2020 Event Catering Trends

David Abers
David Abers

Group of event attendees watching an interactive cooking experience at an event

Utilizing the latest event catering trends at your event is a must. Why? Because a meal isn’t just a meal. It’s an opportunity to make connections—to bring people together and share a culinary experience.

Run-of-the-mill catering delivers equally lackluster dining, which does nothing to please your hungry attendees. Better align with your attendees’ tastes by letting them vote on their preferred cuisine and dishes. Or take it a step further and engage a renowned chef to craft your menu. 

With elevated consumer interest in exploring new ingredients and cultural trends, interactive and hands-on cooking demonstrations are all the rage. Ideas include sushi-rolling classes and cocktail tasting sessions. Or tableside service has a range of options like Bloody Mary bars, cocktails from roaming carts, nitrogen ice cream stands or caviar carts. Regardless of what’s on the cart, tableside preparation gives the server the chance to focus solely on one diner, and the guests get to enjoy an incomparable, individualized and tasty experience.

Simply put, the stakes (and steaks) have changed for event catering.

Event catering can be a critical part of the event experience, or even the highlight. Now attendees need more than just a predictable meal to keep them in their seat. The food must look and taste amazing, plus be part of the overall story for your audience. The menu should act as part of the décor, entertainment and the overall experience.

Here are some trends that will help make 2020 a surefire culinary celebration.

Event attendee grabbing food wearing a lei necklace

Destination-Specific Cuisine

Chances are your people traveled to get to your event. They’re in a new spot and might even want to do some sightseeing on the side. While some people like to check out the city via taxi or subway, others prefer a fork and knife.

Destination-specific food is a huge trend. Create culinary adventures, side tours and sessions involving culture experts. It’s an easy way to impress your guests and show them local culinary highlights. In short, give their taste buds an experience they can’t get in any other place.

Savvy event planners will likely be turning toward domestic food sources as a result of recent trade wars and tariffs. Chefs and caterers will be look to locally produced foods to help save on the budget as well as sustainability.

Try this: Menus that have cultural influences and ingredients that are grown locally will continue to be popular. Hire a native restaurateur to serve up lunch or dinner featuring the destination’s famous foods.

Specialty drinks at a catered event

Local Spirits & Infused Cocktails

Your event agenda may be done for the day, but your attendees evening is just beginning. And just like food, they probably won’t be attracted to the same old suds they can get back home.

Beer and wine from nearby microbreweries and vintners are a must to give your people a truly local indulgence. But don’t stop there. When planning a cocktail party make sure to add in a non-alcoholic signature drink.

CBD and cannabis-infused cocktails still has some regulatory issues but there is a consumer demand. However, adding something like this depends heavily on where you are, your audience and what objectives you have for the event. According to the 2019 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast, Cannabis/CBD oil-infused food and drinks took the top spots in a landslide. Seventy-seven percent of chefs ranked cannabis/CBD oil-infused drinks as the number one trend and 76% ranked cannabis/CBD oil-infused food number two. States like Colorado and Washington where the drug is legal has mixologists that specialize in cannabis-infused beverages—specialty coffee and mocktails.

A balance of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks make events more inclusive, and enable attendees to better choose for themselves what they’d prefer to be drinking.

Try this: Tie your local dinner together by serving regional beverages. Creative non-alcoholic cocktails based on infusions from fruits, flowers and spices are perfect ways to allow everyone to get in on the fun and be social. Avoid mixing alcohol with your CBD- or cannabis-infused drink options. Also, no matter the cocktail, make sure all ingredients are clearly labeled for each libation so your attendees know exactly what they’re drinking.

Smart Menus, Smart People

The food you’re serving makes a real difference to the amount your people learn and can recollect from your event. It’s food for thought—literally!

Participants need to feel alert and ready to engage. And that starts with menu planning. No matter the setting, more people are opting for healthier options and foregoing the idea that special events make it acceptable to overindulge without consequences.

Try this: Healthy menus are what’s in. Plan your menu around high-protein, low-fat meats such as turkey, chicken, salmon or Omega-3-loaded fish (which have been proven to boost mental health); whole snacks that are not processed such as gourmet peas, edamame, popcorn, fruit and vegetables; superfoods, such as kale and avocados; and whole grains. And don’t forget healthy.

Grab and go food station at an event

Grab and Go

At events, your hard-charging teams are there to make connections. A grumbling stomach might be more of an inconvenience than anything else. Give them an opportunity to grab a meal and get back to work—quick. Taste buds are moving toward salty, savory, sour, bitter and spicy rather than foods high in sugar.

Small portions with the perfect pairing continues to impress. It’s all about ease for the attendee to have small portions that transport easily so they can mingle at the same time. It’s about serving up a gourmet dish with a drink that compliments it. Education is part of the experience and lends itself as an ice breaker and conversation piece.

Sugary foods that are served are done so in bite-size portions.

Try this: Serve flights of beer or wine to compliment the spread. For maximum impact, pair each food with its own drink, and display each combo on its own table. Placing the tables in different locations will encourage mixing and mingling, and offering small portions will allow people to sample everything without becoming overwhelmed. Or, bring in food trucks to let hurried diners get a taste of local flavors on the fly. But make sure the prep-time lends itself to a grab-n-go vibe.

Event attendees watching a chef making pizza in Rome

Food-Based Entertainment & Decor

On the other side of the spectrum, event food can be the event in itself. Put food in the limelight of your event through immersive experiences that serve up your message with a side of fun.

Accordingly, consider making food an activity in itself. A tour of a professional kitchen plus an interactive cooking class of local delicacies can give them memories they won’t soon forget.

You might even get a few attendees to share their experience. Instagrammable food and food experiences will help further help your event stand out as more and more attendees share what they’re having and engage with others in attendance.

