Your agenda is set, the speaker is prepped, the presentation is cued up – but what some of your attendees may really be wondering is, “hmm, I wonder what’s for dinner?” At its best, food can bring people together and be an instrumental component in the value and connections that are made across the entire program. But there are important considerations: what dietary trends need to be accommodated? How about allergies? Is it important to develop a broader wellness program as part of your offerings? In this Q&A, Benchmark VP of Food and Beverage Patrick Berwald shares some of his thoughts and perspectives on the ever-changing, ever-challenging role that catering and F&B play in the success of your next corporate event.
What are some ways food & beverage isn’t just filling bellies before or after a meaningful corporate event?
F&B goes hand-in-hand with team bonding and bringing people together. Family- style dining, for one, encourages people to have conversations, versus what happens in a structured 3- or 4-course meal. Breaks are key, too. Sometimes we’ll bring in an expert on the dish, or some sort of tastemaker, and it’s all about engaging. People like to be educated; they like to know about what they’re putting in their bodies, and where it’s from. We try to spark that conversation and help attendees break the ice, get them talking, and put a smile on their face. You may have two people – total strangers – but if they’re enjoying something together, they can talk about it.
Why should food and beverage be a top consideration for a meeting planner deciding on a venue?
Most corporate planners today are thinking about the overall experience when they choose their meeting space. What are the attendees going to do after hours? What sort of options are there for VIP dinners? How can we activate the property to the fullest? Meeting catering has a way of bringing a property to life and really giving you the flavor of the locale. The meeting planner of today may be in a variety of roles – from an administrative person, to executive, to specialized meeting planner – so our operators are charged with understanding their goals, their intent, and message, so that we can make the client look great.
How closely do you need to keep an eye on rising dietary trends?
I use the word “trend” loosely because our job is to actually be ahead of the trend, and understand what people want and need down the road. We need to be the experts on wellness, how people are eating today, what their expectations are from a food sourcing perspective, and be able to craft well-tailored solutions for groups and individuals.
What are some of the challenges you have to deal with today, in terms of accommodating unique dietary needs and trends?
It’s constantly evolving, but it’s mostly just being ultra-knowledgeable of the terms and attributes that are out there. Flexitarian, for example, is a diet where some meats, occasionally, are OK. They may eat fish, they may eat a dairy product. With many terms, the challenge to us is understanding different individuals’ definition of them. It’s a great opportunity, though. Oftentimes, corporate catering isn’t quick enough to meet the demands of the customer, especially in the hotel world. We stay ahead of it by working with experts in the field, like Ochsner in New Orleans – they have a team of certified dietitians and registered nutritionists to educate our team.
Practically, how should meeting planners account for the diets of all attendees?
I remember the days when there would be a banquet of 300 people, and there would be four vegetarians. The chef just always prepared a flat percentage of the meals as vegetarian. Now, it’s the majority, with one accommodation or another. We work with the planner, and extract as much knowledge from them as possible. We need to get it right the first time – the implications of nut allergies, for example, are huge. We’re dealing with people’s lives. The biggest thing today is to never assume. It has to be a conversation, and you must be clear about definitions and parameters.
How does wellness figure into the menu today?
Wellness was borne out of businesses looking for a niche to go after, but today, it’s expected that there’ll be some sort of wellness program, whether it’s hyper-focused on food and beverage, or all-encompassing, and include experiences and fitness solutions at the property level. We’ll involve dietitians and nutritionists. IACC, which our founder Burt Cabañas helped start, just came out with dietary guidelines that point to how chefs need to write menus today, and what needs to be considered. But “wellness” certainly spans more than dietary needs. It involves sustainability, like how we get our fish, and whether it’s line-caught or not. We’re getting rid of single-use plastics. We’re very conscious about that. Younger attendees are super savvy about understanding where their food comes from. They want to know the story from field to fork, and it challenges our culinary team to craft those menus with wellness and sustainability in mind.
How do you ensure all those requests and requirements don’t limit your creativity?
Constraints help creativity. It challenges how our people think, and it challenges them to create unique experiences for people and satisfy needs. We can’t differentiate or judge anyone when we hear about a requirement, we just have to be prepared to meet that demand and still deliver at the standard that we’re accustomed to.
Any final note of something coming up in inclusive catering this year that’s exciting?
We partnered up with a winery in Monterey, California, and developed a private label wine, which had never been done at Benchmark. It’ll be a sustainable, organic product, 100% sourced from Monterey, and the price will be under six dollars a bottle. Nowhere near retail, and completely proprietary. Only at Benchmark.