More Than a Meal

Getting a high level of value from food and beverage events has become more important than ever for meeting planners. Beyond focusing simply on keeping costs down, planners are finding that they can get more out of their F&B by connecting meal functions to a broader theme - boosting the entire experience by turning a mundane meal into a meeeting highlight. These themes can be specific, such as healthy eating or local cuisine. But they can also work be more general, with menus based around abstract ideas like teamwork, creativity, or even honesty.

That was the challenge put before Kate Sirignano, managing director of Hartford, CT-based Image Marketing Consultants. She worked with William B. Meyer, a transportation, storage, and distribution logistics company based in Stratford, CT, to turn a meal into a platform for engaging employees in the company's corporate values.

After a top-to-bottom company review, the leadership and more than 50 employees worked together to define the principles that would guide the actions of all, whether a furniture mover, IT expert, or the company CEO.

The result was a five-point values statement, summarized as "Honesty, Integrity, Dependability, Creativity, and Stewardship," with each point delineated on in a one- to two-sentence description (such as "We tell the truth. We believe in straight talk, we do not spin facts," for the "Honesty" value). Rather than an email or general announcement, it seemed more fitting to devise an event that would be genuinely fun and engaging, leaving staff members with positive associations connected specifically to this refreshed mission.

Sirignano and her team decided that a powerful way to create such positive connections would be to anchor the values into something as tangible as food and drinks. Taking inspiration from the hit Food Network show "Chopped," in which teams have to plan and cook each course of a meal using surprise ingredients, they came up with a version for William B. Meyer's values.

"We divided the employees up into five teams, and partnered with the local restaurant group to provide ingredients that related to each value and judged the participants on how well they interpreted the company values [in their food]" says Sirignano.

Approximately 100 of the company's employees participated in the event, which took place at the Vazzano's Four Seasons in Stratford. They were divided up into four teams of 25 and one team of six who served as judges. Each team was given ingredients and tasked with the goal of creating a dessert that conveyed one of the five values. It proved to be a hit.

"The 'Chopped' theme came up and everyone immediately felt it would be a great fit," says Penny Shawah, director of marketing for William B. Meyer. "We were able to incorporate teambuilding, friendly competition, and of course, great food into an evening that all our employees are still talking about."

In addition to the employees attending the event at the Four Seasons, William B. Meyer needed to effectively communicate the new vision and values to another 100-plus employees who were unable to make the event. Sirignano and her team helped the company design a series of supplemental breakfast and lunch events to reach the remainder of this audience, where each menu item reflected one of the company values.

For example, "Honesty" was represented by home fries, which included the basic, no-hidden-preservatives ingredients of Yukon Gold potatoes, sweet onions, smoked paprika, sea salt, and scallions. The dining mainstay of a grilled New York sirloin was selected to illustrate "Dependability," scented with rosemary, garlic, milled black pepper, and shallots, all artfully garnished.

"We also did a 'Creative' taco bar, with things like goat cheese and chorizo - not your typical taco meat," says Sirignano. "Our caterers initially were kind of confused, but then jumped right into the theme. It was something unique for them, too."

The Value of Competition
One way to enhance a meal without breaking the bank is to turn it into a competition and an opportunity for teamwork.

While William B. Meyer explicitly incorporated company values into its food-and-beverage event, other organizations have found that cooking competitions on their own can not only add fun to a meal, but also instill lasting values. Research firm Ipsos Understanding Unlimited has made a regular practice of incorporating teamwork and creative thinking into its meeting meals.

The company's employees are spread throughout the country, at offices in Cincinnati and New York, as well as about 70 remote workers. For some employees, Ipsos' twice yearly meetings are the only times they see each other face to face. In recent years, these three-day conferences have generally taken place at the Great Wolf Lodge in Mason, OH.

The company has regular three-day meetings, providing dinners to about 150 employees both nights. For the first night, Ipsos decided they wanted to bring everyone together as a team to help create a strong connection for the rest of the conference.

"We thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could bring people together and actually have them cook their own dinner?'" says Theresa Waddle, project administrator for Ipsos Understanding Unlimited.

