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Is Meal Sharing the Next Trend in Conference Dining?

Forget standard banquet fare, a home-cooked meal may be on the menu for your next event.

BonAppetour is one of several online social platforms that connects travelers with local hosts who prepare and serve meals in their homes.
BonAppetour is one of several online social platforms that connects travelers with local hosts who prepare and serve meals in their homes.
Photo: Courtesy of BonAppetour

The sharing economy is driving disruption across the event industry. Planners and attendees have additional options for transportation with services like Uber and Lyft and for accommodations with sites like Airbnb. One of latest to emerge in this new economy is for meal sharing—online platforms to connect business and leisure travelers with local hosts who are willing to prepare and serve meals in their homes. Sites such as BonAppetour, VizEat, EatWith, Meal Sharing, Traveling Spoon, and Feastly are some of the food sharing services in operation. Most of these began with a focus on individual travelers, but now some are creating options to serve large groups of conference and meeting attendees to meet a desire for more unusual and locally immersive experiences.

BonAppetour is one such platform. The online service came out of beta in December 2014 and now offers private dining experiences in more than 80 cities around the world, including 10 in the United States, ranging from an Italian dinner served on a rooftop terrace in Venice to traditional South African fare at a home in Cape Town and a sushi-making class in Tokyo. BizBash spoke to Rinita Ravi, co-founder and C.E.O. of BonAppetour, to find out more about how meal sharing works and the options available to the event and meeting community.

You have about 500 hosts around the world. What sort of process do you have to find and approve hosts?
In key cities we actively seek out hosts. In other cities people apply to be hosts. We have a set of criteria that hosts need to fulfill in terms of hospitality, food quality, food hygiene, how relevant their home atmosphere is to host dining events, and things like that. We ourselves, the BonAppetour team, meet the hosts personally and taste their food. In cities where we can’t go, we have a network of ambassadors who are food bloggers or travel bloggers who do the verification for us using set guidelines that we give them.

Do most of your hosts have experience as chefs?
They are definitely people with prior cooking experience. Either they have been personal chefs before or they have been doing home-based food businesses, things like that. But we also have a special group of people who are aspiring chefs. They haven’t had any formal degree, but it has been their passion, which means they have gone above and beyond trying to get creative with their cooking styles and menus.

Your website provides links to every city around the world where you have hosts, with descriptions and in some case photos of the meals being offered. So guests can reserve the experience online?
Yes, this way guests can browse through the various dining experiences and directly get in touch with the host by messaging them through our platform. All they do is sign up, and if they have any questions about the menu or about the location or if they want to plan something private, for example a special event, they can speak to the host directly to make these arrangements. Once everything is confirmed on both parties, they can make an advance payment. We hold the payment and transfer it to the host after the dinner. This way both parties are protected.

Are guests able to see a specific menu in advance?
The site lists a general menu, but our hosts are generally very open to changes. If a guest has a special recommendation or something they want to try, they are free to request it from the host directly. If they have food allergies or preferences, for example gluten intolerant or vegetarian, they can make that known to the host and get a special menu curated before they pay for it.

How does the price compare to dining out?
We generally try to keep it equal to a mid-level restaurant or slightly lower than that. For the hosts, they don’t have expenses like rent and things like that so they are able to offer very customized dining experiences. In the event that there is something very special they are planning, it would be a different charge. Or if it’s cooking classes, it would be higher than just the meal. In general the pricing is about $30 to 40 per person, and this would generally include a five-course meal.

You’ve worked with several conferences and large groups. Can you share any examples?
Just yesterday we had a booking from Switzerland for a group of people going to Barcelona. They were going there for a conference, and the company wanted to sponsor their employees to go for a recreational activity that was a bit out of the ordinary. So instead of a restaurant they booked a tapas workshop with us with a host that has a rooftop space. In the past we’ve had groups who maybe didn’t want to be seen in the public, so they book private dining with one of our hosts. We’ve also had teambuilding activities like cooking classes that have been conducted at our host homes.

For a large conference or meeting, can planners work with you to reserve several hosts and then allow guests to pick where they want to dine?
Yes, in most cities there are several hosts who live in close proximity to each other, so people can definitely pick. Our hosts are curated so their locations are very accessible as well so transportation shouldn’t be a problem. In some cities we have hosts who have access to locations that might not be easily available to other people, meaning they can book things like gardens or bungalows, for large groups.

And can these large groups do all of the booking online as well or is there a different process for them?
A lot of corporate bookings are either recreational in nature, or they have a specific purpose to bring colleagues closer together in a relaxed environment. Generally what I would do is to recommend hosts I feel would be suitable for this kind of thing, who are able to accommodate based on the location as well. For these kinds of inquiries we recommend people send it directly to our email so we can give the best recommendation.

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