In an effort to meet the changing needs of conference clients, more and more hotels are transitioning from traditional banquet service to more engaging, specialized experiences, like hands-on food demonstrations and healthy, local fare. Here’s a look at what’s cooking at corporate meetings now.
Hotel properties have learned a universal catering lesson—people like to play with their food. “Immersive experiences where clients interact with the culinary team to actually help prepare foods tend to have the best feedback,” says Brian Cernik, director of meeting and event management at the Sheraton New York Times Square. “Clients consistently give these interactions very high praise post-event.”
At a March event, the Manhattan hotel’s culinary team, led by executive chef Joe Fontanals, created an interactive fresh mozzarella table, where balsamic pearls were made on demand—with the help of a giant cooking syringe—for the dish’s dressing.
“We’ve continued to see a steady increase in guests looking for more hands-on experiences,” says Christine Lawson, senior vice president of sales and catering for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. “[The experience] adds some oomph to what could otherwise be an ordinary business meeting and also doubles as a teambuilding activity that keeps the creative juices flowing.”
To help colleagues get to know one another during a three-day conference in March, the Westin Waltham Boston and its director of catering sales, Ted Daniels, hosted an Iron Chef-style cooking competition for a group meeting. Executive chef Peter D’Antonio divided the attendees into teams and asked each to prepare an appetizer or entrée in 30 minutes using a secret ingredient.
The presentation of food is also inviting more attendee involvement. For example, the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C., serves a big block of peanut brittle along with hammers so guests can break off their own pieces, says Joseph Richter, the hotel’s director of event sales, design, and group event services.
This kitchen interactivity goes beyond the menu items for some corporate gatherings. At the Sony Xperia Z1 launch event held at the One King West Hotel & Residence in Toronto in October 2013, the executive chef incorporated the new high-tech device into his culinary demonstration. To show off the waterproof phone, the chef used it to scrape food off a cutting board, then rinsed it under water.
Many hotels are continuing a playful vibe by moving away from the sterile atmosphere of traditional corporate meetings in favor of more comfortable, informal settings. For example, the Topaz hotel in Washington, D.C., offers its Zen Den, which includes low cushioned couches layered with exotic pillows, to small groups that need an on-the-fly place to meet, Lawson says. She adds that all Kimpton properties aim to replicate the warm, hospitable experience of hosting a gathering at someone’s home when planning a client’s meetup.
Sustainable, Local Fare
The popular farm-to-table trend flourishing in the restaurant industry is also cropping up in hotel catering requests. “We’re seeing that the companies who practice sustainability appreciate the fact that we offer options that cater to their core values,” says Cernik of the Sheraton New York Times Square, which hosted the annual Clinton Global Initiative in September 2013. These eco-conscious clients, who are concerned about their carbon footprints, can select local fare from the hotel’s “100 Mile Menus,” for which chefs source ingredients within a 100-mile radius of New York City.
Kimpton hotels now offer “Spike It” stations, where guests can mix their own drinks. The alcohol is available in premeasured shots to help control cost—and inebriation. Or clients can opt for nonalcoholic choices, such as lemonade with a selection of syrups and fruit or hot chocolate with classic toppings.
To cater to the growing number of health-conscious guests, the One King West Hotel & Residence has started serving more specialty water, juices, and nonalcoholic drinks, along with protein bars to help guests power through early morning meetings. Kimpton hotels offer blended smoothies and fresh-pressed juices featuring local, seasonal ingredients as well as D.I.Y. trail mix stations to help attendees stay energized and focused.