A Guide to Serving F&B in the Exhibit Hall

Author: Corin Hirsch       

exhibition hall

Serving food and beverage in an exhibition hall can be tricky.

At the Duty Free Show of the Americas, which takes place in Florida each spring, attendees come face-to-face with almost every conceivable item that might be sold in an airport duty-free store — from necklaces and perfume to cigars, luggage, and, of course, booze. “They serve a lot of alcohol, and they’d like people to sample this, that, or the other thing,” said Mark Gatley, regional general man-ager for SMG at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center, which hosted the show for a few years before it moved to the Orlando World Center Marriott.

With bottles of spirits at almost every turn at the Duty Free Show, the convention center and Savor, its catering partner, had ground rules in place. No more than a three-ounce pour in a four-ounce container, for example. “There’s a concern that if somebody just stands there and keeps drinking, and then leaves the building,” Gatley said, “there are potential liability issues.”


From the threat of tipsy attendees, to wrappers and discarded plates cluttering booths, serving food and drink samples on the exhibition floor can be tricky business. And so most venues have firm stipulations about sample sizes, cost, and other parameters, usually provided at the start of the planning process. At the McAllen Convention Center in McAllen, Texas, for instance, Centerplate limits drink-sample sizes to two ounces, and — like most other caterers — mandates that it is the exclusive provider of items meant for “drawing attention to the booth,” such as ice cream, popcorn, and coffee. At the Phoenix Convention Center, whose caterer is Aventura, alcohol is also limited to two-ounce pours, and food items to one-inch-square portions, “not large enough to satisfy thirst or hunger,” according to the center’s guidelines. And at the Infinite Energy Center (formerly the Gwinnett Center) in Duluth, Georgia, alcoholic samples are forbidden outright.

But just 27 miles away, at the Atlanta Convention Center at AmericasMart, alcohol can be served — as long as law enforcement is present, recalled Kristofer Herlitz, HMCC, managing director of AIM Group International. He found this out a few years ago while managing a meeting of the American Wholesale Marketers Association. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard of such a thing,’” Herlitz said.

Since then, Herlitz has encountered directives that differ from venue to venue — but has also laid down his own rules in response to misadventures with food on the show floor. During the Alzheimer’s Association 2009 International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease in Vienna, discarded cups became such a nuisance that AIM chose to ban F&B samples at all of its future shows. “Every flat surface was covered with those cups,” Herlitz said. “And you have sensitive microscopes and instruments on some of those same tables. It could be disastrous if something spilled.”

Since AIM now works primarily with medical and scientific meetings, barring edible samples from the show floor has come somewhat naturally — after all, compliance rules often prohibit such samples. “If you move away from items that are relevant to the professional interests of the registrant, it quickly becomes sort of a carnival atmosphere,” Herlitz said. But exhibitors still ask. “Inevitably, there are a half-dozen [requests] at any good-sized show. What we’ve set in place is that as we begin to work with convention centers, we get in touch with the catering man-ager and say, ‘Listen, we’re not going to have your [catering request] form in the service kit [for exhibitors], because it’s only going to lead to confusion and because we don’t allow it.’”


Some shows, by virtue of their exhibitors, need carte-blanche permission for F&B samples on the show floor — such as the National Restaurant Association (NRA). “Because we produce events for the food-service industry, it is important that the venue understands the makeup of our exhibitors and attendees,” said Jennifer Morris, CMP, NRA’s vice president of meetings and trade shows. “For our shows, it is critically important that the food and beverage manufacturers who are exhibiting are able to show their products without restrictions, just like exhibitors in any other industry.”

Because NRA only holds shows in two U.S. locations — Chicago and Boston — its need for flexibility is more easily accommodated. But Morris advises that you be as communicative as possible with your venue. “When sourcing a new venue, be upfront about the needs of the exhibitors and the show,” she said. “The information should be in the RFP, and if critically important to the exhibitors, it should be a requirement from the city or venue.”

Mary Pat Cornett, CAE, CMP, vice president of meetings and international affairs for the American Society for Nutrition, also often deals with F&B samples on the show floor, and has become well-versed in sample sizes and associated fees. However, Cornett noted there are other ways for com-panies to get their products in front of attendees — such as by incorporating them into catered meals. “For example, a yogurt/dairy company or agricultural organization provides recipes that use yogurt, eggs, fruit, or vegetables as an ingredient,” Cornett said, “and the caterer prepares and serves the meals at a contracted function according to the provided recipes. We’ve found venues to be very open and ready to address food sampling and special-menu preparation.”

It’s also important to note some of the less-obvious requirements and costs pertaining to samples — including fees associated with delivery and storage. Products that require proper refrigeration, for instance, may be expensive to store, but rightly so, as they need to remain safe for consumption. “There’s a quality issue when allowing people to bring their own food, or pass out samples of their food,” Gatley said. “Although we allow sampling in small sizes, we certainly don’t want the reputation of having food served here that isn’t our own food and isn’t prepared by our folks. It’s a quality issue, and certainly a potential liability issue. If food is served here in the building and somebody gets sick, hypothetically, and the story then becomes about the convention-center food, and it isn’t our food….”

He trailed off. At the end of the day, though, Gatley and his team take each case piecemeal. “If the exhibitors are happy, then the show producers are happy,” Gatley said. “You really have to look at what it is before you just give a flat ‘no.’ It’s a case-by-case thing.”


Plates, cups, and glasses left haphazardly around an exhibition can quickly degrade the look of the show floor. During the Alzheimer’s Association 2009 International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease in Vienna, one of the exhibitors served heavily garnished, nonalcoholic fruit drinks. “We didn’t have enough garbage receptacles, and it quickly became a problem on the show floor,” said Kristofer Herlitz, HMCC, managing director of AIM Group International, who man-aged the show. After that, Herlitz began forbidding F&B samples at the meetings AIM managed. At the LEED Gold–certified Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center, exhibitors are required to use the center’s biodegradable cups, and food waste that can’t be donated goes into an enzyme-laden “digester” to turn it into gray water.


Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.