How to Plan Ahead for Food Allergies at Your Conference

What planners need to know when catering to attendees' dietary needs.


Being an event planner with food allergies can be a blessing and a curse, I know. I also know the ins and outs of sitting on both sides of the table or on opposite sides of the kitchen door. It helps me when I’m planning and evaluating menus for clients, but it also gives me an acute sense of how ignorant our industry is about food allergies.

Nobody gets it, except those who have to eat "free-from" (a term for food and drink without one or more ingredients that some eaters are allergic to or have an intolerance of), or have friends and family who do.

As a food-allergic person, I don't just want the meals I eat when I travel for work to be safe for me -- I want them to be substantive and tasty, as well. But eating at events is often very challenging and stressful. We are counting on the person managing registration to communicate our needs correctly to the catering team, and we must rely on someone we will most likely never meet to prepare our meals.

The Planner’s Responsibility

As a planner, I understand the thousands of minute details that go into creating and executing an event. Not only are we trying to meet the demands of our clients, but we must ensure everyone's needs are met, including taking into consideration dietary requirements when planning menus. It is definitely not easy.

10 Facts About Food Allergies
10 Facts About Food Allergies
Exactly how many people have food allergies? How often does it require a hospital visit? Read these 10 fast facts about food allergies to better understand the risks for your next event.

Meeting professionals have a duty of care -- a legal obligation -- to adhere to a standard of reasonable diligence while performing any acts that could possibly harm others. When planning events, that includes but is not limited to travel, housing, security and menu planning.

We are responsible for ordering and serving food and beverage for people who are trusting us with their health and safety while attending the events.

Take, for example, someone who did not regard this issue seriously and what it cost them. In 2017, I organized and attended a client's site visit. I communicated my food allergies to the convention and visitor bureau's representative, who had asked in advance. She ensured that all three resort properties were aware of my needs. The first hotel that was hosting us for lunch prepared a chef's table four-course meal. When the first course arrived, my allergens were right on top of the menu item (thankfully in full view).

I was taken aback. I asked for a new dish without my allergen. The chef then said he remembered getting the notes, but completely forgot to pass on the information and/or plan for it in the prepared menu. While my clients ate, they prepared me other dishes. I was lucky the allergen was not hidden in my food and I had not taken a bite. My client noted the interaction/mishap, and the hotel lost a $400,000 contract because of it.

So, what do we need to do? Within the event food chain -- from attendee to planner, convention services manager to chef, and banquet captain to server -- we each have a responsibility to ensure the safety of those with food allergies.

Food Allergy Steps for Every Event

Communicate the needs of your attendees to your F&B partners.
Communicate the needs of your attendees to your F&B partners.

  • Start with the RFP and site visit. Planners must communicate expectations for their food-service providers regarding what is to be served, how it needs to be served and how to label it. Include personalized meal history, ask questions pertaining to food-allergy training and food-safety protocols, and request sample menus they have previously prepared that are free from allergens. Do a taste test as well. Attention venues and food-service companies: This is a chance for you to showcase your policies and procedures for managing food allergies. Share menus you have created in the past. Who prepares and expedites these meals? How do you identify allergens in your menus?

  • Ensure the event-registration process provides for clear identification of needs, explains the process your attendees will experience at the event and asks for attendees to indicate their issues, as in: Do you have any food allergies that we need to accommodate while you’re attending our event? Also note whether attendees will receive meal tickets, how food will be labeled and served, and who handles concerns pre-show and on-site.

  • Inform attendees about issues that might affect their participation in the event before they arrive. Will there be off-site events with limited catering opportunities? Does the event location limit options?

  • Create standard operating procedures for allergy safety. Include training sessions for staff on food allergies and how to spot the signs of an allergic reaction; incorporate related signage onto buffets; define actions if other participants or staff tamper with food or eat food that contains an employee’s allergen in a meeting.

  • Have all F&B partners, both on- and offsite, sign off on acknowledging receipt and understanding of your plan. Communicate it to all stakeholders.

  • Communicate the needs of your attendees to your F&B partners well in advance of the event, preferably throughout the registration period and no later than three weeks out, so they can properly prepare to meet the needs. They might even be able to plan your entire menu without a specific food allergen.

  • Be transparent about the food you’re serving. Labeling buffets and/or menus with allergens will relieve attendee anxiety and help ensure their safety, and it can remind other participants that food allergens are present and alert them to be cautious about cross-contact. Label for at least the top eight and all allergens of which attendees have informed you. 

  • With buffets, know that food prepared and served in bulk might have come into contact with allergens in the kitchen or when served. It is best to provide food allergic people with a personalized meal to reduce and control cross-contamination.

  • Communicate with chefs, banquet captains and servers so everyone understands which ingredients are in the food being served, how the dishes were prepared and how to provide alternatives. Servers should be able to answer questions about the food and/or direct attendees to the person who can help.

  • Outline personalized plates on banquet event orders. BEOs typically describe what the standard meal will be, with "special plates" listed only with quantities. These meals should be thoroughly described with ingredient labels and free-from statements on the BEO so everyone is aware of them.

  • Ensure your venue and off-site catering partners are familiar with your emergency procedures, and become familiar with theirs. Does the venue have epinephrine (a medication used to quickly treat allergic reactions) on-site? Who is trained to administer it? Ask food-allergic participants if they carry epinephrine and ask for their own relief-action plan, so your staff and vendors know what to do in case of an emergency.

Be Armed With Knowledge

Become familiar with the local, regional and national laws around food allergens. As of 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act gave eating, as well as all of our bodily functions, the legal status of "major life activities," giving individuals with food allergies (and other conditions) the status of having a disability protected under civil-rights law. Some U.S. states also have enacted their own statues that require labeling and accommodations for food allergies.

In 2014, the European Union enacted EU1169, requiring that any prepackaged or unpackaged food (as found in buffets, restaurants, catering) be labeled for the end user (diner) to see if they contained any of the 14 foods the EU identifies as allergens.

Follow up with attendees and food-service providers throughout the planning process and the event. Things can change with attendees and providers at any time.

Tracy Stuckrath, CMM, president/chief connecting officer of Thrive! Meetings and Events, works with organizations to help them understand how food and beverage affects risk and more.
Tracy Stuckrath, CMM, president/chief connecting officer of Thrive! Meetings and Events, works with organizations to help them understand how food and beverage affects risk and more.

Managing my allergy for the last 13 years, I’ve experienced instances where everyone from the planner to the hotel staff proved very attentive. But more often, I feel like an afterthought, a burden, or completely forgotten and left hungry and excluded.As event planners who maintain exemplary professional conduct at all times and encourage the integration of ethics into all aspects of what we do, ensuring our food-allergic guests are safe and provided with meals that are of equal value and quality is a crucial part of that standard of excellence.

Tracy Stuckrath, CMM, is president/chief connecting officer of Thrive! Meetings and Events. She works with organizations to help them understand how food and beverage affects risk, employee well-being, company culture and the bottom line.