Historically, food at meetings has been heavy and the alcohol plentiful. As the thinking went, even those who eat light at home would want to treat themselves when away, and those who didn't were sure to indulge -- or overindulge. That thinking is history. This year, the shift toward wellness in F&B is cresting.
In line with trends in the restaurant industry, banquet chefs are experimenting with plant-based proteins and low- or no-alcohol drinks. These changes match the way attendees are eating at home, and the healthier approach bolsters brain power to maximize the value of meetings.
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"What we eat throughout the day can have a huge impact on how we feel, think and function," says George Fleck, vice president of global brand management and marketing for Westin, Renaissance and Le Méridien hotels. Westin, in particular, is focused on how food and drink can enhance performance and recovery.
Menus are also changing in response to growing concerns about the environment.
Hotels and meeting planners are cognizant of the ecological impact of group meals and are finding innovative ways to mitigate that.
"Groups are pushing for local, sustainably sourced product," says Stefan Peroutka, executive chef at the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego. "It's more than a trend; it’s really a new way of thinking."
Following are six ways these ideas are manifesting in group dining at top hotels and resorts.
1. Vegetables Take Center Stage
Just a few years ago, meatless meals were considered too risky for a crowd. But the outsized carbon footprint of meat has driven planners and attendees to find plant-based options.
"If we substitute meat with great plant-based proteins and interesting vegetables, that's a sustainable and healthy way of eating without compromising anything," says chef Peroutka at the Hotel del Coronado.
Those who want beef on the plate might be satisfied by the Impossible Burger (or Beyond Burger), plant-based "meat" that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. (Impossible is made with soy protein, Beyond with pea protein.) Benchmark, a global hospitality company based in The Woodlands, Texas, serves Beyond's meatless sausage and bacon, which Patrick Berwald, vice president of food and beverage, says is popular and delicious. "People are asking for it," he says. "We'll do slider bars with Wagyu beef, short rib and a meatless option." Benchmark also mimics meat in a more natural way with jackfruit, a nutrient-rich Southeast Asian fruit that can be processed to resemble pulled pork -- and subs well in stews or even at the center of a plate.
Got Oat Milk?
Almond and soy milk are being pushed aside in favor of oat milk. Berwald says, "We're seeing it in baked goods. We're seeing it for coffee. For breakfast. And even in sauces for savory dishes." Chefs at Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants are taking note of hemp milk, a tasty milk alternative rich in healthy fats.
Not every meat substitute has to taste or feel like meat, however. When a financial group in the healthcare sector was visiting the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Park City, Utah, the catering staff worked with Sue Gordon, CMP, partner of Epic Meetings and Events in San Diego, to create an heirloom tomato–carving station, a vegetarian alternative to the prime rib station. Local tomatoes in a rainbow of colors were cubed to order. Among condiment choices were extra-virgin olive oil, a balsamic reduction, pistou (like pesto minus the pine nuts) and exotic salts -- including one sourced locally. Mozzarella cheese was available for protein.
Another benefit of the tomato station was its simplicity. Guests with food allergies and other dietary restrictions could see every ingredient and feel confident they were enjoying a safe dish.
2. Local Sourcing Reigns
For years, meeting planners and their guests have been asking for locally grown ingredients. This trend shows no sign of abating; in fact, the ideal radius for sourcing food is shrinking -- sometimes to just outside the property. At a recent retreat at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels, Md., the cocktail hour included an oyster-tasting featuring six varieties harvested in the Chesapeake Bay, a quick boat ride from the resort. Chef Robert Neumer donned an apron and gave a shucking lesson to the group of 50 academic physicians, who enjoyed both the taste and the science behind the oysters, says Ellen Hutton, corporate meetings and events administrator for the Philadelphia-based Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates. The tasting was a highlight of the retreat.
"I had a strong feeling that everything we did should be indigenous to the area," Hutton says. "It proved to me that you can’t go wrong respecting the integrity of the locale."
At many properties, chefs and bartenders pluck vegetables and herbs from on-site gardens to enhance restaurant dishes. At Hidden Pond, a small upscale resort in the woods of Kennebunkport, Maine, medicinal herbs in the garden have inspired a slate of cocktails, such as the Lavender Lemon Drop, using garden-grown lemon verbena and lemon balm, and an Elderflower Collins that adds the fresh-picked bloom to a drink of gin, strawberry, cucumber and lemon.
Some of these gardens, including Hidden Pond’s, are spacious enough to accommodate a small group for a special chef’s-table event.
Hutton of the ECFMG finds that groups love dining in the garden. When possible, she likes to set up long tables and serve dishes family-style. "It's a lot better than just saying 'farm-to-table,'" she notes.
Local sourcing also means supporting nearby food and beverage purveyors. The Kimpton RiverPlace Hotel in Portland, Ore., collaborates with the Portland Bitters Project, which produces organic bitters in seven flavors, including lavender and rose.
The property sets up a Bitters Bar where guests can personalize their cocktails, and offers mixology classes for small groups. It's part of the hotel's Maker Menu, which brings local artisans into the hotel to give guests an authentic Portland experience.
Likewise, the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Seattle sets up a coffee cart featuring local favorite Caffé Vita served hot or cold brew. And the Kimpton Hotel Palomar Philadelphia serves local craft beers with soft pretzels (another local must) at its Let’s Get Twisted meetings break.
3. Raising the Bar on Mocktails
An estimated 30 percent of the U.S. population does not drink alcohol, and that number is growing, with more consumers who are at least 'sober curious' (see "Nonalcoholic Cocktails on the Rise"). Another 30 percent tend to have one alcoholic beverage at an event before moving on to softer stuff.
