Research: Better Food Means More Work

Over the past decade or so, food and beverage (F&B) choices have become a much higher priority for most Americans, thanks to factors ranging from a renewed focus on health and exercise to the growing popularity of cuisine-based television such as the Food Network. 

As a result, meeting planners are now responsible for satisfying attendees who possess higher expectations for the quality and diversity of event cuisine, as well as those who need specialty diets, such as vegan and gluten-free. Demands for sustainable, locally sourced, ethnic, and just plain healthy food have also grown. Even in meeting breaks, fresh fruit, yogurt, and granola bars have gained popularity at the expense of cookies and muffins. 

Not only does this require much more attention to menus and suppliers on the part of planners, it costs more. Indeed, when we asked the 215 planners who responded to the Successful Meetings "2013 F&B Survey" between July 19-31, the single most challenging aspect of managing the food and beverage for their events was "managing costs." But there were also other concerns about the difficulty of diversity. 

Amanda Gonser, an event planner for Hillsboro, OR-based medical device maker Acumed, says her biggest challenge is "finding food that can feed all the different eating habits - vegetarians, meat lovers, only-white-meat eaters, allergic to seafood, allergic to gluten, etc. - and have it all still taste delicious." 

Clearly, the trend toward healthy eating plays a big part. When we asked our respondents to rate various F&B trends on how likely they would be to incorporate them into a program, healthy eating accounted for three of the top five priorities - incorporating fruit and vegetable side items, using health and/or nutrition as a culinary theme, and offering half-portions or smaller portions to attendees at meals. 

The other two of the top five were about one of the newest big trends in dining: using locally sourced ingredients. These were: Combining environmentalism (transporting food uses a lot of polluting fuel) with the promise of higher-quality ingredients; using locally grown produce; and locally sourced meats and seafood. 

But while more and more hotels and even convention centers are working with their catering staffs to use locally sourced ingredients where possible, it remains a challenge for planners, according to our respondents. 

Lynne Mealy, president and CEO of the International Association for Human Resource Information Management (IHRIM) says that her biggest challenge on the F&B front is that "working with the individual hotel properties limits what we can do regarding local produce and sustainable items - we are limited to what they offer." 

And if locally sourced items are available, "they are usually so costly it makes it not practicable," adds Lori Strong, meetings director of Burk & Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based business management firm for scientific associations. 

That said, locally sourced food and beverage also fall under the heading of sustainability, in addition to addressing issues of nutrition and quality. When asked about their sustainability policies, nearly half (48.8 percent) of the respondents to this survey said they usually incorporate food service vendors who buy locally and recycle, while 40 percent say that they distribute excess food to charitable organizations.