A seemingly freewheeling networking event over food and drinks can provide the structure needed to encourage new and lasting connections.
Conferences, working lunches and dinners, and team building events are still focused on their primary objectives—knowledge building and networking—but event organizers hungry for memorable professional development should think about food as an opportunity to create experiences that are more likely to engage attendees than standard hotel and convention center fare.
“Food and beverage is the glue that pulls an event together. It’s the one of the few elements of a meeting that affect all of our senses,” says Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC, an association of meeting venues and suppliers, in the association’s 2018 report.
Food tourism is a burgeoning industry. More than 75 percent of global travelers select destinations to experience the food, according to a report from Food Travel Monitor. AAA reports that 22 million Americans expected to take a food-focused vacation within the next year.
That’s where food tour operators can be useful, says Andy Potter, owner and operator of Austin Eats Food Tours in Austin, Texas. “There is a lot of pressure on people planning corporate events because there are higher expectations for these experiences,” Potter says. Food tour operators have well-developed relationships with local vendors. They can do the heavy lifting coordinating travel, securing venues and providing novel dining and entertainment experiences.
Because of their deep knowledge, food tour operators curate venues and cuisine choices that meet an event organizer’s unique needs. If your attendees are craft beer fans, enlisting a food tour operator can get you to the best beer venues at your destination than you might otherwise find. They can also organize tours accounting for myriad dietary restrictions, an increasingly important aspect of a meeting’s dining options, according to the IACC report.
The best food tour operators, Potter says, know what an event planner or hotel concierge is unlikely to know—the venues that are better than the places at the top of Google searches and listed in every tourist book. That allows them to offer custom events based on an event planner’s goals and needs. Potter’s group, for example, was enlisted by DISH Network to coordinate an event for 60 of the company’s top resellers as a reward for their contributions. The request: keep everyone together, provide a meal and live entertainment. Austin Eats curated a seven-hour event with two buses, two food tour guides, coolers in each bus with local beverages and four stops including a BBQ and a brew pub. At the last stop, the 60-person group was treated to a live band and dessert.
Custom experiences are key—the attendee experience has become a differentiator and a key driver in achieving the meeting or event objectives, according to the 2019 Global Meetings and Events Forecast from American Express. Attendees make natural connections they may not have otherwise. “Experiences are about unforced team building,” Potter says. “A lot of work gets accomplished when people sit down to a great meal, take off their work hat and relax.”