Remember, your menu can tell a story. What story it tells is up to you: a story about who you are, or the location that’s been chosen. Perhaps you announce next year’s destination with a dessert of Baklava (a la Greece) or you complement your garden party theme with edible flowers and colorful ingredient.

Dining can be intimate or casual, sit-down or mobile. No matter the form, it is always a tactile experience. If you’re catering complements the rest of the event’s flow and story, it will exponentially deepen audience engagement.

Try this: Up your game with extra impact by turning plain old food stations into an experiential event. Offer fresh-to-order tortillas at your taco bar; have a pizzaiolo on hand to create and toss pizza dough right in front of guests; or bring in a chocolatier and have attendees create their own small box of chocolates rather than a chocolate fountain or fondue station.

Inclusive Dietary Options

A variety of dietary options is more important than ever, with 6 out of 10 Americans have some sort of dietary restriction—so it’s vital that a company understands and respects that a dietary restriction is more than just a “preference.” In some cases, it is medically necessary, and therefore every action should be taken to ensure the safety of the guests.

Create specialized menus that take into account all the possibilities: gluten-free, nut allergies, Kosher, Halal and more.

Plant-based proteins are seeing a huge spike. After the sensation of the “bloody” Beyond Burger, the company unleashed Beyond Beef, a vegan ground beef perfect for tacos, meatballs, and whatever else you can dream up. According to research, the plant-based food market is expected to reach $5.2 billion worldwide by 2020.

The trend toward natural and organic food is definitely not slowing down either. Looking ahead, attendees will be seeking out foods that provide natural enhancement—ingredients that promote physical, mental and emotional health, such as collagen, golden berries, functional mushrooms, turmeric and nutritional yeast.

It’s a huge disappointment when a participant arrives at an event and can’t actually eat anything that is served due to dietary restrictions. This causes logistical headaches for the participant and takes away from the positive experience they have at the event as a whole.

Try this: Include unique flavors, selections and treats on the menu to ensure a memorable, enjoyable experience for people of all dietary needs. During the event registration process, ask if guests have any special dietary needs. Send out invites and follow up on specifics with RSVPs to specify meal selection (and note special dietary needs) on a per-guest bases. This reduces catering costs, waste and ensures everyone can enjoy their meal—and, ultimately, the event itself.

Tea bar station at an event

Tea Station

Forget those poorly packaged tea bags. We’re talking authentic tea bars that offer many varieties of tea and tout its considerable health benefits.

You might be saying to yourself, this isn’t England who’s drinking tea instead of coffee? Turns out many as research shows three cups of tea per every cup of coffee are consumed worldwide.

Try this: Floral flavors could unseat the pumpkin spice obsession, according to the Whole Foods predictions. Botanicals and notes like rose and lavender will fill glasses for health-conscious drinkers looking to curtail their booze consumption.

Alcohol & Food Safety

If you’ve seen the news from spots such as Mexico, Costa Rica and Dominican Republic, you likely already know how important verifying and authenticating liquor can be (due to the tainted alcohol that has popped up in these vacation spots).

Verifying the food and beverage the provider has purchased their alcohol from approved licensed and bonded vendors with whom they have long term relationships. Specifically they have a valid Certificate of Registration with the US Food and Drug Administration for imported liquors and valid registration with their country such as Mexican authorities for national liquors, known as COFEPRIS (Comisión Federal para la Protección contra Riesgos Sanitarios).

Letters of authorization are also required (and standard policy for ITA Group). From direct liquor manufacturers to the regional or local distributors, validating the import and distribution of their brands. This helps with ensuring the safety of your guests.

Try this: Be extra vigilant if any of your attendees experience headache, dizziness, nausea, lack of coordination, confusion or anything more serious if they’ve been drinking, immediately after or up to 36 hours later. Getting treated as soon as possible is key to avoid permanent damage.

Meal Allowances

As an alternative to expensive, sometimes wasteful spreads and the perception of banquet food meeting, event planners are offering their attendees meal allowances or gift cards. This gives the attendees the flexibility to use it in their own way rather than scheduled meal times. It’s not uncommon that many don’t eat breakfast, settling for a specialty coffee instead. Thus a large breakfast would be wasted on them. Others might prefer room service as they get ready in the morning or after a long day rushing here and there for various sessions and speakers. Meal allowances help to increase the attendee experience while lowering the budget. 

Try this: Be mindful of maintaining contracted food and beverage minimums associated with groups.

Food Waste Warriors

Global food waste is a major problem. In the two minutes it takes to scan this post, roughly 15,210 tons of food will be produced; yet 4,943 tons of food of that will be wasted. And you can bet people are noticing.

Sustainability will be top of mind in 2020 with growing attention on the current climate crisis. The notion of closing the circle is increasingly taking hold, with greater attendee expectation that companies and brands will be more resource-smart in their event catering incorporating ideas like tip-to-tail eating, innovative uses for food waste and more biodegradable and renewable packaging. Other areas of interest include the ability to trace food products back to sustainable, local sources in order to reduce transportation times and limit our total carbon footprint of the event. Cutting down on food waste at events can mean lower costs and a greener planet.

Combatting food waste, both of extraneous packaging and food itself, should be a given at conferences going forward.

Try this: Choose in-season food that can be procured from local vendors who support sustainability initiatives to minimize the carbon footprint. Donate any leftovers to local food pantries or shelters, and boost recycling by adding more bins and educating participants about what is recyclable.

Truly immersive, strategic events are about engaging with people through all five senses—taste included. But how can you keep your audience engaged and coming back for more? Learn the three steps for effective engagement and how to grow your brand through immersive experiences in this ebook.

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