For planners, that means low-alcohol or no-alcohol options should be more interesting than water or sodas. A number of hotels are serving drinks with lower levels of alcohol by volume (ABV). The Hotel del Coronado recently refreshed its beverage offerings to emphasize wellness and sustainability; among new choices is electrolyte beer with a 2 percent ABV, less than half the alcohol of a typical brew. Amanda McNeil, director of beverage at the property, also is a fan of kombucha. The popular fermented tea contains trace amounts of alcohol, while the "hard" version runs at about 6 percent ABV.
Beyond Tuna and Salmon
Chefs and groups alike are expanding their palates to try seafood beyond the typical tuna, salmon, Chilean sea bass and halibut, all of which have been overfished. At California's Hotel del Coronado, chef Peroutka purchases fish that might have previously been thrown away -- opah and pomfret, to name two -- to use as tartares and sashimis. And planners are ordering less-used options like yellowtail tuna and striped bass.
Aside from its purported gut-health benefits, says McNeil, "You don’t get that bloated feeling like you do with beer." Hard seltzer, another low-calorie alternative, jumped into the mainstream in summer 2019. Bartenders at Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants are blending them with fruit purees or a splash of citrus. And Benchmark has an exclusive partnership with Truly, a hard seltzer that’s 5 percent ABV, which is gaining traction among meeting planners."People want a little bit of a kick but don’t want to go crazy," Benchmark’s Berwald says.
Meanwhile, alcohol-free drinks are becoming more socially acceptable -- and available. A recent survey of Kimpton bartenders revealed that 80 percent are featuring more nonalcoholic beverages on their menus. They use alcohol-free spirits like Seedlip and add complexity with house-made syrups and tonics.
At the Hotel del Coronado, McNeil favors Heineken’s new "0.0" beer, an alcohol-free beverage purported to taste better than other nonalcohol brews. Mocktails, or "zeroproof cocktails," as McNeil prefers to call them, also are a hit with groups. She often will set up a classic lemonade stand offering three or four zero-proof cocktails, such as coconut water mixed with house-made lavender syrup, and watermelon lemonade infused with jalapeño.
As part of its goal to provide healthy options for guests, Westin Hotels and Resorts has partnered with the Juicery to create its Westin Fresh smoothie menu. These concoctions, along with the brand’s wellness-focused Eat Well and Sleep Well menus, are available to groups. All these healthful offerings aren’t meant to crowd out indulgent dishes if groups want them, says Westin's Fleck: "We believe in alternatives, not sacrifices. We accommodate individual dietary needs and preferences so that every group can maintain their personal routines on the road, while also not sacrificing flavor and overall aesthetic."
4. Mixology as Art
W Hotels -- known for its sophisticated cocktail culture -- practices artful mixology. Last winter, the W New York – Times Square created a cocktail with 26 global ingredients, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. Since a 26-ingredient drink would create gridlock at the bar (there are eight kinds of rum, for example), the A-Z Cocktail is premixed. Guests have enjoyed trying to guess the ingredients.
"Unique premixed drinks are trending in New York," says Andrei Oei, area sales leader for W New York Hotels. "It's a nice selling point -- we always take wait time into consideration."
At Kimpton, bartenders are exploring vegetables in drinks. For example, cocktails with corn, beans, beets or mushrooms, and thyme-infused vodka. One gyro-themed gin cocktail contains cucumber, mint, Greek yogurt and lemon.
While taste is important, so is Instagram-worthy visual appeal. To that end, W New York offers giant cocktails for sharing. The 128- ounce electric-blue Fruitful Night is large enough to serve eight to 10 people, and the Why Fly South? is served in a 32-ounce volcano bowl and garnished with orchids. Guests can share the drinks in real time — and on social media.
5. Incredible Edibles
A year ago, few had heard of cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD, a byproduct of cannabis that does not get you high (that byproduct is called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC). CBD, whose users rave about its power to ease anxiety, insomnia and pain, is being mixed into alcoholic drinks, smoothies, energy drinks, coffee and tea — even food.
It's more popular in restaurants and grab-and-go cafes than with groups, says Berwald of Benchmark, but he believes it's only a matter of time before this changes. "It's a slow-moving train, but I think it will absolutely hit a stronger pace in the group market. It's certainly a great conversation starter." For more insights, see our recent feature, "Cannabis and Meetings."
6. A Honey of a Beer
As global honeybee populations decline, the beleaguered pollinator has attracted worldwide concern. Meeting planners and hotels have brought awareness to the importance of bees -- and helped fund their survival -- by featuring local honey in food and beverages.
For a recent meeting planner summit at the Pinehurst Resort in Pinehurst, N.C., Danielle Bishop, founder of site-selection firm HB Hospitality, wanted to take advantage of a new on-site brewery, where groups can create custom beers. She asked the brewmaster to incorporate honey into the beer, both as a way to help the honeybee and as a nod to The Hive, HB Hospitality’s online community of 5,000 planners.
Five gallons of the golden liquid were donated for the brew by the event's keynote speaker, Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, founder of Bee Downtown, a Durham, N.C.–based nonprofit that helps corporations place beehives on their rooftops. The custom brew's name: Hive O'Clock Somewhere.
The emphasis on local sourcing isn’t just about food, Bishop says. "It's catching up to the beverage experience. Standard and upgrade bars are just not good enough anymore. People really want that sense of place in every aspect of their stay."