An increasingly important part of meetings and incentive programmes, food and beverage offers a myriad of imaginative and first-rate choices for attendees and groups alike. By Don Douloff, September/October 2008
It is said that an army marches on its stomach. The same is true of our industry. Indeed, food and beverage (f&b) is acutely important to meeting attendees and incentive groups, who cast a discerning eye and train a demanding, well-traveled palate on everything they eat and drink. Factor in the constant pressure to bring the ‘wow’ and the challenge – to impress this hard-to-please group – becomes apparent.
That challenge is being met. On the incentive and group-travel side, for instance, f&b is becoming an integral programme component. One growing niche is food-themed team-building. “Interactive competitions are a fun way to get everyone involved,” says Flavia St. Clair, owner of Burlington, Ont.-based Exclusive Travels, whose food-themed group trips could range from a simple cook-off or Iron Chef competition to a truffle hunt, wine-tasting contest and whisky-blending competition.
“Requests for food and beverage elements most certainly continue to grow,” notes Moira Hearn, president of Toronto-based Select Group Marketing. Select’s DMCs have risen to the challenge, putting together such memorable programmes as cooking classes led by a Cordon Bleu-trained instructor in a working farmhouse in Ballynocken, Ireland, and pasta-making and wine tastings in Italy. In Spain, paella-making, as a team-building event, is popular with incentive programmes, says Hearn. Closer to home, food-based team-building options proliferate, too.
Vancouver-based wine consultancy House Wine (housewine.ca), for instance, operates a wine- and cooking-themed team-building programme. Called Big Night, the sessions accommodate six to 24. Groups are divided into two to four teams, each of which takes turns at various cooking and wine stations. House Wine co-owners Michelle Bouffard and Michaela Morris give a crash course in food and wine pairing and a guest chef teaches each team to cook one dish. Following these mini-workshops, teams prepare their dish for the entire group and choose an accompanying wine.
Team-building also figures prominently at Toronto-based Three Forks Rewards (threeforksgourmet.com). Accommodating up to 100, Three Forks’ sessions are typically held in resorts, though vice-president Mark Cohan says they can be conducted in corporate offices, a parking lot or even aboard a custom-chartered ship. Sessions often take the form of an Iron Chef-type competition.
Beyond that, Three Forks offers a food-themed incentive and rewards programme, shipping prime Alberta beef; wagyu, kobe-style beef raised in Western Canda; fresh-caught Atlantic lobsters and high-end desserts to corporate participants.
For the adventurous, Hastings House hotel, on Salt Spring Island, B.C., offers a unique excursion allowing guests to trap their own Dungeness crab (hastingshouse.com).
Led by a local fisherman aboard his 24-ft. crabbing boat, the two-night Crab Catch Package includes an afternoon fishing outing (up to 25 can be accommodated via multiple boats). The following evening, guests’ catches are turned into a four-course, crab-themed dinner prepared by Hastings House executive chef Marcel Kauer.
Other group programmes gaining traction are tours of local markets, restaurants and boutique food shops, usually operated by the big hotel chains. Examples include Fairmont Hotels’ Shop with Chef excursions, offered at the Fairmont Chicago and the Fairmont Royal York, in Toronto (fairmont.com); Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver’s Urban Bites programme; and Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco’s customized Epicurean Seasons meeting package (fourseasons.com).
Of course, planners must always keep an eye on f&b budgets. But by being creative – solutions run the gamut, from inventive use of decor to working with venues to maximize value-for-dollar – planners manage to keep costs down, while delivering a top-notch experience.
“For my market, all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean work well at controlling f&b [budgets],” says Sandy Neil, business development specialist, travel, at CAA Manitoba, in Winnipeg. “Some all-inclusive resorts have a small set-up fee to cover staff costs. Others do not charge a set-up fee. In the U.S., for meetings, I like to negotiate meeting-planning packages (room rental, breakfast, lunch and refreshment breaks), rather than paying à la carte from the banquet menus. Most hotels will offer this service if you request it.” When budgets are tight, Neil makes f&b look lavish by offering buffets, rather than plated dinners.
