by Rayna Katz
While it's one of the most enjoyable parts of a meeting, food can be quite challenging to plan. There is a myriad of choices, attendee preferences and, perhaps most important, allergies or sensitivities. Additionally, in today’s environmentally aware world, there’s the issue of managing waste, and there can be a great deal of it over the course of an event.
So how can this rather large beast be tackled? Veteran meeting planners have a host of ideas.
1. Talk thoroughly to registrants. “Ask attendees about dietary restrictions,” advised Tracy Stuckrath, president and chief connecting officer, thrive! meetings & events, and a consultant on food at meetings. “It impacts their meeting experience, and the event budget.” Added independent planner Nancy Sutta Berns, program manager of corporate meetings and incentive programs, “There are medical requirements, religious requirements, and in some groups, someone just doesn’t like something, so make sure there are choices.”
2. Talk early, and honestly, with the venue. “Planners need to communicate with the hotel about food well before 72 hours in advance of the event,” advised Stuckrath. “I suggest two weeks notice because then the venue can plan its menus. For one group I worked with, there were 200 issues for 600 people, and 100 of those were vegetarian or vegan, so we added those options to the buffet. By not having those meals plated, I eliminated labor charges for extra plates. That’s a huge savings, and it was helpful to the chefs.”
3. Ask hotels and convention centers about their waste management procedures. “Find out if they use the tops of carrots, beets etc. to create other dishes,” Stuckrath advised. “Do they use [so called] ugly vegetables? How often do they refill buffets? What community organizations do they work with to donate leftover food? Do they look at the menus they’re providing for multiple groups to see if there is crossover and to reduce duplicate orders?”
Taking these measures, she noted, “is a way to save money and reduce waste. If you have a $100,000 budget for food and beverage, and 40 percent of that is wasted because it’s uneaten, not served or the whole product isn’t used, you’ve just thrown $40,000 down the trash.”
4. Walk a mile in attendees’ shoes, in terms of the dining experience. “Understand the timing of meetings and food service,” suggested Sutta Berns. “For example, when did the group eat last, and when will they eat again? If there was a mid-afternoon break, maybe you have lighter hors d’oeuvres during the cocktail hour but if there was no food since lunch, maybe there are heavy appetizers."
5. Keep tabs on spending. “Planners need to be upfront about their budget,” Sutta Berns asserted. “You can say, ‘I have $50 per person for dinner, what can you do?’” Noted Stuckrath, “Food and beverage is the number one expenditure on events but we usually spend the least amount of time on it. This needs to change because it impacts experience.”
6. Track food and beverage history to cut down on excess. “Know what attendees do and don’t like to eat and notice what’s gone uneaten or what’s been gobbled up,” suggested Stuckrath. “Also watch attendees’ arrival and departure dates; you don’t want to order food for 500 people when only 300 will arrive that day. Ask what meals people will be attending too. That’s a way meeting planners can manage their food waste.”
And if you can’t decide which of these steps to take? Do every one of them, Sutta Berns proclaimed. “It’s all important. We need to do our best to address what’s possible.”