It is inevitable that when managing a meeting, food issues always arise at the least convenient time. Almost all meeting professionals - planners and suppliers - can remember when they had a crisis involving food. If you have not experienced that "Uh-oh" moment, then consider yourselves lucky... And warned!
So join me now as we explore my top four Food Gotchas and some not so obvious ways to handle them with oven mitts.
* Gotcha #1 - It is a beautiful day for your client's outdoor BBQ. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and 200 participants will soon enjoy it all. The hotel, in its effort to be prompt, sets out the accoutrements for the lunch, to include the potato salad and coleslaw. Forty-five minutes later, you tell the hotel that your attendees are still not ready for lunch. They put the slaw and potato salad back inside, awaiting your call to bring them out again. Sure enough, three hours later, your attendees get sick.
* Gotcha #2 - The VP of Marketing - your most important client - is Jewish and has requested a Kosher for Passover meal. You made sure the request was acknowledged by the hotel and she unwraps her specially handled meal to discover a bagel with cream cheese, lox and a kosher pickle. (For those who don't know - bread is a no-no during Passover.)
* Gotcha #3 - No matter how much you plan, one of your participants will forget that they have a reaction to some kind of food. Now, I am not referring to a food allergy requiring immediate medical attention. This scenario is an attendee who turns an unappealing shade of purple because their digestive system has rejected the passed canapés. Maybe that reaction happens during the actual meeting, and they come to you for assistance. Or, perhaps, they go up to their room an hour after dinner, sick to their stomach. This is sometimes referred to as "food intolerance." It's unforeseeable and potentially unavoidable. Now it's in your hands.
* Gotcha #4 - The last Gotcha encompasses the oddball Snafus that often occur, but few plan for. For example, the sterno can catches on fire or someone burns themselves on a serving implement. One of the oddball Gotchas I see at least once a year is the spring-loaded cover on a chafing dish crashing down on an unfortunate buffet guest's hand.
So, what do you do now, to keep the Food Gotchas from leaving a bad taste in your client's mouth!
1. The planning for spoiled food starts with communication with your banquet staff. Most venues will tell you that the banquet staff relies on their documentation as to when to set out the food. I invariably find the on-site manager and explain that while we always hope to be on time, many meetings run early or late. Always insist that items that can spoil or go bad be placed out as close to the start time of the meal/break as possible. In addition, your responsibility does not end with communication. Get out from behind the registration desk or from the meeting room and take notes on times that food is placed, temperature of food, if it is outside, how hot or cold is it and what will that do to your meal. You want to have some type of paper trail that says, 'I ensured that the slaw was kept refrigerated or that the hot chocolate was kept hot.'
2. While knowledge of every religious and cultural doctrine related to food may be easily acquired today, thanks to the Internet, it is the communication between you and the vendor that is key. Ask them to send you a detailed description of every special meal plate. This way, you will not be caught unaware when your vegan attendee shows you her vegan entrée with butter-drenched rolls. (Butter comes from cows, and cows are a no-no for vegans).
3. Remember, food allergies can be devastating, even fatal. If someone is reacting very quickly or severely to any type of food or beverage, seek medical attention immediately. According to Dr. Lawrence Wilson, a nutrition consultant, "Food sensitivities are nothing to sneeze at. Over 60% of the population knows they must avoid certain foods. Many others are not aware they have food sensitivities. Many think that fatigue, itchy skin or a runny nose are normal." Have a plan in place for known food intolerance issues. Document the incident; ensure your contingency plan has directions and a map to a 24- hour walk-in clinic. Make sure you have designated in advance a point person who would accompany any attendee or staff member requiring medical attention. Those are great reactive methods for low impact food allergies. What do you need to help prevent or limit those incidents? We know you have asked attendees, speakers and staff for any food allergies or restrictions. You should also post complete menus, if possible, to help attendees avoid foods that impact them negatively, or interact dangerously with their medications. Make sure in your pre-con and staff walk-throughs that you talk through potential food issues.
4. This series of Gotchas are easy to react to, but harder to plan for. Make sure you always have either a staff member or venue representative in the room at all times during the meal. Fire extinguisher locations and training on how to extinguish a Sterno can are things all staff should be aware of prior to the meeting. Always have someone monitoring the buffet line for serving implements that remain in the chafing dish and will become too hot to touch safely. Pre-test your chafing dish covers. It may sound silly, but I can attest that all my digits are still intact because I routinely check all the chafing covers.
Food Gotchas can bite you hard, but with good communication between you and the banquet staff, along with some simple training techniques to react to situations, you should prevent the majority of them at your next meeting.