2021 Event Catering Trends

By: David Abers
attendees in line at a self-serve sous vide food stationAbove: Attendees try self-serve sous vide food station.

It’s probably fair to say that 2020 has been a tough year for most of us. It’s been filled with uncertainty and changes to the fundamental routines that we’ve built for ourselves.

For the event catering industry, it was our most challenging time to date. Most major events have been postponed or cancelled through the spring of 2021, which is why thoughtful contemplation about the future of our industry will not only help us cope, it will also give us the opportunity to help shape the next normal.

The fear of exposure and catching the coronavirus is top of mind for both attendees and event organizers alike. The pick-up in the events business will be directly proportional to the flow of good news—the announcement and widespread distribution of a viable vaccine.

But in order for events to once again flourish a vaccine won’t be enough. We will also need to regain public confidence that events are safe to operate. And we will need to do so in way that doesn’t make them feel overly sanitized.

With coronavirus guidance evolving as new information is brought to light, we may have to reimagine what events look like to accommodate safety guidance as well as attendee preferences to return to a sense of normalcy and have high expectations for events.

So what will 2021 look like? It will be about finding the right balance. Balancing risk against return; human connection while maintaining distance; service with technology; healthy cuisine with comfort food; and cost without sacrificing value—balancing all will be key.

Another part of the equation to consider is staffing. We’ll likely need more staff at each event to help ensure each guest’s experience is top-tier. With more food stations and bars designed to reduce lines you’ll need more culinary staff, bartenders, service and additional staff in place to help guide attendees through the new procedures.

From more elbow room to socially responsible sourcing to risk mitigating technology, here’s some things to keep in mind for in-person events moving forward.

Attendees Expect Higher Levels of Cleanliness & Risk Mitigation

mask and sanitizer pack and buffet guards to mitigate health riskAbove: Packets with masks and sanitizer for attendees and plastic guards on food serving stations help mitigate health risk.

When determining your risk there is a lot to consider. Perception of holding your event will play a crucial role in whether your event moves forward. Additional considerations are current government guidance and mandates, attendee demographics, destination, supplier service—the list goes on. With all the restrictions (or risk), at some point you have to carefully and truthfully assess whether the objectives of your event will continue to be met.

No matter what people may think of you hosting an in-person event, we know the well-being of attendees is always at the forefront of every event planners minds. However, we must adapt where needed. Most easily notable is the rise in visible sanitation staff that has become the standard. We have to rethink every aspect of the planning process and integrate safety and health risk mitigation into literally every aspect: the communication to attendees, the space, menu, entertainment, décor and service.

Transparency & Communications Go a Long Way to Mitigate Attendee Concerns

There will be a heightened awareness of health and safety standards from attendees at events. Having a transparent and robust communication plan in place will be key. People will want to know whether the event has adapted to new safety and sanitation protocols before agreeing to attend an event. Give details relevant to the current conditions and any specific to the event. For example, there will be some setbacks in green catering practices as safety will take priority. A few notable standouts include a return to individually packaged condiments, increased use of disposable packaging and bottled beverages. Explaining your reasoning behind decisions demonstrates thoughtful consideration is being given to ensure their comfort and well-being.

You may also consider having a safety greeter at the entrance of your event to help explain the experience including added safety protocols and any specific direction the attendee should be made aware.

Event cleaning measures should be visible and protocols clearly posted. Hand sanitizer should also be readily available in addition to masks. Attendees will have less patience for staff not practicing safety measures and heightened awareness of their surroundings. Unattended restrooms, empty soap dispensers and over-flowing garbage cans will call into question the cleanliness of your event.

Having strong safety and health protocols as part of your event is here to stay so be creative in your approach without the event feeling overly sanitized.

Some Attendees Will Still Seek Out the Opportunity to Connect Face-to-Face

People have been gathering around tables sharing stories, laughter and making connections with one another for centuries. The desire to do that won’t change.

If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s shown us just how much we crave human connection. It’s currently at the forefront of our minds with family gatherings and friends for holidays being called into question.

Interacting with others is the purpose and the foundation of every event, and 2021 will be geared toward creating an environment that feels safe for the attendees to connect in. It’s no longer about personal space but understanding the appropriate distance in a given environment.

There will be differing levels of comfort and each should be respected. You can make individual preferences known by incorporating visual communication into your event. One such way that is already very popular is to hand out contact wristbands that take a cue from traffic lights:

  • Red: Stop—no contact
  • Yellow: Practicing caution—keep 6 feet separation
  • Green: I’m comfortable with close contact

Be creative when incorporating a version of this concept into your next event.

Other Attendees Will Want Lots of Elbow Room

event attendees sitting six feet apart at a meal

Event planners have always looked toward the right sized venue for their event. Now the scrutiny is even higher as event planners must be more strategic when space-planning.

Seating, bars and attended food stations will all need additional space to allow staff and attendees to appropriately distance themselves from one another. You will also have to consider the flow of your event.

For events with an agenda, consider staggering meal times to allow for optimal distancing. This will help you manage your space better and also help limit exposure to the sub groups—not your entire group.

Large, open outdoor spaces will be a popular as they ensure more distancing. As indoor weather back up options may not be a consideration for your client destinations with a warm climate and low rainfall like Arizona and Los Cabos will be higher in demand for this reason.

Don’t Underestimate the Impact of a Memorable Experience

event staff at self-serve sushi boxAbove: Self-serve sushi station.

Clients are still looking to make their experience memorable for their attendees. Developing creative ways to serve food will be ongoing.

