Networking and eating together is an integral part of the event experience and it is one of the best ways for participants to discuss concerns and solutions while taking care of their basic needs.
Now it is important that food and beverage will have to be considered in conjunction with educational sessions, lunch speakers, and even purchasing door gifts for the event. We might finally see an end to plastic bottles which are usually left with half its content untouched as participants move around and forget where they placed them. We don’t want to run the risk of someone’s bottle so either an attendant will hand out glasses of water to guests or glass bottles will be provided at individual place settings.
Very few menu options will change when events resume. The only foods that give planners pause are those that are shared, think salsa, cheese dip, or chilli or tomato sauces, sliced chillies.
Buffets are not permitted, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have something that looks and acts like a buffet but is safely covered with a sneeze guard with servers on hand to give out individual portions.
Food Chain of Custody
A June 25 update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that handling food or consuming food is associated with COVID-19.”
However, the virus is a wake-up call for a long-neglected part of the planner’s job.
We still have to worry about listeria, salmonella, and E.coli, and that’s what we need to be paying attention to. Planners have been relying on their food-and-beverage partners to have food-safety practices in place but rarely check on them.
For attendees, getting information about the origin and chain of custody of food can be reassuring. Local food is perceived to be safer than ingredients shipped in from far away on trucks and trains, and any additional information passed along to the diner shows that the planner knows where the ingredients came from and how they were prepared.
The venue’s website or event app can be used to share menus and information on where food is sourced and how it was produced to get attendees excited about it, especially when you’re asking attendees to pre-order their meals. Since people eat with their eyes, it is important to show images of the food as well as describing where it came from and how it is prepared. Here’s a take on a vivid, engaging description of a dish: “We feature freshly sourced vegetables from the Selangor Fruit Valley.”
We may need to have a staggered lunch break so that there are a limited amount of people in the room at one time. We have to think about flow, so there must be separate entrances and exits to the food serving area.
While venues should provide new banquet seating capacities that reflect social distancing requirements, planners should focus on preserving the intent of the meal, not just the easiest or safest way to seat it. A classroom-style layout with diners in long lines of tables facing the stage is an efficient use of space and allows diners to watch a keynote or entertainment during dinner. However, while having diners all face in one direction may cut the risk of spreading the virus, it will also kill any chance for networking.
Sustainability and Food Waste
The key to F&B menus in the COVID era is curation, according to Benton. “We need to curate the food experience because we won’t have the over-abundance of a buffet for a while,” she says. “When I work with caterers on food-waste reduction, I will often hear really great wisdom and intuition from staff. But to make changes we need data, data, data.” For example, some planners are insistent that their attendees love sliders, when the caterers end up throwing them away. I tell catering staff to start taking photos of the waste because without that they don’t have the data to make planners pay attention.”
While fear of contamination is bringing back a lot of single-use products, many in the sustainability movement are holding their ground. Javier Rosa, the new executive chef at Utah’s Salt Palace Convention Center aims to continue sustainable efforts already in place.
He says, “I came from Miami and a building where we eliminated 99.4 percent of [single-use] plastics and were using materials like bamboo and cardboard—and recycling and composting at a high rate—to help the environment. The Salt Palace is working toward paper-free events, and maintains a robust recycling program that I look forward to helping fine-tune.”
Benton suggests that compostable disposables such as bamboo may not be right for every venue. “It is a great choice over standard plastics, but most U.S. markets and the vast majority of international markets don’t have sophisticated enough infrastructure in their waste management to handle it. There are many markets that don’t even have a commercial composter.” Where possible, china plates and a dishwasher are still the safest and most sustainable option.
As events return, the goal at receptions will be to encourage small groups versus large ones, avoid lines at the buffet line, and have food served from tables behind sneeze guards rather than carried through a crowd on trays. While mixed drinks typically take longer to prepare individually, there are now pre-made cans of popular mocktails or cocktails on the market that can cut down wait times.
Can you split networking events into smaller, topic-centered groups, or invite some guests one night and the rest on the following night to allow for social distancing?