Food for the soul

Meals during business events are accomplishing more than filling hungry bellies. These days, they are a networking catalyst, a way for delegates to contribute to sustainable goals, and an opportunity to experience the destination.

A heavier focus on more nourishing dishes, unique meeting spaces, and a spoonful of CSR commitment, are now among several F&B trends that event planners, venues and chefs have identified as the necessary ingredients in making a dining event successful.

Quest for healthy eating
The most noticeable trend in recent years – not just for the events industry – is the significant change in the way we consume food, as more and more people are becoming concerned about health and wellness.

“Over the years we’ve seen a lot more people with dietary restrictions or dietary requirements. In a 100 pax event, it’s very easy to see 20 to 30 per cent who have dietary preferences, and another 20 to 30 per cent who have dietary restrictions.

“Being an event planner you have to take both into consideration,” said CWT Meetings & Events (M&E), director meetings & events Singapore, Petrina Goh.

Mohd Kamaruddin Adnin, corporate executive chef, MAS Awana Services, concurred: “There have been more requests for healthy food over the last three years and this includes less sugar, less salt and less use of oil in food preparation.”

MAS Awana Services provides private catering throughout Malaysia, and counts Malaysia Airlines, Bank Rakyat and KPJ Healthcare among its clients.

Michelin-star chef Jérémy Gillon of Restaurant JAG in Singapore – which offers private dining and a corporate event space – shared that more of his diners are asking for lighter and more plant-based menus due to the raised awareness around healthier and cleaner eating.

The Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre’s atrium was transformed into an attractive and interactive dining showcase for AIME delegates this year. Photo by stewiedonn

“Requests for more vegetarian and vegan menus at Restaurant JAG also come from traditional meat-eaters who still want a luxurious meal, while taking a small break from meat or seafood. This gives us a chance to show that vegan or vegetarian menus can be luxurious and substantial,” Gillon noted.

And as a chef, Gillon relishes the challenge of transforming vegetables into a hero ingredient on a plate, for instance, his creation of a button mushroom ice-cream as a starter.

All these views are backed by IACC’s 2018 Meeting Room of the Future report, where meeting planners around the globe have noted a significant increase in conference delegates expressing dietary and allergen requirements during event registration.

Food as interaction enablers
Another hot F&B trend has emerged on the back of increased importance placed on event networking opportunities. Event planners are now leaning towards more interactive and free-flowing dining arrangements.

Mike Lee, vice president of sales, Marina Bay Sands (MBS), said: “As networking plays a pivotal role in every meeting, we see a growing demand for easy grab-and-go snack items that are convenient for meeting delegates.”

As such, MBS’ MICE and banquet teams are offering pop-up cafes within function venues.

Goh shares the same observation. She said: “Increasingly, we see clients pushing away from traditional sit-down dinners or lunches, and one of the social functions will have networking taken into consideration.”

The desire for a more social dining setting appears stronger with events involving mostly millennials, noted Adam Kamal, general manager, Tour East Malaysia.

“(For such events), there are more requests for finger food or stand-up dinners which encourage delegates to mingle. This results in better networking opportunities as compared with sit-down dinners,” said Adam.

Restaurant JAG

It’s showtime with a bite
In addition, having an F&B theme or an eye-catching set-up with a sprinkle of showmanship, is becoming a hot thing to do at events.

Peter Haycroft, executive chef at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC), said: “Food experiences now need to be brought to life. Our EAT Stations are our way of bringing the outside in. When you visit the stations, suddenly you’re not in a convention centre, you’re transported to Chinatown or exploring the hidden gems of Melbourne’s laneways.”

During AIME – held at the MCEC earlier this year –, the venue executed a showcase that included an Asian hawker dumpling bar, a Bloody Mary hanging garden, and a raining charcuterie that “literally falls on your plate”.

“(It’s about) elevating food on platters to visually striking stands that people can interact with,” said Haycroft.

Stewart Manson, general manager – hotel, F&B and convention centre at Crowne Plaza Alice Springs Lasseters, has also seen more requests for food stations and live action presentations.

“(The) number of events that traditionally would have had sit down dinners have now moved to market stall layouts with some ‘theatre’ included,” Manson told TTGmice.

Live sushi preparation, barbecue stations and interactive dessert stations are most popular, he noted, especially among business events that are less formal and more focused on networking opportunities.

Setting unique scenes
The growing hunger for dining innovation has impacted the choice of F&B venues, noted planners who said the usual hotel ballrooms are falling out of favour.

Jerry Sim, director of sales, Singapore-based catering specialist Purple Sage Group, shared that event delegates who visit Singapore usually “look for something different, and would prefer incorporating local touches in their food and event set-ups”.

There is also a keenness for dining events at unique venues such as Gardens by the Bay.

According to CWT’s Goh, some 10 to 15 per cent of clients look for unique spaces outside of hotels.

“They want to transform art galleries, container tanks and farms into event venues. It allows us a lot more flexibility to deal with their F&B requirements as well, because we’re not restricted to the hotel kitchen,” she pointed out.

Goh added that places like Open Farm Community and Kranji Farm Resort are hidden gems, as it is interesting for overseas delegates to discover that such green places exist in an urban city like Singapore.

“While corporate events cannot avoid hotel ballrooms because of the need for breakout sessions and plenaries, the social function – such as off-site dinners – can be taken out of the hotel,” she said.

Meanwhile, Arokia Das Anthony, director of Luxury Tours Malaysia, has observed an increase in requests for offsite events, where at least one dining event is held outside of a hotel. The shift is good, as this allows the Malaysian culture to shine, “be it (through) the food or the architecture of the venue”, he said.

For MAS Awana Services’ Mohd, he noticed that company retreats held offsite tended to stick with packed meals.

Tracing origins
A final F&B trend to have surfaced is the increased interest in the origins of the ingredients used in what event delegates are served. If there is an element of CSR in play, it is a bonus.

“People want to know where their produce comes from,” said Haycroft. “(To that end) our 100 mile lunch menu is inspired by Melbourne. We source all major ingredients from local farms and markets within a 100-mile radius of MCEC.”

Haycroft added that customers also value opportunities to contribute to socially responsible actions undertaken by event venues. For instance, event attendees dining at MCEC contribute to the venue’s support of local food producers.

Singapore’s Restaurant JAG is responding to the sustainable dining desire by partnering small batch producers and farmers to obtain the freshest ingredients for their menus.

No stranger to sustainable food sources, MBS’s Harvest Menu has been offered to events for years. The programme uses fresh and high quality ingredients that are locally and regionally sourced.

“We also continue to push boundaries and help clients raise the bar by creating ‘Earth-friendly’ menus featuring dishes made from products that are either organic-certified, Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance-certified, responsibly produced or locally-sourced,” Lee added.

Purple Sage Group brings the farm-to-table concept through sustainable seafood (locally-farmed barramundi) and-locally grown produce in its menus.

“This allows clients to enjoy food at its freshest and least modified state,” Sim said.

The company also takes a step farther by eliminating disposables, and uses chinaware and fully compostable dining ware to minimise trash.

Regardless of the numerous trends that may exist, CWT’s Goh said one must not overlook the taste of the food, as a delicious feast will leave the biggest impression on the attendee.

Additional reporting from S Puvaneswary and Adelaine Ng

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