Is the industry’s obsession with good cuisine a flash in the pan, or a trend to continue? Briony Key finds out
Overhearing conversations in lifts is one way to see how delegates judge conferences and events. One I heard recently went like this: “I’ve got to go to a conference tomorrow.” “Right, does it include lunch? Who’s catering?”
Delegates’ expectations have been raised by the exceptional food and service offered in recent years. Standards are at an all-time high, raising the bar for event caterers to provide not just top quality food and drink, but an indulged dining experience that’s ‘just a bit different’ – and in support of the eco-system.
Everyone’s getting on board, from Richmond Hill Hotel’s launch of its Picnic in the Park service, to the University of Cambridge College catering teams efforts to help make Cambridge a sustainable fish city.
And let’s not forget drink – Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience clearly anticipates future industry support as it has just completed a major refurbishment of its corporate and event spaces, finalising a six-year, £7m renovation programme.
ICC backs British
Martin Davies, Amadeus general manager of catering at the ICC Birmingham, said: “British food is the biggest customer trend that we have identified in the conferencing industry, fast followed by regional food items with a local story.
“Amadeus has responded to this by ensuring all of our food is local. Provenance is at the heart of what we do, which is not only sustainable it means we are serving the best quality food.
“We never want to compromise creativity so our chefs’ work with clients to value-engineer menus to suit budgets.
“At every event, Amadeus can offer 7-10 menu choices for dietary requirements including coeliac, diabetes, vegetarian and vegan, low fat, allergen intolerances. These can be pre-ordered or prepared on request, and are as similar to the main dish as possible.”
Make or break menus
Food has also become a crucial part of every event at Church House Conference Centre. General manager, Robin Parker, said: “The menu can make or break a client’s day. It is therefore important that we keep up with current trends, both in food and service style.
“The question of food miles, seasonal food and fair trade products are all priorities for clients striving to achieve more sustainable events. These ethically sourced products are now the main focus of our menus, with a particular emphasis on supporting UK local producers.”
Shift toward social dining
Eynsham Hall’s GM, Shaun Bowles, said: “We’ve always sourced as locally and sustainably as possible, but bookers are now particularly interested in where meat is sourced from.”
“We also always use seasonal food which helps to keep costs down for those working within a set budget.”
Bowles confirmed the clients’ demands were many and varied: “People want maximum flexibility – gluten and dairy free, to eat later or earlier than scheduled, to pick and choose, to offer different portion sizes and to take plated food to breakout areas, the patio or bar.
“We’ve seen a definite shift towards informal, social dining, and are also increasingly asked for themed menus to reflect an event topic,” he said.
“For today’s event booker it’s about the atmosphere that the food creates and the theatre – if we can deliver dishes that support a concept or trend then it really adds to the impact an event has on delegates.”
Food can make or break your bookings
Cherchez le chef
Commenting on event catering at the Barbican in London, Searcys GM Brian Martin, said: “I think it’s more about the chef being inventive and creative. We are doing a street food menu for our summer parties this year, and have introduced a barbecue menu for The Conservatory because you may as well be outside without getting soaked”.
And Martin confirmed that ‘dining really could win delegates’ hearts: “Wikimania held a conference with over a thousand delegates per day. We provided a bespoke menu throughout – the most satisfying thing was that the menu was talked about long after the delegates left the venue,” he said.
Meet in Leeds
Meet in Leeds provides catering and conferencing at the University of Leeds. Ian Addy, catering operations manager, University of Leeds, said most of its suppliers were within a 50-mile radius, again backing the logic that sourcing locally and seasonally offered value for money and allowed chefs to be more creative.
He also recalled a good example of food winning delegates’ hearts: “After the recent EAUK conference we received Food for Life gold accreditation for both the dinner and lunch menu. It was a sustainability conference and they were absolutely delighted with the menus.”
And finally, food design and event management company, Tapenade, says finding food with a difference is all the rage, mixing unusual ingredients and serving it in surprising ways!
It’s time to ‘think out of the box’. Tapenade executive chef John Hearn says food stations are great for giving delegates variety – to get them mingling.
Subsistence has always been, and always will be a basic human need, but this industry is making it an art form.
We gave the last word ABPCO’s joint chair, Nicole Leida: “Food can make or break your bookings,” she said. “If the catering leaves a good impression then delegates will want to come back for your events.
“My preference is good nutritious, seasonal food, using local produce when possible. However, for PCOs, the most important aspect of catering is flexibility.
“As organisers we can be quite demanding, but a good caterer will understand the ups and downs of running an event and will manage all eventualities, from being flexible with numbers to last-minute requests. This is so important in this industry.”