Why providing choice is an ever-increasing challenge for chefs

Written by Caroline Bull
Feb 01, 2018

Never before have event delegates had such varied tastes

But with trends changing all the time, what food should be part of an all-inclusive package – and what should clients pay extra for?

We were recently helping a client plan an event for 100 people and when we asked if anyone had special dietary needs, no fewer than 37 people said yes. Low GI, vegan, gluten free, dairy free, Kosher, Halal – the humble vegetarian doesn’t even qualify as ‘special’ any more.

To put that in context, ten years ago, we’d have been more likely to have just 4 or 5 people with special requests at an event for 100 people.

This issue was really brought home for me when I recently attended the IACC Knowledge Festival in London with 150 industry specialists from around the globe. When food trends were debated, 45% of our audience of conference and training venue professionals stated that they suffered from food intolerances or allergies.

It shows how much more sophisticated our diets have become. Particularly here in London with one of the most culturally diverse populations in the world and where food fashions change as frequently as the window display in Selfridges.

The rise of the vegan

Last year we saw record requests for Low GI food across our five central London training and meeting centres and there’s been a huge increase in requests for vegan food in 2017. Even people without a strict dietary regime are more likely to want organic food and to be concerned about the provenance of what’s on their plate – wanting to know that meat is from a farm with high standards of animal welfare and from sustainable sources.

Another challenge is that different groups of delegates need different sorts of catering. It’s not stereotyping to say that if we’re hosting a networking event for women in business, it’s sensible to make sure there are lots of healthy and low carb options. But if we have a training event for graduates, it’s like a swarm of locust in the building who’ll eat everything in front of them - and hungry young people need large portions and plenty of sustaining carbs!

From superfood salads to super-sweet treats

Over the 25 years I’ve been running London training and conference centres, I’ve seen a huge shift from food being a pretty basic add-on, to it moving centre stage.

So many people want vegetarian food now that at CCT Venues we have a Chef who specialises in it and creates imaginative and delicious vegetarian food every day.

We also have a specialist pastry chef who creates the most amazing desserts and patisserie. People lap them up – they just don’t generally want large desserts. So I was particularly interested in two other polls at the IACC conference in London which showed that 35% of the audience had been on more than one calorie or fat reducing diet in the past 12 months. However despite that and the 45% of respondents having special dietary requirements as a result of allergies or intolerances, 56% stated that they were more likely to opt for a sweet treat than a healthy fruit platter at lunchtime.

I’ve noticed that people visiting our training and meeting venues are, however, less likely to eat a big hot lunch when they see the huge variety of fresh, colourful and imaginative salads we have. Many opt for a plate of salad with a piece of meat or fish on the side, rather than cooked vegetables and potatoes.

The food factor

I have no doubt the increasing importance of food will continue. With the trend for people to attend fewer training events and work more in virtual teams or from home, they want a special, enjoyable experience when they get together and something equally special to eat.

All this is fascinating stuff to a self-confessed foodie like me, but a bit of a headache as someone who runs a training and conference venue business in London. Client budgets are certainly not expanding at the same rate that delegates’ food preferences are diversifying – if anything, event organisers need more value than ever before.

As always, we turn to what’s in our control and two things that help us manage costs are reducing food waste and buying seasonal, locally sourced produce which also reduces our carbon footprint.

However as detailed in IACC's latest research food trends change, it’s certain that catering for large groups will only get more complex as people get more fastidious about what they eat. Venues will need to be creative about how they manage the impact on costs. And, however we do that, we must always hit the highest level of quality while adapting to the changing needs and expectations of our food-loving clients in the Capital.

Caroline Bull is the CEO of CCT Venues, one of London's leading groups of conference, meeting and events venues.

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