You don’t want to be the meeting planner in charge when your CEO, who’s vegan, gets served carrots for dinner at the awards banquet. And that cringe-worthy scenario will be the least of your worries if an attendee with an egg allergy is mistakenly served a salad dressed with a vinaigrette made with eggs.
Making meeting attendees feel welcome and safe at all food functions is a multifaceted process involving comprehensive registration forms, good communication, and smart planning. According to Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, CFPM, founder and chief connecting officer of Thrive! Meetings & Events, it all starts with your request for proposals and the conversations with hotel staff before you select a property.
During a MeetingsNet webinar in April (now available on demand), Stuckrath provided a comprehensive look at planning events with food restrictions top of mind, starting with a site-selection primer.
Requests for Proposal
When you send out RFPs, include specifics about your meeting’s food history. “Let properties know, for example, that you had 20 percent gluten-free attendees, five vegans, and someone who’s severely allergic to peanuts,” Stuckrath said. Including this information in your RFPs shows the property that you are serious about accommodating attendees’ food preferences and restrictions. It could also be a plus for the hotel, notes Stuckrath, allowing it to shine if the chef understands how to be creative and accommodating.
To gauge a property’s readiness to accommodate food restrictions, conversations with the chef, pastry chef, beverage manager, and convention services manager can all be revealing.
Chef: Ask who in the kitchen is responsible for managing dietary restrictions? Is there an area in the kitchen that is free from peanuts, shellfish, and other allergens? How many people on the chef’s staff have gone through food allergy training and understand how to manage dietary restrictions?
Pastry chef: Producing gluten-free, nut-free, and vegan desserts that are more than just chopped fruit is a challenge. Find out what kind of experience and enthusiasm the pastry chef has for the task. Stuckrath tells the story of a pastry chef who produced a gluten-free dessert using nut flour. But while one attendee was happy with the sweet, another had to be rushed to the hospital because he wasn’t made aware of the nuts in the recipe.
Beverage manager: “Mocktails” can create an inclusive environment at receptions for people who don’t drink alcohol, says Stuckrath. Instead of simply serving soda or bottled water as usual, can the hotel create a version of its signature cocktail that’s zero proof but has a similar taste and style? She also cautions planners to be aware of the spices, eggy froths, and other ingredients in cocktails that might be dangerous for some attendees.
Convention services manager: What knowledge are the banquet servers getting about the ingredients in the dishes on your specific menu? What is the process if someone has requested a special meal? Were the attendees given meal cards to indicate a special meal? What is the process if they want a special meal but didn’t pre-order it? Who do they go to if they have questions at the event? The banquet servers are face-to-face with your attendees and critical to the customer experience, so make sure they’ll get the training and information they need to make everyone feel welcome and safe.