by Andrea Doyle | September 01, 2013


Debra Dohnert, senior manager of special events and travel for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), follows one mantra for the numerous food and beverage functions she creates for the New York City-based organization: "Imagine all the 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 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. Through a combination of factors, from the growing popularity of celebrity chefs and haute-cuisine reality TV shows, to a greater interest in healthy cooking and eating, F&B is serving a more strategic purpose than ever 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 meeting itineraries as planners have found that the way to increase attendees' engagement is often through their stomachs. Here's a look at four strategies for using F&B to support the communication process at an event. 

1. Leverage Celebrity
One way to create a buzz is to have a celebrity chef get involved with the food and beverage at a function, either through a direct appearance or simply by having the chef's restaurants connected to the preparation of the food. And it has gotten much easier to make that connection in recent years. "As the events industry continues to thrive, we've seen more and more world-renowned chefs enter the catering world," says Arthur Backal, CEO and founder of Backal Management Group, the company that provides event management services to Apella, a meeting and event space located within the Alexandria Center for Life Science in New York City. Apella is affiliated with celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, as his restaurant, Riverpark, is its exclusive caterer. 

Backal says that while food has always been a source of entertainment for social events, today's influence of celebrities in social dining on the consumer level has led to that same innovation becoming more widespread in the F&B portion of today's meetings. 

One of today's hottest culinary rock stars is Guy Fieri, the restaurateur and host of the shows Guy's Big Bite and Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network. It's no secret that Fieri is a big fan of comfort food, but this celebrity chef also has a passion for F&B at events.
"It's important to understand that your attendees are human," says Fieri. "They are real people who have needs, wants, and desires. Yes, they can be required to be there, but if you really want them to tune in, you need to fulfill their senses, their desires, and their wishes. Food is something we take pride in. We love to talk about what we made for dinner last night or the restaurant we went to. When you go to an event, the food is a big part of your opinion of the event, be it good or bad." 

At the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami founded by Lee Schrager, the former head of food and beverage at InterContinental Hotels, Fieri showed how much fun meetings F&B could be. He slipped the sound engineer his personal iPod and started whipping up margaritas to the blaring tunes of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Fieri dubbed it his "rock 'n' roll food show," and the Guy Fieri Road Show was born. He has continued to appear at events, offering his blend of cooking demo and rock show. 

2. Create Food Experiences
Even if a planner can't afford to have Guy Fieri at their event, his approach to F&B can carry over to group meal functions. "Food should be viewed as a vehicle to entertain at meetings and events. If that's the starting point of the process, the options to merge F&B with the overall event experience become much greater," he says. 

According to Andrea E. Sullivan, president of Media, PA-based BrainStrength Systems, 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." 

When VIASYS Healthcare hosted a gala awards evening for its top sales producers at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, in Florida, the organization wanted the experience to reinforce the theme of the event, which was that their sales efforts were helping to create "A New Day" for the company. To start the evening, attendees gathered in the courtyard where a group of children dressed in butterfly wings handed out tiny envelopes. The attendees were instructed to open the envelopes. When they did, 70 butterflies were released into freedom. 

The group then interacted with wildlife that is native to the Everglades - brought to the event by Ngala, a nearby safari-themed meeting facility. The Ngala exhibition led directly into a ballroom that had been transformed into a detailed replica of the Everglades. As the group enjoyed a lavish show, a series of nature-themed courses were served, culminating in a dessert called "Dare to Dream," a confection designed to look like a flurry of monarch butterflies emerging from their pupae. 

"The dessert, which was served at the end of the evening, connected directly to the activity that began the event. This was a very powerful way to underscore the overall message VIASYS was trying to convey to the group," says Harith Wickrema, faculty member at Temple University and president of Harith Productions, the Willow Grove, PA-based production company that created the event.

3. F&B Should Be Accessible
As the role of F&B increases at meetings and events, how the attendees eat it is taking on added importance. 

Stéphane Bellon, vice president of corporate food and beverage for Kempinski Hotels, Europe's oldest luxury hotel group, calls this concept "eat-ertainment." 

In Kempinski's property in Vienna, Bellon designed a full permanent kitchen ("Die Kueche") where, during lunch or dinner, participants can gather around three cooking islands. "Food has and will always have a social role," adds Bellon. "The environment in which food is eaten at events should encourage socializing." 

