Some participants register for conferences to learn. Some will travel thousands of miles for on-site networking and job prospecting. Some may simply be searching for an opportunity to recharge their spirits. There are many different motivators for attending a conference, but there’s one common trait among every member of an audience: they’re hungry.
However, their appetites have evolved. From making requests for gluten-free options to posting images of plates on Instagram, feeding attendees feels quite different today than it did five years ago. The evolution is far from finished, too. As meeting professionals look ahead to tomorrow’s convention catering experience, it’s clear that the F&B landscape will continue to change.
“One of the biggest changes I see coming for conference food will be noticed by organizers in the planning stage,” Blair Rasmussen, Executive Chef at the Vancouver Convention Centre, says.
Rasmussen expects that catering menus with full dietary notation will become the norm in North America. In the European Union, the practice is already required by law for caterers. Rasmussen also believes more caterers will regularly inform meeting planners where the ingredients are sourced with links to food producer certifications and whether they have achieved certain designations such as Organic and Ocean-Wise.
A Global Taste Tour — With A Local Story To Tell
When it comes to what’s on the plate, Rasmussen predicts that planners will aim to embrace a more global approach. “I envision an even greater focus on international cuisines as chefs turn to other food scenes for menu ideas to satisfy an increasingly demanding and multicultural clientele,” Rasmussen says.
Todd Moore, General Manager, Centerplate, Colorado Convention Center, agrees. “We’re seeing more Millennial attendees who want to be more adventurous in their dining experiences,” Moore says. “They want global flavors and global twists on traditional dishes.”
Moore expects to see that trend continue as more Millennials register for meetings. In fact, within the next 10 years, he says they’ll be the main demographic represented at the center. However, while many attendees will search for flavors from around the world, Moore predicts the hyper-local craze will continue and more attendees will prefer that ingredients used on the plates have never traveled long distances. It’s part of the reason why Moore and his team built Blue Bear Farms at the center. “People love to know that their salads are garnished with tomato grown right here,” Moore says. “They want to know the story behind what they’re eating.”
Greg Fender, Executive Vice President, Centerplate, agrees and highlights the locally-sourced movement at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville. “We bring in KentuckyProud products and showcase local producers,” Fender says. “People are just more in tune with sourcing and preparations now than ever before.”
Could Printed Food Be On Our Plates?
While attendees are currently requesting locally-grown ingredients, some food industry experts speculate that “growing” may be replaced by an unlikely descriptor down the road: printing. A 3D printing food lab recently opened in Los Angeles, and in April, attendees will unite in The Netherlands for the second-ever 3D Food Printing Conference. “We think that within 10 to 15 years, 3D food printers will be a standard kitchen appliance, like the microwave,” Lynette Kucsma, co-founder of the company that makes the Foodini, told The Guardian in a recent interview.
Will Meal Service Be “Smarter”?
When attendees aren’t looking at their plates in the future, there’s a good chance they’ll still be looking at their smartphones, and meeting mobile apps are letting them do much more with those screens on-site. Will those capabilities extend to meal time, too?
“There’s no denying that we are increasingly living in an on-demand world, and we are testing platforms that will enable exhibitors and guests to order from their phones,” Fender says.
Rasmussen says his team in Vancouver is currently looking at a similar technology for banquet wine service. Still, he says he isn’t convinced it will catch on. “I believe most people still want the element of human contact for these interactions,” Rasmussen says.
In fact, Rasmussen forecasts that service styles will reflect a higher standard. “The service component of the guest experience will be another area of major change for the convention food and beverage world in the coming years,” he says. “I expect banquet service standards will move closer to a restaurant-quality guest experience.”
Emily McGee, Event Coordinator at Louisville-based restaurant and event space Doc’s Cantina, agrees. “We focus on a certain level of service that includes face-to-face interaction,” McGee says. “Offering menu selections on a mobile app may be an option in 10 years, but our restaurant will always focus on the one-on-one personalized dining experience, which includes placing orders with a server.”
While mobile tools and 3D printing remain big what-ifs, attendees will definitely want an attribute from the anything-you-want-at-anytime tech landscape to be part of their experiences: speed. That expectation for quickness will shape the way convention facilities are designed. According to Fender, it has played a key role in determining the blueprints for the renovation at the Kentucky International Convention Center, which is slated to begin in the summer of 2016.
“The design of the kitchen in the new renovation will bring the food and beverage service closer to the guest, improving quality and speed of service, as well as the ability to extend more flexible service models to guests,” Fender says. “New pantries on the meeting level will also enhance the quality of the food and beverage, and enable for more responsive service.”
How do you think convention catering will change? Go to Catalyst to share your thoughts on what’s next for attendee eating habits and convention center kitchens. This educational article was brought to you by the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau. After recently being named one of Travel + Leisure’s “Best Cities for Barbecue” and receiving the USA TODAY honor of being one of the “Nation’s Best Local Food Scenes”, more attendees are enjoying the chance to sample all the flavors of Louisville. For more information on what makes the city such an ideal place for conferences, click here.