Four million delegates will pass through the doors of ExCeL London this year, arriving for meetings on oncology, robotics, tattoos, firefighting, and AI — the usual gamut for the massive event venue on the city’s Royal Docks.
When stomachs begin to rumble, attendees have their pick of nearby kiosks, cafés, restaurants, and bars. But what they’ll find served at a banquet at the convention center is markedly different from just a few years ago. “From a customer-demand point of view, for the last few years,” said Simon Mills, chief commercial officer for ExCeL London, sustainability “has been front of mind.”
That means they’re not likely to find berries on the menu in March, or shepherd’s pie at any time of year. Climate change has inspired some bold food and beverage pivots in the meetings industry, and those at ExCeL London are especially ambitious: Nearly total seasonal sourcing, a dramatic reduction in meat, and labels indicating how much carbon a particular dish generated. None of that comes easy.
Where’s the Beef?
Any way you slice it, beef is a carbon hog. From farming to processing, the average steak dish generates about four times as much carbon as an equivalent chicken dish, and vastly more than a plant-based one.
About six years ago, when plant-based eating was still more niche than mainstream, foodservice company Levy UK + Ireland saw the writing on the wall. “The turning point was really around 2017 into 2018,” said Kevin Watson, business director of Levy UK + Ireland, ExCeL London’s food-and-beverage partner.
A subsidiary of the Compass Group UK & Ireland, Levy UK + Ireland caters to some of the U.K.’s most well-known venues, including sports stadiums and OVO Arena Wembley. It has thousands of employees and feeds millions of people each year. With that impact in mind, Levy UK + Ireland committed to carbon net-zero by 2027, long before the U.K. government’s mandate to be net zero by 2050.
Reducing single-use plastics and waste was a no-brainer. So were recyclable containers and crockery — ExCeL London has enough dishes for 6,000 covers. Ingredients presented more of a challenge: De-carbonization meant sourcing 80 percent seasonal, British-grown produce, and reducing beef consumption by 50 percent. Levy UK + Ireland banned food shipped via air freight and strengthened relationships with U.K. farmers. “By 2019, already 50 percent of the C and E [conference and event] menus were plant-based,” Watson said. “Where we might have had beef stew, beef stroganoff, or shepherd’s pie, we had taken that off the menu for chicken stew, pork casserole, much less carbon-intensive meat.”
As that process unfolded, a pandemic happened. By the time ExCeL London had reopened for meetings in fall 2021, food prices had crept up. Nevertheless, the venue stayed the course, and took it several notches further.
Boots on the Ground
Across the pond in the U.S., Tracy Stuckrath, founder of Thrive Meetings & Events, has kept close tabs on sustainable F&B. “It is something that’s coming forward, knowing the carbon impact of the food you’re serving,” Stuckrath said. On her “Eating at a Meeting” podcast, Stuckrath has explored leading-edge sustainable F&B trends, from upcycled ingredients to cultivated meat. Without missing a beat, she can name which convention centers have rooftop gardens or when food waste legislation was introduced. But Stuckrath said she has not always seen the best sustainability intentions play out in real time at events. “There is greater awareness from planners, but there is still so much more to be done to connect the dots,” Stuckrath said, “from the vendors all the way down to the server, who is the front-facing person to the attendee.”
At ExCeL London, Watson and Mills knew that carrying their strategy to the granular level, especially their culinary team, was critical. “Most people within the climate circle are very academic, but when you lead a workforce in the U.K. of 14,000 — if you start to talk about it a complicated way, it doesn’t translate from the academic to the operators’ standpoint,” Watson said.
Contrary to its image as meat-centric, the U.K. has been at the forefront of plant-based cuisine, led in part by chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi — the website HappyCow, a Yelp of sorts for plant-based eaters, voted London the top vegan-friendly city in 2022. Levy UK + Ireland chefs working at ExCeL London began to push the plant-based envelope with dishes such as beet-marinated cauliflower and sautéed pak choy with lemon gel and hazelnut crumble, or tricked-out potato salad with celeriac, kale, roasted almonds, and a dijon emulsion. “We’re not saying to become vegetarian, absolutely not,” Watson said. “What we’re saying is, when you do eat meat, start to view that as a high-value item, and treat it that way.”
Beef has not totally disappeared from ExCeL London’s menu — attendees recently noshed on roasted Herefordshire beef filet with maple-glazed parsnips, potato croquettes, and carrot puree, for instance. However, menu and package labels now communicate each meal’s carbon footprint (0.1kg for potato salad, and 4kg for the beef filet). Those labels are created by Klimato, whose carbon labels for food venues went live at Levy UK + Ireland two years ago and at ExCeL London in late 2022. “Labels on the menu allow us to educate and enable the customers to make better choices,” Watson said. “You have to make it easy for the organizers and the planners to make more climate-conscious decisions.”
In 2022, ExCeL London became a living-wage company, and while Levy UK + Ireland has long had a robust apprenticeship program, they’re creating a handful of sustainability-focused apprenticeships in tandem with their push toward net zero. None of this comes at a low price, Mills said. “There’s certainly no commercial upside from this, but it’s the right thing to do as a company, and it’s important to our proposition as a business.”
In the U.S., the foodservice giant Sodexo Live!, which caters to several convention centers, plans to reduce carbon emissions by 34 percent by 2025 and be net zero by 2040. In 2018, Sodexo Live! chefs developed hundreds of more plant-focused dishes, such as mushroom-and-beef burgers, that were served up in health-care, academic, and corporate settings. Those efforts have picked up steam, said Molly Crouch, corporate director of sustainability for Sodexo Live! “A decade ago, the thought process was, ‘Make sure you have a veggie burger or some ‘faux’ chicken tenders on the menu, and we’re good,’” Crouch said in an email. Now jicama, kale, and flax seed make appearances in Sodexo Live! dishes, and that evolution demands more originality than ever, she added.
A recent event for conservationist Jane Goodall also forced Colorado Convention Center executive chef Kayley Boyle to flex her creative muscles, coming up with a plant-based meal that included vegan kale ravioli and vegan coconut cake with strawberry lime cremeux, candied mango, and strawberry chips. “I think the rise of plant-based eating has allowed chefs like myself to recreate what true creativity is,” Boyle told Convene via email. “It forces you to investigate ingredients that you might not be accustomed to using.”
Corin Hirsch is a New York–based writer specializing in F&B and travel, and former associate editor at Convene.