Brainstorming with the chef, banquet director, and Great Wolf Lodge's sales director, they came up with the idea for a cooking competition. At the event itself, the attendees were broken into teams of ten members and charged with preparing an appetizer, salad, main course, and dessert.

At each of the four stations, teams had 10 minutes to prepare 11 dishes - one for each of the 10 team members, and an additional item that the chef used to judge how well the team had done. Each dish tried to strike a balance of being simple to prepare while allowing for some individual creativity, such as a bruschetta appetizer and shish kabob main course.

As the main courses were being cooked, attendees enjoyed their appetizers. Just before dessert came out, the winners of the competition were announced.

"It really brought people together," says Waddle. "It was a big hit."

Connecting to the Destination
The local cuisine is one of the most distinctive and memorable aspects about a destination. But while incorporating regional food into an event menu has become standard practice, planners are getting more creative with how they tie a meal to a destination.

Ovation Corporate Travel, based in New York City, organized a three-and-a-half-day conference for a manufacturing company in Lancaster, PA - the heart of Amish country. To create a memorable dining experience, Ovation hosted a traditional Amish-style dinner for the group of 650 attendees.

They brought in local ingredients from farmers in the area (everything was sourced from within a 100-mile radius of the banquet hall), and the buffet was complimented by an appearance by the chef, who explained each item, its sources, and history, such as the molasses-based Shoofly pie. A representative from the CVB also made an appearance and spoke about the local Amish culture.

"People loved it, and we had a huge video screen on the wall with all these pictures of Amish country and Pennsylvania, tying in all the food," says Robert O. Sanders, Jr., general manager of meetings and events at Ovation Corporate Travel. "When dinner was over, they brought the chef up on stage and he got a standing ovation - he felt like a million bucks."

Taking the meal to the next level required meeting with the chef and planning out the menu, as well as an additional $25 per person. But Sanders asserts that it was more than worth it, as it turned a standard meal into an experience.

"It means really understanding and talking to the chef, making sure he or she is capable of pulling it off," says Sanders. "We didn't want to just work with the manager of catering, we wanted to meet the chef personally."

A local focus works in a big city, too. San Francisco-based event planning company Instead of You created a program for food services giant Aramark that made the destination central to the food and beverage offerings. During a multi-day international conference, Instead of You planned a pair of events hosted at private spaces owned by Aramark.

The first was a Wine Country Dinner for 50 members of the company, in which a different wine from the Napa Valley was paired with each course, and a sommelier provided details as the meal progressed.

"The event space was transformed into an intimate wine cave with hundreds of wine barrels stacked along the walls, large urns over-flowing with autumnal leaves, cabernet-toned linens, vintage fruit crates overflowing with just-picked wine grapes, large potted olive trees, and accented everywhere by russet and gold candles," says Maxine Andrew, owner of Instead of You.

On the second night, 225 guests attended a "Streets of San Francisco" gala reception in which attendees interacted with chefs at nine food stations where they learned about local cuisines and dishes. Each station was designed to immerse guests in the look and feel of a specific San Francisco neighborhood, complete with props and dramatic lighting. The "Fisherman's Wharf" station included smoked salmon and petit lobster cocktail shooters, while "Mission Street" offered Mexican-inspired dishes like chile relleno with chicken and roasted tomato salsa.

"What I think the guests liked best was the venue overlooking the city, highlighting the best of San Francisco with the variety of foods that complemented the 'Streets of San Francisco' theme as well as the Napa Wine Country dinner," says Debbie Juliani, director of marketing and VIP services for Aramark. "The room was beautiful with the florals, the colors, and the wine barrels. It was a very cozy event and had the great feel of wine country."

Healthy Fun
Employee health and wellness has become an increasingly important priority for many organizations, particularly with insurance costs on the rise. Food-and-beverage events present an ideal opportunity to demonstrate an organization's commitment to workers' wellbeing while also reminding employees to maintain a responsible diet. But there's no reason a health theme can't also be fun.

