Food used to be simple: chicken or fish? These days, however, pleasing everyone's palate is one of the most complex puzzles meeting planners have to solve.
"For chefs … and other F&B vendors, it's increasingly common to receive a long list of requests from planners detailing everything from severe food allergies, medical conditions (Celiac disease, diabetes), religious restrictions and personal lifestyle preferences," says Meeting Professionals International (MPI) contributor Wendy Helfenbaum. "As managing dietary restrictions and needs at events becomes the new normal, both caterers and planners are facing dwindling budgets, skyrocketing expectations and super-tight timelines."
Producing a successful F&B program under those constraints requires careful planning, according to Helfenbaum, who says planners should start by asking attendees as early as possible what dietary restrictions they have.
"Forget open-ended questions or vague boxes on your registration forms," she says. "Instead, ask about specific allergies and medical conditions up front and very clearly under the disabilities category, and make those questions mandatory."
Tell your hotel and catering vendors right away about any restrictions that surface.
"Communication is so important between planner and venue when it comes to the needs and expectations of guests with restrictions," Victoria Wasko, conference manager at Arizona's Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, tells Helfenbaum. "The earlier the planner can obtain information on attendees with restrictions or preferences, the better we can prepare for and anticipate their needs."
Finally, give as much thought to onsite processes as you do planning. "Make it easy for your delegates, speakers, exhibitors and suppliers to experience your event without worrying about F&B by outlining when and how they'll get special meal tickets or colored stickers on their name badges, who their onsite contact will be and how food will be labeled," Helfenbaum concludes. "Clearly labeling the ingredients, rather than just a tag like 'dairy free,' is more helpful to those with dietary needs or preferences."