Meeting Mentor Magazine

November 2019

How to Handle Attendees’ Special Dietary Requirements

If you’re struggling to meet the challenge of accommodating an ever-increasing number of dietary and allergen-related food and beverage requests from attendees, you are not alone. In fact, 79 percent of meeting planners surveyed for “Trends in Nutrition & Delegate Wellbeing,” a recent study from the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), said the number of special dietary requests they receive is up compared to just two years ago — and predictions are that it’s going to continue to grow in 2019. While it’s good that 75 percent of venues surveyed said they train staff on how to meet the needs of people with food allergies, your next event could easily be in the quarter of venues that do not and/or at one of the 66 percent of venues that do not include basic nutritional information on their menus, which would enable attendees to make more informed decisions about what they consume.

IACC, which also noted this trend in its latest “Meeting Room of the Future” report, decided it was time to give planners some guidance. The venue-based organization teamed up with the World Obesity Foundation, Meeting Professionals International, the Events Industry Council, and Thrive Meetings and Events to create the “Guide to Managing Conference Delegate Dietary Requirements” to help meeting and event planners better work with venues to meet their attendees’ dietary requirements. Here are a few of the best practices the report outlines for accommodating religious and allergy- and health-related requirements, as well as lifestyle food and beverage (F&B) preferences.

1. Register requests. The best time to ask about dietary requests is when attendees register for the event, the report suggests. But don’t just give them a blank box to fill in, because that will make it harder to separate the must-have allergy, medical and religious dietary requirements from the like-to-have-but-not-essential F&B requests. It would be better to ask separately about food allergies, dietary restrictions due to health or religious requirements, and dietary preferences, with a note that, while you will try to accommodate preferences such as vegetarian, vegan, ketogenic and paleo diets, you can’t make any guarantees. The report includes downloadable graphics outlining common lifestyle, health-related and religious dietary details, as well as a dietary planning form.

2. Communicate requests with the venue. Some dietary requests, such as kosher and halal, may require meals to be brought into the venue from a facility certified to be in compliance with the religious restrictions, so it’s important to give your venue plenty of advance notice — the report suggests giving a seven-day heads-up. Let the banquet manager know your must-haves up front as well, such as allergen-free meals for those who have food allergies or intolerances. “A request for a certain type of food for the purposes of personal preference or to fit into a dietary program is different from a dietary request because of a medical-related and/or allergic reaction, which will impact the delegate’s health and well-being,” the guide states. “Different again are dietary requests for religious reasons. All are important, but should be considered and managed separately.”

Also ask to be informed in advance if any of your requests will entail an upcharge, so you can budget accordingly or inform the attendee that he or she will be charged an extra fee for the special request. Most venues won’t charge extra to provide allergen-free meals, but some other requests may come with a surcharge, the report says.

To make sure your venue has registered your dietary requirements, ask that your request form be signed and returned, and include the dietary needs in the BEO/event order. Also, when you meet with the venue to discuss catering, ask how special dietary requests will be handled, including staff training, food labeling and measures to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen.

3. Communicate with attendees. While common requests don’t require more than the usual registration confirmation, the report suggests checking in with attendees who have medical restrictions — where a mistake could be life-threatening — both before the event and when they arrive at the venue, to ensure that what you plan to provide will meet their needs. The report also highly recommends letting attendees know “what will be served, how it will be served and how the food will be labeled. This creates an organized meeting environment while also avoiding confusion and food waste.”

4. Healthier foods make for healthier meetings — and attendees. Among the healthier F&B options that venues should consider offering for meetings are appropriate portions of meals based on fresh produce; whole grains; lean meats; and reduced salt, sugar and animal fats.

Download the full report from the IACC website. IACC also plans to host a webinar on F&B trends on Jan. 24, 2019 (free to IACC member venues; $70 for nonmembers). — Sue Pelletier

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