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Navigating food allergies while retiring banquet chicken

By: Aaron Wolowiec | Jun, 23 2017
Health & Wellness

I’ve recently written a massive amount of marketing copy for a client conference. By far, my favorite lines from the more than 5,000 words included: “Another plated chicken lunch? Not on our watch.”

This innocent Facebook post then spurred a number of important discussions around conference food and participant dietary needs. Following is a summary. Special thanks to Denise McGinn, Brandon Robinson, Shana Killips, Cynthia D’Amour and Joan Eisenstodt for sharing their questions and insights. And thanks to Gabriel Eckert’s Facebook album titled, “A Tribute to Banquet Chicken” that constantly challenges the meeting professional community to up our food game at events.

Dietary Needs

Q: What are you doing about all the special food requests? So far today we’ve had no gluten, no soy, vegan, peanut allergy, fish allergy... and the list goes on and on.

A:‪ For this particular show, it’s a lot of smaller plates and food trucks. They have tons of choices. But for other events, we gather their needs during registration, print special meal tickets with their names/dietary needs on them, place them in badges and then alert the hotel of our full list of needs. During mealtime, participants hand tickets to servers and their special meals are brought to them. It's not without it’s hiccups from time to time, but it’s the smoothest I've uncovered over the years.

Volume of Requests

Q: The number of unique requests is growing exponentially. It’s no longer vegan, vegetarian and a few allergies. I think we had close to 40 different requests at a recent event out of fewer than 200 attendees. Have you found any success at limiting the special request options (and how) as opposed to leaving it open-ended for registrants?

A: I think two things: 1. You need to work with the venue to determine what they’re actually able to accommodate. 2. Then frame the registration request page in such a way that aligns with what the venue can accommodate and distinguish between preferences vs. allergies – gathering information for allergies over preferences.

Participant-centric Meals

‪Q: Have you gone so far as to get the options from the venue and include them in registration, as opposed to leaving it open-ended for participants?

A: I haven’t. To me, this doesn’t seem very participant-centric. And, as I’ve experienced over the years, the processes we put in place to make life easier for us as staff generally don’t result in quality attendee experiences from their perspective. In fact, I have one attendee every year who has such severe allergies that I actually make it a point to connect her with the chef prior to the conference to have them work out a special meal plan together.

As background: She got extremely sick one year from a conference meal she ate despite the meal ticket approach I mention above. I’m not sure there’s anything worse than sitting in on a meeting with her and the chef and my CSM after she’s eaten a meal that’s made her sick – and she’s in tears.

So, to the extent possible, I do try to be accommodating/sensitive to allergies. Leading with the person and adjusting that individual’s meal accordingly. But I’m less concerned that an attendee prefers chicken to red meat or is “cutting out carbs.”

Venue Insights

The process you describe is our preferred method of managing special dietary requests at our facility. It’s very helpful to have the guest’s name and their own language to describe their needs. Our chefs will create their meals and have them in the kitchen waiting with their names for the staff to pick up.

Participant Insights

As someone with lots of food allergies, I am grateful when a planner works with me. I have a very simple menu that I share to make it easier on all of us. People without allergies don’t always realize how painful it can be. I was recently contaminated just before I had to facilitate. Not fun. It is also scary to trust food at a big event – even when well labeled due to potential cross-contamination.

Now it’s your turn: How are you navigating food allergies while retiring (or elevating!) banquet chicken at your meetings and events? Please share in the comments.

Blog post image courtesy of Pexels.

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