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Food is Back on the Agenda
Food is back on the agenda within the events industry. Over the last few months, caterers, venues, event organisers and delegates, triggered by the growing ‘blue planet’ effect, are discussing sustainability, waste and the role of food within the industry. There has been a tangible sea change in the approach of many businesses to assess not just the ‘green’ credentials of their menu, but what Make Venues is coining, ‘the creation of tasty and ethical food’.

This discussion is taking place at the same time as Make Venues officially launched its Make Food brand, an identity that encapsulates the businesses ethos around food; tasty and ethical, advocating the importance of provenance, and the responsibility of venues to supply food that is both a treat and an indulgence for delegates, enjoying time away from the office, and which provides nutritious options that contribute to the efficacy of the meeting and enriches the lives of the delegates.

Make Venues has never been a business to jump on a band wagon, it’s a company that deals with what is happening ‘on the ground’ at events every day, rather than lofty statements and aspirations. That is why the business convened a meeting with senior meeting and event organisers, representing large corporate companies, production agencies, association organisers and commentators within the industry. The meeting was tasked with finding out what they are seeing in their own events, and what their delegates are telling them when it comes to food.

In attendance at the meeting were:
· Emily Girdwood, Assistant VP Events, EMEA, Barclays International
· Jordana Virdee, Assistant VP Events, EMEA, Barclays International - leading on ethical sourcing
· Tracey Iley, The Live Group
· Leigh Cowlishaw, Black Box Partnership
· Leah Carter, Head of Events, Association of MBAs
· David Vaughton, Managing Director, Make Venues
   
Make Food Focus Group
The main discussion topics that concerned the event organisers in the room were waste and ethical sourcing, the fair treatments of dietary requirements, and the difference in delegations in terms of their concern about food; some being more focal than others.

David Vaughton, Managing Director, Make Venues commented, “We’re hearing a lot of noise within the industry around ethical food sourcing, healthier options and waste. These are all important, however we need to be really specific about what is a fad, and what is a trend, and understand that different delegations want different things.

“We also need to remember that for some, a meeting is a nice break from the office, a chance to get away, and a pleasant treat, so they tend to choose ‘naughtier’ food, and this is OK and perfectly reasonable. Our approach has always been to be good, if we’re going to be bad, so we give them good food, but allow them their indulgences. Others want healthy options, and again the approach is the same, we give them good healthy food. It’s about choice, it’s about modernising food - making sure its nutritious, well sourced and ethical”.

Organisers supported this view. Leah Carter, Head of Events for the Association of MBA’s commented: “It’s not that my delegates don’t care, it’s just not on the agenda when they come into the meeting. They’re there for the content we produce, and I think trust us to make sure we do things in the right way.”

“We don’t have massive conversations about food, but when we do ask them yes, they want food to be ethically sourced, tasty and in keeping with the quality of the event.”

Conversely, there is a much-mentioned statistic within the industry that 42% of event feedback concerns food, a number Tracey Iley from The Live Group believes is probably higher.

“It’s indicative of the world today, delegates feel free to talk about food because it’s so universal, I’d say the number is a lot higher than 42%, its closer to 70% for our events.”

But how much of the feedback concerns the areas of sustainability and wastage? Tracey adds, “Its primarily about taste, usually positive, but much more if it’s negative! Taste is a subject that’s easier for them to access than provenance, but increasingly they do notice waste and ask where it’s going, so this is quickly becoming a larger part of the conversation. I wouldn’t say it’s universal just yet, but it’s certainly where the conversation is heading.”

Leigh Cowlishaw, Managing Partner Black Box, added: “I think some organisers underestimate the importance of getting the food right. Delegates will talk non-stop about poor catering choices, but will also notice when you’re proactive. What is clear from this discussion is that it’s largely about knowing who your audience are. For some demographics, food sustainability or good menu options are lower on the agenda. But organisers need to be ready to have the right answers when they’re asked about waste and provenance.”

One of the issues raised during the discussion concerned ‘special’ food requests at events, in particular for those with dietary requirements.

Over the last few years, the industry has witnessed an increase in vegan and vegetarian requests, but also demands for gluten free, lactose intolerant menus and other specialist food requirements. So how is the industry faring when it comes to making sure these delegates feel included?

Leah Carter commented: “As a delegate and a vegan, my experiences at events are always so frustrating. Not only does it often feel like an afterthought, I always find the vegan options disappointing, uncreative and unfulfilling. In an event environment, it’s really important that every delegate feels included and specialist menus now represent a growing proportion of delegates, who are now beginning to feel isolated. This isn’t good enough.”

Equally the subject of vegan or ‘plant-based’ menus goes wider than just preference and concerns the growing demand for ethical menus particularly around the treatment of meat.

Emily Girdwood, Event Manager, Barclays, added: “Within Barclays, we’ve taken the decision to remove red meat from our menus altogether. It’s incredibly indulgent, very wasteful, and not necessary for the sort of events we organise.

“It’s also a great opportunity as well. It forces organisers and chefs to be more creative in what they are serving. People will appreciate the extra effort, and if organisers are worried that some will react negatively, it’s simple to put in informative communication procedures that set expectations, and reasons from the outset. It can be incredibly positive.”

Again, within food selection, waste becomes an issue. Food needs to be supplied in the right quantity for the delegation, and not over ordered to produce waste

“It’s definitely difficult not to over order, but one of the biggest challenges I have found is the push back from venues,” comments Leah. “Specifically, in hotels, who operate using a DDR system, there is a tendency to want to charge for the maximum amount of people and to supply that food regardless of whether the event organiser thinks it will get eaten. We know that people leave the conference, or miss a break, so we sometimes under order on food, and this always causes an issue.”

Despite this, organisers within the meeting were complementary of Make Venues’ leadership when it comes to food.

Leigh added, “Listening to the work Make Venues is doing is great, and it’s good to hear a venue shout about some brilliant work within food. We’re in a position to push the needle on event catering and raise the profile of what’s achievable, but everyone needs to be on the same page.”

It seems food, both its taste and its values, is as important as the event itself and organisers are going to need to be more aware of their audiences and more mindful of the food being served.

One of the findings from the focus group was that offering more choice remains one good way to do it, but this needs to be balanced against possible wastage.

However, the back to basics approach advocated by Make Venues certainly remains as relevant as ever.

David Vaughton concluded: “As ever with these things its about the values of the business, and how they are reflected in the product we offer. Central to our own values is provenance; locally sourced food is better nutritionally and environmentally, just by getting this right we can tick two major boxes for organisers and delegates. But we also need to be realistic in terms of what delegates want, we need to be fun, interesting and inspiring, whilst fulfilling our responsibility to give delegates what they need, as well as what they want!”

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