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Industry Innovators 2022: Thomas Whelan

The Boston-based director of banquets for Levy Convention Centers is passionate about making the F&B industry a more diverse, inclusive place.

A memorable recent event Whelan worked on was for the Van Gogh Exhibit in Milwaukee. “We used the food story to highlight the amazing work of Van Gogh, including using the art as backdrops to our chef's tables, incorporating the classic color stories into the food and vessels, and reflecting the artistic vision in even the smallest details like menu tags,” he says.
A memorable recent event Whelan worked on was for the Van Gogh Exhibit in Milwaukee. “We used the food story to highlight the amazing work of Van Gogh, including using the art as backdrops to our chef's tables, incorporating the classic color stories into the food and vessels, and reflecting the artistic vision in even the smallest details like menu tags,” he says.
Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Whelan

Thomas Whelan Green Coat (bolo)Photo: Courtesy of Thomas WhelanThomas Whelan is the director of banquets for Levy Convention Centers. He's based in Boston.

How he got his start: Whelen has been working in food and beverage for more than two decades, dating back to his first job at a South Boston restaurant when he was 14. “As a former barista, line cook, kitchen manager, sales manager, operations manager and marketing manager, I have been able to touch so many aspects of our industry,” he says. “After so many years, I can say without a doubt that I was born to be an F&B operator.”

Whelan’s passion for meetings and events kicked off at The World Bank Group in Washington, D.C., where he served as a catering manager with Restaurant Associates. “I found myself looking forward to servicing our annual meetings with more than 10,000 attendees,” he remembers. “Upon returning to Boston, I joined the Levy Restaurants team at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. In this role, I support both convention centers in Boston and have been able to support some of our operations teams at marquee events across the country.”

The best part of his job: “The people! Although food and beverage are the stars of the show, the people are what make it truly special,” he says. “I have been able to work with F&B professionals across the country this year in Portland, Philadelphia, Lexington, New York, Chicago and so many places in between. Our team members are resilient, smart, caring and passionate, and some of the most amazing people I have met in my life are from this industry.”

Whelan also cites the support of his company and its people-first approach. “When I have a crazy idea, my team always pushes me to take it further and explore every possible avenue to create something special,” he says. “My mentors and leaders—Cindy Thibault, vice president of hospitality, and chef Kaeo Yuen, executive chef here at the BCEC—have always been so supportive of my creativity and imagination. You can always find us huddled up and brainstorming about how we can get better each day.”

What innovation means to him: To Whelan, it’s always about bringing a fresh approach to how things have traditionally been done. “It is imperative to remember that what is innovative in one location may not be innovative somewhere else, and vice versa!” he adds. “Recognizing your audience and their palate is crucial to hitting the mark.”

He continues: “It is my goal with every event to exceed my client’s expectations. So often we have to remind ourselves as partners in events that we are there to execute and amplify our client’s message, not to create our own. I feel most innovative when I am able to enhance my client’s brand through F&B,” he says, adding: “I feel most passionate when our food can reaffirm my client’s commitment to equitable practices.”

A memorable recent event: Every year, Whelan’s team helps host PAX East, the largest gaming event on the east coast. “Executive chef Kaeo and our culinary dream team whip up some incredible limited-edition food items, and I love the creativity that the team puts into this event each year,” he says. “Only a limited number of guests get to experience the menu, so those that are in on it get so excited about being part of a special experience.” In 2019, the PAX East menu included larger-than-life versions of favorite comfort foods, including an enormous cheeseburger, a giant chocolate-glazed doughnut, a vanilla-frosted doughnut, oversize “Wookie Dough,” the Pac-Man 'Pinata' cookie, and the 'Atilla the Bun'—20-inch cinnamon bun.In 2019, the PAX East menu included larger-than-life versions of favorite comfort foods, including an enormous cheeseburger, a giant chocolate-glazed doughnut, a vanilla-frosted doughnut, oversize “Wookie Dough,” the Pac-Man "Pinata" cookie, and the "Atilla the Bun"—20-inch cinnamon bun.Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Whelan

For the Van Gogh event, Whelan says, “the team lead by general manager Julio Henriquez and executive chef Chris Pulling curated an amazing menu, and our on-site team created a really special experience that enhanced the event's decor and theme and focused on the message.”For the Van Gogh event, Whelan says, “the team lead by general manager Julio Henriquez and executive chef Chris Pulling curated an amazing menu, and our on-site team created a really special experience that enhanced the event's decor and theme and focused on the message.”Photo: Courtesy of Thomas WhelanAnother example that springs to Whelan’s mind is from this past July, when he joined the Levy team in Milwaukee to help launch the Van Gogh Exhibit at the Wisconsin Center District. “There we used the food story to highlight the amazing work of Van Gogh, including using the art as backdrops to our chefs tables, incorporating the classic color stories into the food and vessels, and reflecting the artistic vision in even the smallest details like menu tags,” he says. 

Where he finds inspiration: To Whelan, inspiration comes from collaboration with his team members, which in Boston includes about 500 people, whose experience in the event industry ranges from one day to 30 years. “They provide a wealth of different experiences and perspectives that contribute so much creativity and richness to our team,” he says. “I love asking about the best thing they have seen, or when was the last time they were blown away. Like clockwork—every time—you see it on their faces when they talk about these events. I want to recreate that look on my guests’ faces.”

His all-time favorite food: “Whatever I’m having next!” Whelan jokes. “I love eating, working with food and especially, the memories people share around food. If I were a Real Housewife, my tagline would be 'life’s a buffet, and I want seconds!'"

But, he adds: “I still dream about the fried chicken I got at Chatuchak Market in Bangkok.”

In his free time: Whelan is on the board of directors for the SEARCH Foundation, on the board of directors and serving as events chair at the LGBT Meeting Planners Association and serves as president of the Massachusetts Live Events Coalition

His biggest hope for the F&B industry: Moving forward, Whelan hopes to see an increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion on F&B teams. “I really hope that if an F&B professional is given an opportunity to ‘hold the door open,’ they will hold it open for someone who has a different background or different life experience than them,” he says. “We all get opportunities to mentor and pass along our success—it only makes it better when we get to usher in our next wave of leaders. I wouldn't be where I am today without numerous people looking out for me, so I feel immense pride in being able to do the same thing for the next generation.”

To Whelan, this approach to diversity also applies to the companies and vendors he buys from. “There are so many amazing vendors out there with unique approaches to food. We need to keep exploring local food incubators that are helping minorities, women and veteran-owned businesses,” he says. “When we try that food and add it to our menu, we are increasing inclusivity and diversity in our industry.”

To start, Whelan recommends reaching out to places like iCater in Boston, Philabundance in Philadelphia and Central Union Mission in Washington, D.C. “These organizations are providing workforce training to future chefs who, until the creation of programs like these, have not had access to the education others have. They are making sure that if you are passionate about being a chef, you can do it no matter who you are or where you come from—and that is such an important mission for F&B to be supporting," he says.

"The bottom line is that I want people who love food and love cooking in my kitchen—so I hope that one day anyone who has that drive and that passion will be able to work in our industry.”

Back to the full list: "Industry Innovators 2022: 10 Caterers and F&B Pros Making Their Mark on the Hospitality Industry"

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