Convention Centers: A Better Banquet

When Stacia Brocco took over as director of education and events for the Phoenix-based Arizona Multihousing Association (AMA) two years ago, food was one of her top priorities.

"The biggest complaint I had to address concerned the food at the convention center," she says. An opinionated lot, the AMA members didn't like the food they were being served at the several events they attended there each year.

Fortunately for Brocco, it was around that time that Aramark launched Aventura, a new catering brand exclusive to the Phoenix Convention Center. Although technically part of Aramark, Aventura is marketed as an independent, luxury-level catering company that promises a higher quality of food than one might normally expect from a convention center. According to Brocco, it's delivering on that promise.

"Now I get comments like, 'I don't know how you're going to top last year's food,' " Brocco says.

The relationship between the Phoenix Convention Center and Aramark's Aventura is one example among many around the United States and in Canada indicating the convention center industry's renewed focus on food and beverage. Driven in large part by increased competition from resort hotels (which upgraded their own food-and-beverage programs dramatically over the past decade), convention center management teams are going to great lengths to improve their culinary offerings. They're building enormous kitchens and fitting them with top-of-the-line equipment. They're poaching top chefs from resort hotels. They're building menus on local ingredients and making a strong play for the sustainability market. They're not only following in the footsteps of resort hotels, they're trying to beat the resorts at their own game. All across the continent, convention center management teams are trying to transform what was once the home of the rubber chicken into a platform for real culinary artistry.

Feeding the Masses
Because most convention centers are municipally owned, foodservice has traditionally been approached from a bottom-line perspective. Contracts went out to bid, and the low-cost provider won the deal. But market demand is changing all that, and convention centers have been forced to upgrade their culinary offerings to remain competitive.

"We're competing with all the hotel and event spaces throughout the city, and certainly in that dynamic, food plays a big part," says Chris Bigelow, president of Kansas City, MO-based food- and merchandise-services consultancy The Bigelow Companies. Of course, if a planner needs three million square feet of space, then he or she will go where there is three million square feet of space available. But, convention center managers say, when there's a choice to be made between facilities, food is, along with technology and accompanying hotel product, one of the top three determining factors. As a result, Bigelow says, "More and more managers are realizing that they need to look at the training of the chefs and the quality of the food, and really become more involved in the whole qualitative—rather than strictly quantitative—analysis when selecting a caterer."

Particularly for smaller centers, competition from hotels and resorts is fierce. "Food and beverage plays an absolutely huge role in differentiating ourselves from the competition, so everyone is pulling up their socks and getting better," says Andrew Pollard, director of food and beverage for the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre, in British Columbia, which has about 90,000 square feet of exhibit space. Maintaining a level of F&B quality that is comparable to that of hotels is so important that Pollard even includes a clause about it in his standard contracts. "Most of the better hotels in town—the Four Seasons, the InterContinental, the Fairmont—are producing a high-quality [banquet] product, so we have written into our contract that we must produce at the same level as those properties. That's our benchmark."

Dinner Theater
As a result, planners can ask for—and receive—much more chef attention and involvement than ever before. "They want the chef almost to be on display, whether the action is in the cooking or in coming out for a round of applause at the end of the meal," says Jennifer McCrary, general manager for Aramark overseeing the food and beverage operations at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in Florida. "Earlier in my career, the chef was the guy in the back making the food. Now it's very interactive," from the initial tasting to the actual meal.

This emphasis on showmanship extends to even the largest convention centers. "The days of the concession stands built into the wall with the roll-up doors and the hot dogs wrapped in cellophane are gone," says David Causton, general manager of Chicago's McCormick Place. "[We] are offering our attendees lively displays, interaction between chefs, more nationally renowned chefs, more props, more extravagant events, and more pizzazz on our show floor."

John Vingas, who, as corporate vice president of culinary operations for Spartanburg, SC-headquartered CenterPlate, oversees operations at the San Diego Convention Center, says the demand for this kind of "culinary theater" means he's bringing kitchen equipment out onto the show floor and setting up working kitchens, with everything from steaming equipment to ovens and induction stoves. It's gotten to the point where "people are picking up their plates [in the buffet line] from a working kitchen," he says. This is so popular that he envisions convention center kitchens of the future being much more accessible to—and observable by—attendees. "It could be like watching your car in the car wash, but you'd be watching the kitchen in action. It's a very entertaining experience to watch the plate-up for 3,000 people. You would have as many as 12 people on either side of a 14-foot conveyor belt, each at his own station."

Daily Specials
In the meantime, more and more centers are doing away with standardized menus and working exclusively on a customized-menu basis. "It's just no longer acceptable to have the same menu for years or even to offer a choice between Menu A, Menu B, and Menu C," says Palm Beach County's McCrary. "Customers are demanding customized menus all the way from the concession stand to the seven-course gourmet dinner." As a result, an increasing number of centers now feature elaborate tasting rooms in which to develop individual menus with the participation of the meeting planners.

"In the past, convention centers have been very single-minded types of places that just deal with the masses and crank out the food. They would lose focus on the client and were more concerned about serving 1,300 people, and it felt more like an assembly line, " says AMA's Brocco. "But now, we're seeing aesthetically beautiful food and excellent service." Brocco remembers a recent convention center event where, rather than serving the same dessert to each of her 1,300 guests, the chefs brought out three different desserts, each beautifully crafted, and served them in alternation to the seated diners.

This focus on quality also extends beyond the formal seated dinners. Debbie Weck, director, executive support for AT&T, says the food at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, TX, is so good that she often calls upon the center's catering department to provide food for events she's holding off-site. "Take something as simple as the tuna salad sandwich. They make sure it's white albacore, not the cheaper stuff. For boxed lunches, they always use a better grade of lunch meats and breads, and they're still very competitive in their pricing," she says. "We've used other caterers and we end up going back to them for their quality and their pricing." Indeed, many North American centers now compete in their local high-end catering markets.

Locals Only
Regional cuisine based on locally grown ingredients is not only popular among attendees who are often visiting from other parts of the country, but it's also easier on the environment, making it doubly attractive to an increasingly eco- conscious customer base. "We want our folks to use local produce and farmers as often as we can, both to support the local economy and to cut down on fuel and energy costs and impact," says Vancouver's Pollard.

And while sustainability is a real trend among consumers—or is at least being marketed as one—it does carry a premium, which in reality can be prohibitive to those operating under restrictive budgets. "We're not at the stage yet to say, 'We're green and we don't care what effect it has on our business,'" says Christopher ("C.T.") Nice, vice president of food and beverage for Philadelphia-headquartered ARAMARK Sports and Entertainment, which has foodservice contracts at approximately 40 convention centers. "You have to put all the information in front of the client and let them decide. So we still have the traditional offerings. You can have regular chicken or free-range. And [what is chosen] really depends on which part of the country you're in. In Anaheim, I'd say 30 to 40 percent of what they're doing [involves sustainable items]. In other places, that figure is as low as 10 percent. But you will see it increasing over time."

Also sure to increase over time: the level of quality planners will expect from convention center catering teams. And that, planners say, is because the food, in the end, is what attendees will remember about the event. Says Brocco: "I can put on a fabulous event, and if the food is horrible, that's all they remember—and all I'll hear about for the whole year."