Andrea Correale, owner and creator of New York City-based event planning company Elegant Affairs, developed a program for a small dot-com startup of 150 attendees on the company rooftop, aiming to make healthy eating central to the gathering.

Correale's team arranged for a number of large vegetable and food carts to be brought up, where individuals could grab a dish as if at a 19th-century market. A juice bar offered a variety of drinks, with small signs explaining how each improved health, energized the brain, or boosted immunity.

The centerpiece of the event was a 16-foot wall of organic romaine lettuce, still growing in its soil. Attendees could pick their bit of lettuce and a chef would chop it, wash it, and make it into a salad as they watched.

"It was green and using vegetables in a new way," says Correale. "Whenever you are feeding employees lunch, if the company is going to spend money, they should want to make an impact."

Entertained While Eating
In some cases, the reason for the meeting itself can serve as the entertainment for the meal. For example, Vince Steffan, president of New York City-based Steffan Events, recently took what would otherwise have been a standard product launch and turned it into something unforgettable.

A cooking appliance manufacturer was launching its new self-cleaning ovens and knew it would have the biggest impact if employees could experience the products themselves. Gathering about 100 of its employees at a Park Avenue townhouse, the product launch quickly became a full-blown meal.

"Attendees cooked this very elaborate meal of chicken cordon bleu and flambe for dessert - rich with the sauces that would splatter all over the inside of the oven," says Steffan. "Then they could see how clean the oven was at the end."

Just as a food and beverage event can deepen an attendee's connection to particular company values or a destination, it can also help enhance a pre-existing program.

Correale recently used the fact that a meeting group was going to see the Cirque du Soleil performance of "Banana Shpeel" on their trip as a jumping-off point for an eye-popping dining event. Taking place at the Roseland Ballroom, the cocktail reception for about 1,600 people was a collaborative event for a combination of different public relations companies.

"We built this huge banana sundae bar, and had ceiling-to-floor, six-inch thick bananas, and all the girls' hair looked like cotton candy," says Correale.

Taking inspiration from a fishing scene from "Banana Shpeel," a pond was built with small boxes of sushi floating on top of the water. A waiter, dressed in a yellow hat and slicker, retrieved the dish with a fishing rod. A scene in which a performer lies on a bed of nails led to a bed of nails being brought in to the space, on which Elegant Affairs stuck vegetables, which attendees could pull off and add to their plates.

Perhaps oddest and most memorable, performers dressed as monkeys occupied cages, from which they handed out truffled mac 'n' cheese to diners. The company has taken a similar approach to the Cirque du Soleil show "Zarkana," creating interactive food stations tied to the highly stylized show's imagery.

"It made the event an experience, because not only are they coming to the cocktail reception, but it was very thematic to the show, and an extension of what they'd seen," says Correale.

Creating Camaraderie
Planners looking to give their meeting message a culinary twist may consider reaching out to groups that specialize in F&B events. For example, Parties That Cook, based in San Francisco, with offices in Chicago, Seattle, and Portland, OR offers a range of customizable teambuilding F&B events. These include "Cooking Farm to Table," held at an outdoor farm, and "Amazing Kitchen Race," which combines meal preparation with a timed GPS scavenger hunt.

Bridgette Christiansen, managing partner for Alta Leadership Group, tapped the organization for an event for leaders of a large educational company, using the experience of cooking together as a means for creating bonds between the participants.

"Part of the leadership messaging we teach is that people who trust each other are more productive in the long run," says Christiansen. "The kitchen is a great place to start to build that trust - it neutralizes everything that happens in the boardroom or conference room or in team meetings."

Christiansen points to a pair of specific individuals at the education company whom she knew did not have a great relationship, and paired them together. It turned out both had specific dietary restrictions - one only ate gluten-free food, the other was vegan - that "accelerated their relationship far faster than having any face-to-face meeting" would have, according to Christiansen.

In addition to the bonds built during the preparation of the meal, actually sharing a meal adds more opportunity for conversation and connection. Plus, Christiansen adds, "Even people who know a little something about cooking learn something."