by Leo Jakobson | January 02, 2015
A New Taste
With a return to luxury meetings and events comes an increased willingness on meeting planners' part to spend more on food and beverage, an area that saw significant cuts during the recent downturn.

"With food and beverage, its not just about having restaurants or catering," says Bellagio's Fasy. "It's about offering something unique and customized. For example, farm-to-table in the catering and banquet area is a unique experience that Five-Diamond luxury properties are able to offer meetings and incentive groups, or organic, that type of thing."

At The Cosmopolitan, Kurt Wuebbenhorst, vice president of sales, says: "We are finding organizers are interested; and focused on culinary and mixology highlights for their events, and they are creating experiences that their guests may not be able to participate in on their own. We are fortunate to have an amazing culinary team focused on delivering completely customized menus as well as new surprises to offer our return guests."

They aren't the only ones. Mandalay Bay's director of wine, Harley Carbery, and director of food and beverage, Sarah Johnson, a certified cicerone (or beer sommelier) preside over wine-versus-beer-pairing dinners available to groups with good-natured competitiveness. Next door at Delano, even the lobby bar Franklin is getting in on this trend beyond just offering craft cocktails with a carefully curated small-batch liquor list (particularly bourbons). One of the standard cocktails is the Daily Punch, a concoction left to the imagination of the bartender on duty, and they also create cocktails specifically for groups: a signature cocktail with something -- such as the color -- related to the company's brand. Vdara at CityCenter can arrange tastings of the organic wines it carries.

Another change is where luxury groups are dining, says Filipelli. "We are not seeing that formal sit-down dinner," he says. "They want more networking than at a traditional 10-top [banquet table]. They really do want to do multiple venues -- go to a restaurant, go to a club. There is an emphasis on food and on quality. There is also an emphasis on experience. They want to make it memorable."

Nicki Berthelsen, director of special events for the SLS Las Vegas's parent company, sbe, adds: "they want something more exciting than the three-course or buffet. We are seeing small plates and shared plates -- dining that is more interactive and exciting." One example is the SLS liquid nitrogen cocktail cart, which creates amazing smoking craft cocktails, she says, adding, "It's a great presentation."

Unique and customized cuisine is not the only change luxury group planners are demanding. "We still see a lot of banquet events that are very upscale, but what we also see a lot these days are health-conscious groups that like gluten-free foods and antioxidant to be part of their meals," says the Four Seasons' Tejada. "They are more health-conscious than we've seen in the past, and they are willing to spend for that. They're looking for good value for dollar, but they're certainly up for creating customized menus or menus that offer anti-oxidant [components]. Gluten-free cuisine is something that has been around, but it seems that antioxidant trend has come into the conversation more in the past six months."

When it comes to healthy cuisine, there are few kitchens that can compete with the food offered at MGM Grand's Stay Well Meetings facilities. While the Stay Well offerings go far beyond food -- MGM partner Delos Living works with the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics on everything from circadian lighting and air purification to hypoallergenic cleaning products and ergonomic furniture, as well as offering meditations guided by Delos partner Deepak Chopra -- it's an important enough element that there is a dedicated Stay Well chef.

"Making sure all the flavors are very pronounced" is important, says Stay Well Chef Justin Frederickson. "We create foods that help energize [attendees] for the rest of the day. There is a farm in Illinois growing vegetables just for us."

Portion size is a big part of Stay Well's success -- really it's part of any healthy diet -- but that also helps offset the extra cost, says Dominguez. The MGM Grand Stay Well Meetings facilities are just a "beta test," Dominguez adds. "We are having discussions about taking this company-wide to our luxury portfolio."

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This article appears in the January 2014 issue of Successful Meetings.