Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

March 04 2015

Guest Column: Can You Charge Attendees Extra for Special Meals?

Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC
Recent discussion on various industry listservs related to the number of special dietary requests a planner may receive for a single meeting. Sue Pelletier consolidated some of the comments into this article: Food Allergies and Preferences: How Far Do You Have to Go? One comment from the article prompted this question: Can you charge attendees for special meals?

Tracy Stuckrath specializes in this topic. Here she provides a thoughtful and knowledgeable response.

It is a very good question.

Since eating was added to the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 as a major life activity, it covers any person that needs to eat a specific way to remain healthy and safe. That includes individuals with food allergies, diabetes, celiac disease and more. Under the ADA, we must provide a reasonable accommodation for them that is of equal value and quality. The ONLY way that we could possibly charge more is if it caused an undue burden to the caterer and/or planner. An additional cost to produce the meal is not an undue burden unless it is exorbitant, say a $300 kosher meal.

If we do try to charge more for these meals it can be seen as discrimination against that person. If the needs are communicated in advance (more than 72 hours), the needs can be incorporated into the menu, assisting in keeping the costs inline and on budget. If someone asks for a vegan or vegetarian meal they MAY be doing so because of medical reasons (Bill Clinton) or they may choose to eat that way. Unfortunately, it would be unethical to ask why they eat the way they do. Vegan and vegetarian meals should actually cost less than "regular" meals so charging more for them would not be justified. Of course, if we, as planners, did not know about the need in advance (we should be asking in clear and concise ways) and a person asks for the meal onsite, that person needs to understand the capabilities of the caterer at the time to provide a safe meal for them. Does the catering partner have the proper equipment to create a safe meal free of allergens or additional ingredients to produce the meal? If in a hotel, the chances are better to be able to do so. If at an off-site event, the chances are fewer.

And, as far discrimination goes, we need to also be cautious of those who follow religious dietary practices. The Trump Soho Hotel is being sued by an Orthodox Jewish man after serving him a non-kosher sandwich which he allegedly spent $146 to get at a business meeting. This is another reason, as planners, we must ensure our catering partners understand the needs and are doing what they need to do to make sure our guests are safe.

For those with food allergies, I suggest asking them for their emergency action plan and if and where they carry their Epi-pen, so as the planner of the meeting, you can ensure their safety in case an allergic reaction does happen. This will help alleviate those whose preferences are just dislikes. I would also make the dietary needs question mandatory and with a "No" response to ensure you get everyone to provide you the information you need.

About the Author

Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, is an event planner with food allergies and founder and chief connecting officer of Thrive! Meetings & Events. She wants to make the world healthier one event at a time by helping the hospitality industry understand and learn to cater to guests with special dietary needs. You can find out more about Tracy at http://thrivemeetings.com/.