2019 Meetings Trends Survey Responses: What Dietary Preferences and Requirements Are You Seeing?

December 31, 2018

Meetings Today: Do you find your attendees more frequently require accommodations to be made for dietary restrictions, and if so, what types of restrictions, and how do you go about accommodating this (any tips for fellow planners?)?

Angie Silberhorn: No, our attendees infrequently request special dietary accommodations. However, I generally provide enough variety for most people to have options that suit them-- Angie Silberhorn, CMP, Conference Director, Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC), Oak Brook, Ill.

Ilene Page: Yes—gluten-free and non-dairy are a given. -- Ilene Page, Global Meeting & Event Planner, Front Page Events, Palo Alto, Calif.

Stacy Wald: Gluten-free has become increasingly popular. I request the hotel to put signs on buffets (especially breakfast) so that the individual can get a full plate of gluten-free offerings. -- Stacy Wald, CMP, Director of Meeting Events, Data Trace Management Services,Towson, Md.

Gary Schirmacher: Without a doubt there is more demand for special meals from attendees. The biggest challenge is the wide array of dietary restrictions and personal preferences that people insist on these days. Knowing what is in banquet food or in restaurants is critical to many people in terms of their health and safety. Special meals, especially things like Kosher meals, can be expensive, and my experience is that many times these meals don’t even get picked up.

Make sure there is some attendee responsibility if a special meal is not picked up that cost more than what was being served. Remember that vegetarian meals can take on a whole identity of their own--Asian Veg, Indian Veg, Pasta, etc., can be in demand. -- Gary Schirmacher, CMP, Senior Vice president, Industry Presence & Strategic Development, Experient, A Maritz Global events Company, Boulder, Colo.

Liz Whitney: No, not really. There is always someone who recently became a vegetarian or vegan and did not let us know beforehand. Also, there are always attendees who prefer fish or chicken (something they consider a healthier choice) who did not let us know beforehand.

This is why when planning the menu I like having a buffet where these options can be easily incorporated. I also keep a list of people that traditionally attend programs and events that have dietary restrictions and needs. -- Liz Whitney, WLP, International Warehouse Logistics Association (IWLA), Des Plaines, Ill.

Wendy Sutowski: There are an increasing number of requests and dietary accommodations we need to account for in our meal planning. On our registration forms we have changed to a check box list that includes the major known issues, such as shellfish allergies, nut allergies, vegan, no pork, etc., but we have also added gluten-free, no beef or red meat, and an “other” category with a write-in space to include special needs. -- Wendy Sutowski, CMP, Director of Events, The American College, King of Prussia, Pa.

Gina E. Allega: Every year, I seem to notice more and more restrictions. Most of our guests are middle-aged and I see more gluten-free and vegetarian/vegan requests. We occasionally host a few programs for college-aged students, and then I notice more actual allergies (nuts, dairy, gluten, other things). The best thing I can do is try to make each buffet fitting for all guests. I hate to get a separate meal for a guest if I don't have to. I always feel that it makes the guest uncomfortable and singled-out when they have a separate meal.

However, if there is ANY concern of cross-contamination or an item that can't be made correctly without a certain ingredient, then we will ask for a special meal. I try to always email that person in advance to let him/her know to talk to the server/staff on-site to let them know who they are and that they have a separate meal coming. I hate to have those people waiting and eating last because the staff can't find them. -- Gina E. Allega, CMP, Senior Program Manager, Meeting & Event Services North America, BCD Travel, Cleveland

Debbie Kopkau: Yes. I work with the venue to see if we can provide the regular meal to everyone. This helps to not call out special-meals attendees. We also changed our registration to say “required” dietary restrictions. We found some people were using this as a way to plan their own meal. -- Debbie Kopkau, Director of Certification, MBA, CAE, CMP, GMS, Michigan School Business Officials, Lansing, Mich.

Scott Shellman: Absolutely, there are more requests for dietary accommodations. The most common are gluten-free, lactose free, food allergies. -- Scott Shellman, Principal, Framework Meetings and Destinations, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho 

Geoffrey S. Duncan: Yes, more requests for vegan, gluten-free, non-dairy, nut allergies and low carb than usual. -- Geoffrey S. Duncan, Director of Sales & Marketing, Radius Display Products, Dallas

Jack Molisani: Yes. An easy way to accommodate such restrictions is to make menu options that cover multiple restrictions. For example, if you have vegans and gluten-free attendees, make an amazing risotto with lobster mushrooms and vegetable stock, or pears baked with an ooey-gooey glaze and herbs like sage or rosemary. -- Jack Molisani, Executive Director, The LavaCon Conference, Long Beach, Calif.

Carl Lambrecht: To date we do not have this issue of dietary restrictions. -- Carl Lambrecht, General Manager, Laurel Industries, Highland Park, Ill.

