Debra Dohnert, senior manager of meetings and special events for the Association of International Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), has an important mantra she follows for the food and beverage functions she plans for the New York City-based association: "Imagine all the wonderful networking opportunities that will never happen if you do not incorporate elements that will get attendees talking," she says.
For Dohnert, these elements have included the likes of color-changing spoons and straws, martinis paired with manicures, lunch served in individual wicker picnic baskets, and edible designer handbags and shoes, just to name a few.
"In the meetings industry, we have to constantly push the envelope. We have to be bold and daring with F&B," she says. "I realize part of my job is to create conversation starters and memories. Nothing makes me happier than to have an attendee comment on the F&B at an event I orchestrated. That tells me that the F&B made a contribution to the dialogue of the meeting."
Dohnert is not alone in her approach. Due to a variety of factors, from the growing popularity of celebrity chefs and haute-cuisine reality shows to a greater interest in healthy cooking and eating, food and beverage is serving a more strategic purpose at meetings and events. F&B-related speakers, workshops, and events -- many can hardly be called "meals" anymore -- have taken on a greater portion of a meetings' itinerary as planners have found that the way to increase attendees' engagement is often through their stomachs.
According to Andrea E. Sullivan, president of BrainStrength Systems, a learning and performance organization, if the connection of the cuisine to the environment is strong enough, F&B can help to provide context for the content of the meeting.
"We learn better when all of our senses are engaged," says Sullivan. "Engagement of all five senses - sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch - trickles down into almost every aspect of a meeting."
There are several questions to be kept in mind, explains Sullivan. Is there variety offered for the many different diets followed in our culture? Is the food well-presented? Will the foods provided help or hinder alertness? Has an effort been made to incorporate sustainability principles?
Chef John Karangis, executive chef of Union Square Events is collaborating with planners on these questions more than ever before. "We see our guests wanting to interact with our chefs to understand more about our culinary philosophy, product sourcing practices, and menu customization," he explains. "It's worked out brilliantly for all involved."
As for current trends, Karangis says they include sharing plates, large format platters, and family style and/or communal dining. Existing trending interests like craft cocktails and locally sourced food are here to stay, he adds.