Eating It Up

Earlier this year, a national sporting league hosted a party at The Breakers Palm Beach, in Palm Beach, FL. In keeping with their sports orientation, the organizers wanted to incorporate the theme of a traditional game other than their own into the fabric of the event.

"We came up with a theme based on the greatest old-time game: Monopoly," says Jeff Simms, executive chef of banquets at The Breakers Palm Beach. So he and Michele Wilde, The Breakers' director of conference services, devised a banquet-style reception with several distinct "stops" that mimicked the board game's various properties. The Marvin Gardens area, for example, was decorated with pillars, floral arrangements, and cascading ivy. People were dressed and rigged as fountains with water spewing out of their fingertips. Tennessee Avenue featured an Elvis impersonator. Oriental Avenue was ringed with Asian lanterns and accentuated by a wooden suspension bridge. The decorations alone were so extensive that the event could easily have turned into a strolling exhibit of the hotel staff's ability to imaginatively create life-size representations of Monopoly properties. But attendees were kept entertained and also engaged in the event by the food each stop offered. As people walked through Marvin Gardens, for example, they were encouraged to pluck hors d'oeuvres on sticks out of terra cotta pots.

"We had grass in each of the planters and savory 'lollipops' of appetizers sticking out of the grass, to look like flowers," says chef Simms. Lollipop appetizers included goat cheese with cracked pepper and herbs, crispy shrimp on skewers, and lemon and dill salad. Similarly, Oriental Avenue proffered egg drop soup, pu-pu platters, and egg rolls. On The Boardwalk, guests could sample saltwater taffy from functioning old-fashioned taffy machines. The food reinforced the theme of the event and made it more memorable.

Increasingly, meeting planners across all industries recognize the importance of high-quality food and beverage to the overall success of any meeting, but particularly incentives. Just as recipe contests and food cook-offs have become popular as teambuilding events, top-notch food and drink experiences are critical to the success of an incentive. "There's a huge interest in the food," says The Breakers' Wilde. At another event at The Breakers, the staff developed a Fire and Ice theme to "creatively brand the evening." Diners ate in the "Ice" room, finished with such desserts as merengue "igloos" with eskimo pie bombes, and then retired to the Inferno Lounge for flaming after-dinner drinks and fire-dancing shows. In such events, Wilde says, the chefs are involved much earlier in the planning process than they used to be. "Sometimes, we even modify the theme around ideas for the food."


Even in non-incentive events, planners have learned how to reflect and reinforce the meeting's message in the food they serve; these lessons are directly applicable to crafting an incentive. This spring, for example, the Portland, ME-based New England Mail Order Association (NEMOA) hosted a sales meeting at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge, MA, to encourage its salesforce to "get a bigger piece of the pie." Although this event was designed to motivate future incentive earners, the strategy of manifesting the meeting's message in the food applies also to incentives. Noushig Hagopian, director of food and beverage at the Sonesta, says the NEMOA planner was "very interested in trying to make the dinner part of the theme of the meeting." So, in addition to the obvious pie desserts, Hagopian came up with a sequence of food stations that incorporated the pie theme. "We had a 'pasta pie' station with different types of ravioli, a 'turkey pot pie' station where we took turkey and vegetables and put an actual piece of crust on top so it really looked like a pie, and a 'carving station,' with an onion tart in a pie," says Hagopian. "The guests really liked the idea, and it made [the meeting] more fun for them."


Food and beverage also serve the often much-needed purpose of breaking the ice between attendees and sparking conversation. At the annual Bio Relationships meeting, pharmaceutical companies from New Zealand, Australia, and the United States convene for one day that's intended to foster intercontinental relationships, cement deals, and encourage networking between people from the three countries. For the 2003 meeting in Boston, Allyson O'Connor, CEO of Gloucester, MA-based planning firm NXTevent, used food as an "interesting talking point" to foster casual conversation amongst attendees. "We flew in sausage rolls and Australian meat pies which we served with ketchup—not fancy, but very traditional, so the Australians could talk about it and explain it to their American counterparts. We emphasized the tradition of 'cooking it up on the barbie' as an icebreaker to set an initial tone that could then move in to a more sophisticated discussion," says O'Connor. "It was akin to the experience of meeting on a golf course, almost. [The guests] didn't just talk business, they talked about the moment. There's a definite connection between that and the value of the experience."


Even if the food served isn't directly relevant to the theme or message of the meeting, meals can still be tailored to create memorable experiences for attendees. John Doherty, executive chef at the Waldorf=Astoria in New York City, recalls one group who came to the hotel for three days of meetings and ate all three meals each day on property. While brainstorming for ways to make each meal interesting, Doherty came across some china in which a 12-inch-square plate houses four smaller square dishes within it. The hotel's assistant director of food and beverage extended the theme by printing out a menu on a square piece of paper, titled "A Square Meal." In the end, the meal was served on square placemats on square tables, with centerpieces set in square vases. "The only thing we didn't have was square drinking glasses," recalls Doherty, "but that's just because we didn't have time to run out to Pottery Barn." Although Doherty admits that it was difficult to serve the actual food portions in the shape of the day, his pastry chef did present a chocolate tart in square servings. The meal was a hit with attendees. "That's all the talked about for the rest of their stay: the square meal."