You don’t want to be the meeting planner in charge when your CEO, who’s vegan, is served mini-marshmallows with her coffee at the awards banquet. But that 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.
Here, Stuckrath provides a detailed look at planning events with food restrictions at 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 monitoring and accommodating attendees’ food preferences and restrictions. It could also be a plus for the hotel, 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 be revealing.
Chef: Ask the following: 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 recalls a pastry chef who produced a gluten-free dessert using nut flour. But while some diet-restricted attendees were happy with the revised dessert, another attendee 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? Stuckrath also cautions planners to be aware of spices, eggy froths, and other ingredients in cocktails that might be unappealing or even dangerous to some attendees.
Convention services manager: Ask the following: What knowledge will the banquet servers receive about the ingredients used within your event's menu? What is the process when someone requests a special meal—who informs the chef and then confirms the meal was properly created before being served? Were attendees given meal cards to indicate a special need for a meal? What is the process on site if someone wants a special meal but didn’t pre-order it? Who can answer attendees' F&B-related questions on site? Because the banquet servers will be face-to-face with your attendees and are critical to the experience, confirm that they will have the information they need to make every attendee feel safe and welcome.