For his part, Phil Ecclestone, vice-president of Ottawa-based Golden Planners Inc., brings opulence “primarily through decor, adding a splash of colour through a centre square on the table or special centrepieces.” A customized dessert, incorporating the client’s colours or logo, also works wonders, he says.
In order to rein in budgets, Ecclestone and his Golden Planners colleagues do their homework. “As part of the site-selection process, we determine what to expect for catering costs from the facility,” he says. “Most of our events are at hotels and convention centres, so we are only able to use their services (or their sub-contractors). As part of the contract, menu prices are locked-in a specific term in advance (usually six months), so we know what we are dealing with on a per-capita basis. When it comes to guarantees for specific aspects of an event, we use historical data and experience to set percentages of participants who can be expected to attend that specific function. Sometimes, we might have a function that is ticketed (at an additional cost), so this helps keep the numbers real.”
FOOD AS DECOR
Using food as decor also stretches a budget, says Vancouver-based Shawna McKinley, project manager for Portland, Ore.-based Meeting Strategies Worldwide. She notes that “a well-displayed tray of dessert slices or bowls of fresh, whole food can add colour and an air of freshness to buffet tables, or when used as a centrepiece.” Edible garnishes – flowers sprinkled on a salad or in a punch bowl, say – also add impact, she says. As for minimizing costs, McKinley, who specializes in sustainable f&b, says it’s a “balancing act” to keep ‘green’ menus affordable. Buying local and in-season produce, wherever possible, means food is fresher and costs less to transport from farm to fork, she notes. Purchasing and serving food in bulk can be cost-effective, she says; indeed, “caterers we have worked with report between 50 per cent and 62 per cent cost savings by going to bulk ordering.” Vegetarian menus are also typically less costly than meat-based options, notes McKinley.
Certainly, the ‘locavore’ movement, championing local, organic produce and meats, is influencing f&b. Fairmont Hotels, for example, uses, wherever possible, sustainable, locally sourced and organically grown products. The chain’s Green Partnership programme encourages guests to think green when traveling and offers menu choices highlighting organic wines, local purveyors and even on-site herb gardens.
Earlier this year, Fairmont created green meeting breaks incorporating such healthy options as vegetable chips, freshly carved fruit, trans-fat-free oatmeal and raisin cookies, vegetable crudités, organic-vegetable salads and fruit- and green-tea-based smoothies. In B.C., Delta’s hotels have partnered with Ocean Wise, a Vancouver Aquarium conservation programme, to serve enviro-friendly seafood – wild sockeye salmon harvested along the Skeena River, for instance – identified on hotel-restaurant menus by the Ocean Wise symbol (vanaqua.org).
Committed to using local and organic are the Renaissance Toronto Airport Hotel & Conference Centre and its downtown sister hotel (marriott.com). Michael Jensen, executive chef at the Airport property, uses seasonal Ontario fruits and vegetables (summer peaches, for instance) and throughout the year, sources locally grown salad greens and veggies from Cookstown Greens, north of Toronto; locally made gelato and ice cream; wines from Ontario’s Niagara region; and Ontario-raised organic chicken, beef short ribs and pork loin from Beretta Organic Farms. “We also consult the Seafood Watch website whenever purchasing fish, so we make the right choices,” says Jensen.
Out in Whistler, B.C., executive chef Vincent Stufano has been using local ingredients at Fairmont Chateau Whistler for the past 11 years. Stufano, who says guests are much more savvy and want to learn more about where ingredients and produce come from, has tapped new suppliers to source pigs from Qualicum, B.C.; salmon from Northern B.C.’s Nass River; Vancouver Island gin, for cocktails; and balsamic vinegar, also from Vancouver Island. Moreover, his strong relationships with local farmers translate into produce – sunchokes, for example – grown specifically for the hotel.
Other hotel chains are going the healthy route. Westin Hotels works with SuperFoods Partners LLC to create menus highlighting fruit, vegetables, grains and proteins known to improve well-being and longevity. Witness such offerings as banana-oatmeal brûlée (starwoodhotels.com). At Hilton Hotels’ Canadian properties (hilton.com), the chain’s breakfast programme features a system of colour-coded labels, displayed on the breakfast buffet and on menus, indicating dishes that are low-cholesterol, low-fat, high-fibre, low-calorie, high-energy or ‘an indulgence.’