In a group setting, Fieri prefers dishes that he calls "one bite, two bite." These are small servings that are passed on trays. A tip Fieri shares is not to give the same server the same tray twice. 

He also believes that the first thing that should happen when attendees walk through the door is that they should be greeted and offered a drink. "The point is to make food and drink accessible to people immediately," he says. "Nothing makes attendees ask themselves 'Why am I here?' more than walking into an event and seeing the service bar loaded up 15 people deep." 

This means having trays of cocktails ready to give as a welcome, but keeping it small and simple. "This doesn't mean you give them a 24-ouncer," says Fieri. "Give them a little sampling." 

An event where there is a tray of crackers and cubes of cheese isn't going to make much of an impression. Instead, if there is a chef rolling sushi, the event will take on added excitement. "Yes, there will be a cost difference, but the reality is you inspire people through their bellies," says Fieri. "Food is one of the most accessible ways to engage people." 

Apella's Backal suggests manning food and wine stations with knowledgeable servers who can interact with the attendees and facilitate networking. "Food and beverage is a common denominator for guests to bond over, but unexpected presentations and engaging servers can act as conversation-starters," he says. 

Carol Johnson, corporate meeting administrator for Tom James Company, a Franklin, TN-based manufacturer and retailer of custom clothing, makes sure the breakfasts she plans are creative. "We have breakfast from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., and our people are going to be in sessions the rest of the day, so I have to get them going," she explains. "I have omelet stations, waffle stations. People like to watch the chef as their breakfast gets made. I have to wake my people up and I do this by offering them lots of different things for breakfast. I want them to get their mind off the fact that they have to be in a session in the next few hours." 

AICPA's Dohnert recently had the challenge of creating a memorable lunch function for a group of 300, when the room they were meeting in at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis, was changed. Undaunted, she opted to create an impromptu picnic. Dohnert purchased wicker picnic baskets into which the chef placed lunches consisting of buttermilk-baked chicken breast, orzo salad with olive and artichoke, coleslaw, and cornbread made with the pastry chef's grandmother's recipe. Each basket also had lemonade in it. This "Out of the Box Picnic Lunch" was followed by a dessert reception created by the property's executive pastry chef, Simone Faure, which featured designer handbags made from cake and fondant, shoes filled with truffles, and other accessories made from chocolate. Called the "Sweet Couture" line, Faure can create anything from high heels to designer sneakers. Through a mix of fast thinking and delicious ingredients, the F&B event proved a highlight of the meeting. 

4. Make Local Connections
Impactful food and beverage gatherings should have a local flavor. In his show, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Fieri searches for local food, showcasing communities and their people. This approach can be taken for meeting F&B. 

"If you're meeting down South or in any other iconic area of the country, people are anticipating you're going to have something that is indicative of that area," explains Fieri. "If I am going to Texas for a meeting, I am going to expect someone to throw down some really good barbecue. If I'm going to New England, I'm going to anticipate there is going to be some lobster rolls somewhere." 

And to make it really work, the presentation must tie into the local destination as well. "We eat with our eyes before we eat with our palate," says Fieri. "If your event is themed around Cinco de Mayo, the environment should contribute to spotlighting the food. Some event planners say, 'I'd rather have really great ethnic food than I would all the decorations.' But remember that your meal will not feel as authentic when you're scooping it out of a plastic bowl as it will when you are scooping it out of a terra cotta bowl. The joint authenticity of the food and its presentation is important." 

Fieri adds that if you're having a taco night, make them authentic tacos. "Don't just dress it up with a piñata, a couple of sombreros, and a poncho," he says. "Have some real refried beans, real guacamole. Do a good carne asada, have a chicken adobo. People are expecting it."
Wickrema recalls an event he planned in Mexico where he went to a local marketplace in Tonala, a town not far from Guadalajara, to find props that would help turn the ballroom at The Westin Resort & Spa Los Cabos into a Mayan temple. His biggest find was a locally produced clay reproduction of the Mayan calendar that was perfect as a place setting for the dinner. The artisan of the piece didn't have enough of them for the entire dinner, so Wickrema commissioned him to create 60 more in his workshop just for the event. "It's the authenticity of the décor that resonates with the attendee, even if they have no idea what went into the creation of it," he says. "If you find that emotional connection, you add a little bit about the destination into your event."