Don Pietranczyk: I’ve seen a big uptick in dietary restrictions and special meal requests. Since a lot of the time when I serve food it’s en masse, I make sure there are a variety of options available. As in, more than one vegan or vegetarian or glutton-free, etc. Having only ONE item in each of those categories does not make guests who have those requests feel very welcome. -- Don Pietranczyk, Senior Manager, Experiences and Activations, New York City

Diana Bryant: We have seen a slight increase in gluten allergies noted by attendees. Primarily, our requests in the past have been for vegetarian options to be available. We always ensure we have notified the venue to prepare the appropriate number of vegetarian meals and serve them upon request. We ask venues to label all food items for receptions, breaks, etc., and list if items are gluten-free. We have become more sensitive to ensure we have selected gluten free options as part of our F&B planning. -- Diana Bryant, Director, Conferences & Meetings, TVPPA (Tennessee Valley Public Power Association), Chattanooga, Tenn.

Kay B. Clark: I have noticed an increase in gluten-free requests and vegetarian. The hotels I work with are very creative and accommodating. It has not caused any unique issues for me. -- Kay B. Clark, CMP, Director, Meetings & Events, Material Handling Industry, Charlotte, N.C.

Samantha Vogel: Yes, dietary restrictions are becoming more and more prevalent for our attendee base. We are seeing a lot more allergies being specified in registration, as well as significantly more vegetarians and vegans. We take special care to accommodate our attendees with specialty food requirements working closely with center chefs and specifying specific locations for attendees to pick up specialty meals.

We also take care to post all our menus online and in our app so our attendees know in advance if there are any ingredients they might be allergic to in the menu. Unfortunately, we do find that ordering healthier options for our entire attendee base is cost prohibitive. It costs us several dollars more per attendee to order the healthy snack options than to order candy and popcorn. I think in the coming years this is a space where centers can really set themselves apart, especially for organizations who have an attendee base that is more health conscious. -- Samantha Vogel, CMP, Sr. Manager, Meetings & Travel, GameStop, Inc., Dallas

Tracy Orpin: Yes, we only provide two meals at our annual conference. We ask on the registration form for any food allergies or medical restrictions on their diets and let them know that if not noted on the registration form we cannot promise anything. I also have the caterer or hotel give me a list of ingredients that we have available to attendees to view anytime. That seems to help. -- Tracy Orpin, CMP, IAAP, Kansas City, Mo.

Katie K. Riggs: The need to address dietary (both preference and restriction by health or religion) has increased substantially in recent years. Starting with the registration form and making sure you include the right questions and enough options is imperative.

Then, even though time intensive, those with extreme cases we contact directly for further detail. Always working closely with your venue to make sure that they are prepared in advance and explaining the on-site process to those attendees is also a key to keeping everyone happy and fed! -- Katie K Riggs, CMP, CMM, CAE, HMCC, VP, Client & Conference Services, Raybourn Group Int., Indianapolis

KD O'Neal: I am finding the request for dietary considerations increasing so much so--it is as important as dates and participation levels. Our institution has a contracted food and beverage team and we work closely to get as much information up front. We don't wait for the client to bring up the conversation to emphasize that we are open and flexible.

Our event team will specifically ask for any comments/surveys that might provide insight on what were hits and misses when comes to those dietary considerations. The top restrictions request are: vegetarian and gluten-free.  We are a religious institution so we often accommodate "no meat" request by always offering and vegetarian or vegan option with every proposal. -- KD O'Neal, CMP MBA, Conference & Event Services Manager, University of Dallas, Irving, Texas

Jef Robinson: This is always an option, especially with a global remit, taking into account different cultures as well as medial/dietary needs. This is something requested when attendees register, whether by tools such as Cvent, or the more traditional email and spreadsheet. -- Jef Robinson, Global Category Manager–Travel & Meetings, Anonymous, London

Chere L Brooks: Yes, we have noticed an increase in dietary restrictions in the last five years. More celiac cases, which require a gluten-free diet; increase in vegan and vegetarian; and pescatarian. We try to offer buffets when we can with increased vegetables and protein options. -- Chere L Brooks, Learning Events Manager, Habitat for Humanity International, Atlanta

Leslie Zeck: We have frequent and various requests, including Kosher, Halal and vegetarian, due to our global attendance, as well as accommodation for food allergies. We also have adopted a policy to restrict the serving of sugar-sweetened beverages from all of our our events. We work with hotel and convention center catering to describe all requirements in advance to ensure that we have all sauces and dressings served on the side, plenty of protein options, fresh fruit and healthy options all around at no additional cost to the association. -- Leslie Zeck, CMP, CMM, HMCC, Director of Meetings, International and American Associations for Dental Research, Alexandria, Va.

Megan Martin: Yes. We are seeing an increase in gluten free and vegan requests. I usually try to make the entire menu friendly to as many food allergies as possible. We also over label every menu item, so attendees can identify what they can and cannot eat.

This helps to reduce the number of special one-off meals we have to accommodate. -- Megan Martin, CMP, MPA, Senior Meeting Manager, National Conference of State Legislatures, Denver 

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Tyler Davidson | Editor, Vice President & Chief Content Director

Tyler Davidson has covered the travel trade for nearly 30 years. In his current role with Meetings Today, Tyler leads the editorial team on its mission to provide the best meetings content in the industry.