On a recent fam trip to Las Vegas, I spent an evening out enjoying a long, decadent meal. This is standard fare for pretty much anyone who visits Las Vegas, but what elevated the experience to something truly memorable wasn’t necessarily the quality of the food (which was fabulous) but the format — a progressive-style dinner. Under Donald Contursi’s wing, our group slipped in and out of five very packed restaurants and sampled their signature drinks and dishes — all in the time it would have taken to get through a seated, multicourse dinner.
Besides the constant change of pace, environment, and cuisine, which supplied interesting conversation fodder for our group, what made the tour exceptional was being seated and served right away. “We’ve turned it into a VIP dining experience,” said Contursi, president and founder of Lip Smacking Foodie Tours. Special touches like customized menus and cocktails, or a meet-and-greet with the chef add to that experience.
At our fourth restaurant, Scarpetta — located in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas — we walked through the kitchen to our own private dining space overlooking the Bellagio’s famous fountains. “You’re treated special,” Contursi said. “A lot of times, people don’t necessarily get that treatment. It creates an energy in the restaurant that other people surrounding your table notice.”
It’s also just plain efficient. Las Vegas has no shortage of places to eat. However, squeezing a respectable sample of them into a few days can feel a lot like squeezing into your pants at the end of the trip — a little forced. That’s why a progressive dining experience like Contursi’s makes sense, especially for groups who also want the ability to move around and network, which isn’t always easy during a long, seated dinner. “What I’ve found with groups is that they come, sometimes, every year for the same conference,” Contursi said. “They’re always looking for the next new thing. Everybody has been to a steakhouse, but very, very few people have ever experienced four or five restaurants in three hours, and it becomes a talking point.”
After working in the city’s restaurants for 10-plus years, Contursi wanted to devise a way for visitors to experience the city’s culinary highlights within one evening. “People come to Vegas and they’re just overwhelmed,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if you could go restaurant to restaurant and just get what they’re known for, get what makes them special, and create an entire experience from the best parts?”
Contursi started Lip Smacking Foodie Tours in 2015, at first mostly targeting leisure travelers. Now the tours are “being overshadowed” by groups from the meetings and conventions segment. “Everybody has to eat,” Contursi said. “Why go to one restaurant if you can go to four or five? It makes more sense.”
Making the Rounds
It’s not just tour companies like Contursi’s offering this speed-dating style of dining. Six years ago, Team San Jose started a dine-around program to encourage more groups to patronize local restaurants. Michael Mulhern, visitor services manager at Team San Jose, said the program has become an increasingly attractive option to association planners looking to cut costs, as attendees typically pay out of pocket to participate. “It’s a smart way for people to connect and network,” Mulhern said, “without the meeting planner having to invest any money directly.”
Typically, Mulhern reserves space at a few group-friendly restaurants within walking distance of the San Jose McEnery Convention Center. Attendees can sign up to attend each individual event — which usually features a specific discussion topic or theme — ahead of time at their meeting.
For example, if a planner wants to encourage networking, Mulhern can set up a progressive-dining experience at multiple restaurants where attendees are matched with a new person at each stop.
There are other benefits as well. “Having part of the program be getting out into the community, seeing the hot spots, getting to meet the locals, I think it’s much more authentic. It also means you get to experience [the city’s] ethnic cuisines,” Mulhern said, adding that San Jose has the largest Vietnamese population of any city outside of Vietnam.
Progressive dinners and dine-arounds are by no means new, “but there are some natural advancements that we’re starting to see with clients that are making the experience more fun and interactive,” said Benjamin Smock, president and founder of Toque + Bottle Advisory, a food-and-beverage consultancy in Chicago. For example, instead of a single large venue, Smock said he’s seeing large groups (usually with 500 to 2,500 attendees) opt for block parties that incorporate a dine- around experience. Not only does that come with the added benefit of built-in entertainment — hopping from one place to the next — it gives larger groups space to spread out and the chance to explore a new neighborhood or entertainment district.
Smock, like Mulhern, thinks this option can also be surprisingly cost-effective. “You can get a ton more for your money,” Smock said, comparing it to hosting a reception at a blank-canvas venue that requires bringing in catering, décor, entertainment, and lighting — elements that restaurants or food trucks at a block party would already have or don’t require. Recently, Smock began incorporating dine-around setups into meetings for his medical clients, who often have to follow stringent compliance codes. He said his budget averages around $125 or below per guest.
Dine-arounds and progressive dinners don’t necessarily have to happen in a convention center district or downtown neighborhood, either. The Fresh Foodie Trail in and around Mesa, Arizona — which includes farms, orchards, an olive mill, and a winery — starts near downtown and extends out about 30 miles. Members of the trail work in tandem for group events, often incorporating tours and meet-and-greets between courses and tastings.
Not only does this kind of experience give attendees the chance to interact with local purveyors, see where their meal is coming from, and make a deeper connection with the community at large, it offers that coveted element of surprise, such as sitting down to dinner in the middle of an orange grove — a fruitful alternative to the ballroom.