearing and disappearing food demands. Some delegates request kosher or vegan meals that are then never picked up[MOU1] , resulting in food waste and extra costs. Stuckrath suggests asking guests on the registration form to respect the efforts being made on their behalf by picking up their meals.

“Send them a reminder two weeks out and one week out, and then talk to them at registration about the procedures in place,” she says. “Also, some planners publish their menu in advance, so people could read it. I know one association that did it, and they reduced their number of food requests by 75 percent.”

Eye On the Bottom Line

In addition to rising F&B costs across the board, planners may also notice that the increase in requests for different food options can add premiums to the invoice. And while accommodating a growing list of food allergens, intolerances and specialized diets may involve more work and expense for planners and F&B teams, combining needs and wants results in less waste, lower costs and fewer untouched custom meals, States says. For example, to reduce the number of kosher meals that don’t get picked up, planners should consider contacting those attendees to check if they can eat your vegetarian option.

Barrett says higher sourcing costs can be avoided by having one dish check off multiple components: vegetarian, vegan, dairy free, gluten free. He also includes these items in menu tastings so planners can pass along information to guests who will pre-register for those meals.

Wasko adds that with proper notice, her team can offer affordable choices for guests with restrictions.

“The more we know about the guests and expectations, the better,” she says. “We have fun, interactive menus that have ‘cook and grill to order’ menu items or a create-your-own approach that gives them the freedom to choose and enjoy the food they love. Grilling stations with steak, chicken, ribs and a separate grilling station with fresh vegetables and fruit are a big hit, and guests with restrictions can enjoy it.”  

Perfect the Onsite Process

Make it easy for your delegates, speakers, exhibitors and suppliers to experience your event without worrying about F&B by outlining when and how they’ll get special meal tickets or colored stickers on their name badges, who their onsite contact will be and how food will be labeled.

“Planners should ask and plan for the necessary materials on site, such as place cards that are clearly visible even in low lighting and have effective symbols to alert servers as to which guests require which meals,” Mitchell says.

Clearly labeling the ingredients, rather than just a tag like “dairy free,” is more helpful to those with dietary needs or preferences, adds Wasko, noting a shift in the way her venue’s chef creates menus for the entire resort.

“We now make it a point at banquet meal functions to have food items labeled with what they contain so guests know what they may or may not eat,” she says. “Labeling all food items is very effective and creates a smooth, non-stressful process for our guests.”



Forward-thinking Food Trends

In the world of meeting and eating, food can help tell your event’s story. Jessie States, CMM, head of meeting innovation for MPI, recently participated in an IACC panel discussion about emerging and innovative F&B trends that revealed some tasty options for planners.

3-D food printing and edible selfies. Combining technology, food, art and design, products such as Natural Machines’ Foodini customize culinary experiences via the internet. Participants select their recipe on a touchscreen, insert ingredients into a capsule and then create a 3-D food item. Edible photo booths like Selffee promote interactivity and dessert in one step.

“At our World Education Congress, people were printing their faces on cookies,” States says. “At some point, attendees will be able to print their own meals with their chosen ingredients.”

Portable food sensors. Attendees with allergies can know if a food item contains peanuts or gluten within minutes thanks to a portable, connected food sensor (

“It’s incredible; there’s one for gluten, one was for peanuts, or nuts,” States says. “It means your attendees are empowered to know for sure if there is gluten in something.”

Eating in the experience economy. Integrating F&B into your overall meeting experience engages delegates, builds connections and generates great marketing opportunities through shareability.

“Food can make or break an event,” says Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM (MPI Rocky Mountain Chapter), president of Thrive! Meetings & Events. “Attendees are going to talk about it, whether it’s good or bad. But if you can use food to be creative, energizing and inclusive, people will tell you it was great, or they’ll take pictures and talk about food on your social media.” 

The power of food. Perhaps the ultimate F&B trend is planners recognizing food as sustenance.

“It’s important that we fuel people who are learning and networking at meetings with the types of food they need so their brains are ready for that kind of activity,” States says. “Sugary dishes full of artificial ingredients aren’t healthy for our brains, for learning. Food can’t just taste good; it’s got to be invigorating for our minds to help us achieve maximum event engagement and learning.”



Diet and Allergen Trends

Most planners are aware of the various health and religious-based dietary restrictions, but beyond the basics, there’s a whole new vernacular to learn. Here are a few you may not have experienced yet, along with allergens that are becoming more common.

  • 95 percent of food allergies are caused by wheat, egg, soy, milk, tree nuts, peanuts, fish and shellfish, says Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM (MPI Rocky Mountain Chapter), president of Thrive! Meetings & Events. “But three that are rising are sesame, onions and garlic,” she adds. “There are more than 170 foods that people are known to be allergic to.”
  • Also known as the “caveman” diet, people following the Paleo diet eat plenty of protein and fresh produce, but avoid grains, sugar, milk, legumes and processed foods. In addition, they prefer organic eggs, grass-fed beef and chicken and wild-caught seafood and fish.
  • Fresh, organic, minimally processed foods and the trend towards less meat, fat and sugar are increasingly in demand at events, especially for breakfast and snacks. Delegates are also on board to consume things such as cactus water, jackfruit and alternative sources of protein.
  • Pescaterians are vegetarians who eat fish or shellfish. Lacto-ovo vegetarians won’t eat fish, but will eat animal byproducts such as eggs and dairy. Vegans won’t eat any animal products or things such as honey or sugar, which either come from or are refined with animal byproducts.
  • Those with milk allergies can’t digest casein and whey—the proteins in milk—which can be found in many food products, including salad dressings, processed grains, instant soup and even hot dogs.

 [MOU1]Probably because they wouldn’t find where these special meals were located…or they saw the sickly veggies offered as “special” meals and declined entirely.



Wendy Helfenbaum
Wendy Helfenbaum

Wendy Helfenbaum is a Montreal-based writer and TV producer whose destination spotlights, profiles and trend pieces have appeared in Collaborate, Ignite, Corporate Meetings & Events, Trade Show News Network and Costco Connection.