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Report: The Most Common Food Restrictions—and How to Manage Them at Meetings

In a recent report, I.A.C.C. teamed up with the World Obesity Foundation to explore the most common dietary requirements for event and meeting attendees.

By Claire Hoffman November 27, 2018, 7:02 AM EST

The report recommends centering recipes around fresh produce and offering plenty of fruit and vegetables, like this brightly colored veggie charcuterie from the Hotel Palomar Los Angeles.

Photo: Courtesy of Hotel Palomar Los Angeles—Beverly Hills

Last year, Mark Cooper, C.E.O. of meeting-venue association I.A.C.C., asked a room of 200 event planners if managing attendees' dietary needs was a challenge. “Seventy-five percent or more raised their hands,” Cooper explains in a press release. “I knew immediately that we needed to do more as an association and industry.”

The result of that revelation? I.A.C.C.'s latest report on how meeting planners and venues can accommodate dietary restrictions of all kinds. Teaming up with the World Obesity Foundation—as well as M.P.I., the Events Industry Council, and Thrive Meetings & Events—the association released the “Guide to Managing Conference Delegate Dietary Requirements” last week.

The report aims to establish some best practices for meeting-industry catering, searching for ways to accommodate religious requirements, health-related allergies, and other emerging diets without compromising the overall event experience. Cooper and his team noted that 75 percent of venues offer staff training on ways to deal with allergies, and only 33 percent of venues offer basic nutritional information on menus—but that 79 percent of meeting planners say they now receive more dietary requests than two years ago.

Here are some steps meeting planners and venues can take to accommodate the growing need for specialty catering options.

1. Figure out the requirements early in the process.
A venue typically requires seven days' notice for placing general food orders—especially for Kosher or Halal diets, where the food usually needs to come from outside vendors—so it's crucial to ask for any dietary requirements when guests register for the event. 

But avoid adding an open text box where attendees can fill in any dietary requirements, notes the report, which can lead to less-important suggestions rather than strict dietary requirements. Instead, use a registration form that asks more straightforward questions, then organize the data and send to the venue in a timely manner.

The report recommends separating allergens from other diets when requesting information, since allergies need to be considered the highest priority. “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 wellbeing,” the findings explain. “Different again are dietary requests for religious reasons. All are important, but should be considered and managed separately.”

Even if guests have not marked down specific restrictions, all catering, whether it's for a meeting break or a full-blown dinner, should have multiple options to accommodate for personal preferences.

Only 75 percent of venues offer staff training on ways to deal with allergies, and only 33 percent of venues offer basic nutritional information on menus.

2. Communicate your needs with the venue.
It's important for meeting planners to have a designated meal-related discussion with the venue, both to plan serving style (buffet, seated, etc.) and to make sure all dietary requests have been acknowledged and accounted for. Will ingredient lists be clearly labeled? Will contamination be prevented in the kitchen? Will staff be knowledgeable about the food being served?

Depending on the information attendees provided about food restrictions, some of this information will be vitally important. I.A.C.C. suggests breaking down the requirements into three categories: allergens/intolerances, dietary requests, and religious requests.

Occasionally, specialty diets will require additional charges, which need to be approved by either the venue or the event host. Note: Most venues will not charge for allergen-related needs, but some may charge extra for other requests. Before booking a venue, clarify what dietary and allergen requests they can cater for.

“If the attendee’s request is fairly reasonable and affordable, in most cases the host of the event will foot the bill,” adds the report. “On occasion, attendees or even presenters can be very specific with their food and beverage choices and in some extreme circumstances they should be asked to foot the bill or absorb some sort of fee for their additional request.”

3. Educate yourself on the most common diets.
Planners have long accommodated vegetarian diets in a time when 29 percent of the world forgoes meat, but an increasing number of people are adopting dietary restrictions for health, religious, or lifestyle reasons. The most common diets include vegan, pescatarian, or the ketogenic and the Paleo diets.

Attendees may also have diabetes or Celiac disease, which requires them to be gluten-free. And others may have religious restrictions, so it's important to study the Kosher diet—which prohibits the mixing of dairy and meat, among other restrictions—and the Halal diet, which prohibits the use of alcohol.

4. Take allergies seriously.
The most common food allergies are: peanuts (one in 50 children are now allergic), tree nuts, shellfish, fish, milk, eggs, soy, and wheat. To prevent unexpected guest reactions, which can lead to everything from hives to difficulty breathing, venue operators need to be compliant with food labeling legislation in their cities. Meeting planners should also educate themselves on the rules and be fully prepared to answer questions or provide nutritional information when requested. Less than half of venues currently display basic nutritional information on menus.

5. Above all, make sure the attendee is comfortable.
In some cases, venues will want to speak directly with the meeting attendee about their needs. Meeting planners should always be looped in on that conversation, as they are ultimately the ones responsible for each guests' well-being.

On the day of the event, it's crucial that attendees with dietary needs do not feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. Meeting planners and venues should work together to find a subtle way to communicate who should receive what dish, without making a scene.

“It is important that delegates with allergen or dietary needs are not left feeling like second-class citizens or isolated,” explains the report.

6. Don't neglect wellness.
Even attendees who don't have strict requirements may want healthier options to choose from. “Healthy meeting environments improve delegate productivity and leave them with a positive memory of the event,” says the report. “By working with a venue which embraces this, your event will stand out and delegates will feel their wellbeing is being considered.”

The report recommends centering recipes around fresh produce, offering plenty of fruit and vegetables, and using whole-grain bread, pasta, and rice when possible. Creating appropriate portion sizes, serving sauces and dressings on the side, and limiting the use of salt, added sugar, fat, and red meat can also go a long way.

In January, I.A.C.C. plans to host two webinars for meeting planners and venues focused on food and beverage trends.

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