Making the F&B Experience a Theatrical Event

Author: Curt Wagner       

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

The Holy Charcuterie – It’s Raining Meat station includes meat and cheeses that practically fall onto attendees’ plates. (Courtesy MCEC)

It’s a challenge to provide attendees with new dining experiences year after year. At the recently launched interactive EAT Stations at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC), delegates experience anything but the same old meal event.

Peter Haycroft, MCEC’s executive chef, wanted to show off the multicultural foods available in Melbourne, so he and his staff came up with new menu planning guides that focus on bold, exotic flavors, and ingredients native to Australia and the Melbourne area.

The team was inspired by Melbourne’s street food scene, from its famous laneway cafes to fresh food markets, decadent desserts, and gourmet produce. EAT Station menu items include 16-hour Cola-braised Victorian beef brisket po’ boys, pork belly bao buns, and kale and wild rice salad with edamame wraps.

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

“Challenge the venue’s culinary team to [partner with you] to find a way to deliver a memorable food experience,” says Peter Haycroft, MCEC’s executive chef.

“When you come to Melbourne you expect to be wowed by food,” Haycroft wrote Convene in an email. “You will always take away a memorable food experience. MCEC needed to match this expectation.”

That meant that not only the food itself but its presentation had to wow, so the catering team stepped out of the kitchen to collaborate with MCEC’s specialty technology teams to present the new menu options theatrically. After that, Haycroft said, the operations side of the business “explored the practical elements of how to make these activations work within our spaces.”

EAT Stations, launched in early 2019 and already a success, are custom-built pop-up stands with creative rigging and lighting, and digital screens and panels for branding. Everything is fully customizable, Haycroft said, from the food to the station design. He and the other MCEC teams work with planners to fit any theme.

“We’re limited only by our imaginations,” he told Convene.

MCEC offers a number of themed stations. The Asian Hawkers Bar features street eats such as giant steamer baskets with pork, chicken, seafood, and vegetarian dumplings. With the Laneways For Days stations, you can “dine like a local” with foods found in Melbourne’s iconic laneway shops, cafes, and bars. The Boxed at The Beach stations celebrate “the quintessential summertime beach vacation” and feature panko- crumbed tiger prawns, and satay spiced chicken skewers from the barbecue. (Find more stations in the photo gallery below.)

The EAT Stations, Haycroft said, remove attendees from a traditional convention center dining experience by bringing the “outside in,” embracing such trends as pop-up restaurants and food trucks in an indoor setting.

Laura Chodowski, communications advisor at MCEC, told Convene the stations are available for any event held at MCEC with 150 guests or more, and can be booked either in addition to a more traditional catering option or as a standalone feature.

They align with MCEC’s sustainability initiatives. All takeaway packaging is fully recyclable and collection points ensure that items are disposed of correctly.

Make F&B Experiences Stand Out

Peter Haycroft, executive chef at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, offered a few words of advice for planners who may not have options at their host venues like MCEC’s EAT Stations:

  • “Challenge the venue’s culinary team to [partner with you] to find a way to deliver a memorable food experience.”
  • Using simple theming can make all the difference at an event. “People don’t want to feel like they are in a meeting room or foyer space for a food and wine event,” he said. “Any theming you can introduce to add atmosphere goes a long way.”
  • “Deviating from standard cocktail food and creating a point of difference is one way to stand out. Consider small details such as creating quirky names for dishes, or how you could present and serve the food in a less traditional way.”

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre EAT Stations

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

The EAT Stations at MCEC "give event attendees a sensory experience," says Executive Chef Peter Haycroft. "It’s elevating food on platters to visually striking stands that people can interact with." (Courtesy MCEC)

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

The Smash It! Dessert station options include the Rocky Road Smash pictured here or Honeycomb Crumble. (Courtesy MCEC)

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

Bresaola, salami, prosciutto, and capacollo hang from rigging at the Holy Charcuterie – It’s Raining Meat station along with locally produced small goods, antipasti, and artisan cheeses. (Courtesy MCEC)

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

The On The Block Pork Belly Bao Bun stations offer Chinatown-inspired crispy-skinned pork belly buns served fresh from the chopping block with sticky caramel sauce, cucumber pickles, and aromatic herbs. Vegetarian option: ginger-braised shitake mushrooms. (Courtesy MCEC)

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

The meats are carved to order at the Holy Charcuterie station, or attendees can get a vegetarian option of roasted and marinated vegetables. (Courtesy MCEC)

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

The dessert wall of one of the Smash It! dessert stations. (Courtesy MCEC)

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

The Bloody Mary Garden Salad station is the MCEC’s “hanging garden interpretation of our favorite hair of the dog recovery drink...in a salad!” (Courtesy MCEC)

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

MCEC's pick-me-up blend of tomato juice finished with Worcestershire sauce, vodka and tabasco comes with the fresh produce at the Bloody Mary Garden Salad station. (Courtesy MCEC)

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

Desserts piled high at one of the Smash It! dessert stations. (Courtesy MCEC)