Don’t feed the attendees: 10 insights for your next food function

The bag of trail mix that served as my lunch during the closing general session of #ASAE13.

The bag of trail mix that served as my lunch during the closing general session of #ASAE13.

It’s the closing general session at #ASAE13. I’ve somehow come down with the worst summer cold/sinus infection I’ve had in at least the last 10 years. Many of my friends seem to be sniffling and sneezing, as well. This has resulted in an unexpected morning expedition to the local CVS. Following two morning learning labs, I’m now eager to grab a bite to eat with my colleagues before Dan Heath takes the stage.

Our preset salads and individual pour salad dressings are delicious – and a great start to the meal. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there. You’ll have to trust me when I tell you: (a) This is neither my first nor my only disappointing meal service during this conference and (b) This is not all that unusual of an experience for me during most conferences. So, I sit and I wait. And I wait. And I wait some more.

Two at a time, salad plates are removed from our table. They are taken to an undisclosed location that I only imagine to be near B218 – the furthest possible room from our present location in the Georgia World Congress Center. Many of you may recall this long walk from the learning labs you attended earlier in the week. Two at a time, prepared (tepid) meals are slowly walked back to our table.

By now, I’ve clearly identified myself as a vegetarian. As a lacto ovo vegetarian, I require a diet that excludes meat, fish and poultry, but may include dairy products and eggs. Unfortunately, it took several requests (from both me and my tablemates), a desperate tweet and a bag full of a friend’s trail mix before I received my meal. By the way, it came once everyone else had finished eating and the session had started.

As a result of this experience, and at the prodding of some of my friends, I’ve decided to compile the following 10 insights I hope will encourage a new awareness for both planners and suppliers alike as they approach their next food function:

  1. A lacto ovo vegetarian is not synonymous with lactose intolerance. As an aside, you wouldn’t believe some of the interesting dessert options I’ve been presented when assumptions like this have been made.
  2. Vegetarians vary. When I first became a vegetarian, I picked up the book Living Vegetarian for Dummies. It outlines the big three: lacto ovo vegetarian, lacto vegetarian and vegan. Know the differences, ask your attendees which they are and communicate accordingly with the chef.
  3. It’s unlikely that a single, all-encompassing meal that meets the special dietary needs of vegetarians, vegans and those observing a gluten-free diet (and potentially others) will be equally appealing and fulfilling. Unfortunately, one size does not fit all.
  4. Tofu should not be the protein default of choice. For starters, it’s incredibly bland and it actually requires much more culinary prowess than can reasonably be expected in a banquet environment. Instead, consider beans, lentils, grains, nuts and seeds as alternatives.
  5. Chances are good there’s at least one vegetarian in every audience. Therefore, vegetarian meals should always be prepared, whether or not they were ordered on the BEO. Additionally, care should be taken to serve all attendees at the same time.
  6. Servers should be effectively trained in the most efficient way to clear dishes and serve meals. This includes good instructions from their supervisors regarding which tables they’ll be managing, as well as the appropriate use of trays, jacks and hotboxes.
  7. Whenever possible, suppliers should invest in regular staff and ongoing customer service training. More than once in the last six months I’ve been informed that unsatisfactory service levels were due, in part, to the nature of transient staff.
  8. For a variety of personal and religious reasons vegetarians have elected not to eat meat, fish and/or poultry. Setting a hunk of meat down in front of a vegetarian, even as a place holder until an alternate meal can be identified and served, will likely not be well received.
  9. Buffet lines are akin to a culinary guessing game. Although it may be impractical to list and post the ingredients for every dish on a placard, do label for the most common types of special dietary needs and food allergies (e.g., vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, nuts).
  10. Food allergies are increasingly more prevalent and equally challenging to navigate in a group setting. Here’s a brief primer about event planning and food allergy awareness that identifies the precautions we can take to eliminate possible cross contamination.

So, my question to you is this: Are you familiar with the dietary needs of your attendees? How are they handled? Are your attendees with special dietary needs and food allergies treated like second-class citizens? What will you do to improve their experience moving forward?

2 Responses to “Don’t feed the attendees: 10 insights for your next food function”

  1. August 14, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    First of all, hope you feel better Aaron!

    I agree with much of what you wrote. I have a dairy allergy and butter makes me feel like I’ve got knives in my throat. Not pretty.

    Anyhow, does ASAE know about your food issues? They have been very good to me – providing menus in advance and ordering what is safe for me to eat at meals like Wednesday’s lunch.

    I love when I can attend meetings and feel safe to eat. The notes on buffets about vegan, dairy-free, nut-free, etc are huge help. And I always travel with food. I get grumpy when I get really hungry. 😉

    Thanks for putting some light on a growing issue.

  2. August 15, 2013 at 3:53 pm


    Thanks for commenting – and I’m sorry I missed you at the annual meeting. Believe it or not, I’m still hanging on to “the plague.” Here’s to hoping a restful weekend will knock it out of me.

    Re: your questions:

    1. I always register for events as a vegetarian, identifying my specific dietary requirements at that time. Whether or not it is requested, I would recommend others do the same.

    2. I always tell the server as early as possible during the meal service that I will require a vegetarian entrée. It’s been my experience, however, that this individual is generally not well-prepared to handle this request. And, in the most egregious cases, this person acts “put out” by the special accommodation.

    Nevertheless, I’m happy to hear your experience has been different. It gives me hope that this issue may have been an isolated incident during an otherwise exceptional event.



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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

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