In the short-term we may see a temporary return to plated meals and pause on tray-passed canapes. Traditional self-service buffets will be transformed into fun, themed chef-attended experience stations serving individual prepared plates—grab and go style. Or contactless coffee stations with the aid of apps or baristas.

Or combine to reinvent break time. For meetings consider bringing the break to the attendees by having pre-packed snack boxes and beverages at each meeting place setting.

Get creative and elevate the experience with vertical foods stations or motion menus—conveyor belt style buffet offering small plates. This will allow you to maximize your space and increase selection.

Other considerations might include getting creative packaging that aligns with the food item. For example, a small charcuterie boards in wooden take out boxes or Asian inspired food in bento boxes.

Be Creative When Considering Technology for Your Next Event

COVID-19 has accelerated the need to incorporate more contactless technology in events. Creative technology with innovative service strategies will have a long-lasting impact and practical use beyond COVID-19.

Tech-savvy attendees will play a key role in what moves forward and what doesn’t.

Using an event app is just one way you can communicate the event details in advance but also keep attendees engaged throughout. Make sure to include details on menu options, food and beverage service, entertainment and the agenda for the evening.

By incorporating seat assignments you have the ability to go personalized with served meals and drinks. Attendees can also communicate their dietary requirements when ordering in advance. No more bar lines. Your drinks will be brought right to your seat. This will help reduce waste, improve on service and most importantly customer satisfaction.

For events with food stations include a digital interactive map with details on items at a specific station. Attendees can make a decision in advance what stations they will want to visit.

If the bar is not hosted you may consider offering bar packages for purchase in advance or opt for a scan “pay as you go” option. Virtual drink tokens / credits similar to what the airlines use on board will also be popular.

Help create connections by giving the attendees an opportunity to upload pictures and add brief details about themselves. The more seamless a user experience you can provide the more likely attendees will engage with the app.

Last Year’s Trends Haven’t Gone Away, They’re Just Geared Toward Health & Social Responsibility

plant-based-food catering trend self-serve chia bowlsAbove: Trends such as plant-based food selection will continue through 2021.

Admittedly, the pandemic wasn’t a consideration when writing last year’s catering trends post. The predictions, however, hit their mark. Grab and go, food safety, sustainable, clean, locally sourced, plant-based foods, and cannabis products have all seen increased use (becoming a lifestyle for many).

When planning menus, health and social responsibility will be at the forefront in shaping our new norm. There will be an increased demand for seasonal, organic, vegan, vegetarian, foods with anti-oxidant qualities and other healthy foods as a result of the pandemic.

Due to reported origins and lack of understanding of the coronavirus there was a dramatic drop in the demand for Asian food in 2020. As the world re-opens we’ll see the demand return to normal. The pandemic has also made people rethink exotic foods and animal-based proteins. People want to better understand where their food comes from and that it was ethically produced. We will see an uptick in locally sourced food, which should be noted on the menu for additional attendee assurance.

With all the changes around there is still a strong desire for familiarity—comfort food that soothes the soul. Luscious, rich, sweet foods and meat will always have their place on every menu; however, we’ll likely see less and more requests focused toward healthier options. Punch up classic menu items by reimagining comfort foods with healthier ingredients. Plant-based cream sauces and meat substitutes have become great at mimicking their original counterparts both in taste and texture.

When events are viable again attendees are going to want to post their experiences on social media. Instagram-worthy dishes will continue to trend but on an advance level. Creative, tasty, healthy and beautiful dishes will help take your event to the next level.

Expect Increased Pressure to Show Value & More Budget Cuts

Events will continue to play an important role in corporate marketing and incentive strategies. There will always be a need to motivate your best customers or employees. So too there will also be a need to gather socially. But with some experiencing financial loss or concerns about the economic outlook there will be increased pressure to prove ROI and budget cuts.

At the same time, the financial impact to the event catering industry has been tremendous. You will need to find ways to address potential budget shortfalls. Again—2021 will be about balance!

Operational costs will increase to accommodate the new safety and sanitation protocols, increased staffing, additional space requirements, higher food prices, and technology. You will have to balance these with decreased revenue due to lower attendee numbers and reduced transportation costs with more events being hosted locally.

Event planners would be wise to develop fewer, but stronger suppliers. Joint business planning benefits both you and your supplier. Sourcing local/domestic may help reduce costs as well.

Event caterers can help reduce their costs with shorter menus focused on the most popular dishes that are cost effective, with à la carte items available with more advance notice. This will help reduce both food costs and help limit the number of cooks needed to prepare the dishes.

Recovery—Greatest Transformation of Our Time

The event catering industry will most certainly have a strong comeback post-pandemic. Until then, we are in a renaissance—this is an opportunity for everyone in our industry to create new ideas and bring innovation into everything we do. It could very well be the greatest transformation time of modern day.

One thing is for certain: Those that embrace change and innovate during this time will recover!

It may not be soon, and there are still challenging times ahead. We will have to rethink every aspect of what we do, but we will recover and prosper again.

Want to hear more ideas, tips and recommendations from the event experts at ITA Group? Connect directly with ITA Group's Event Solutions Director, Erica White, today!

David Abers
David Abers

As Events Account Manager, David manages strategic accounts to ensure service consistency, and oversees everything from large-scale meetings (e.g. trade shows) to incentive travel events. He partners with internal team members to ensure on-time, on-budget delivery with a focus on creative, always with a goal of staying one step ahead of the competition. In a former life, David owned a Caribbean eatery frequented by ITA Group-operated travel programs which is how he found his way into the meetings and events business. To this day, he enjoys cooking up a good gourmet meal. David is CMP certified.