Meetings + Events
The power of gathering people
The power of gathering people
by Sandra Eagle
Memories of traipsing through throngs of people to fabulous chef stations and bars proffering sophisticated cocktails now seem like a scene from a dream sequence in a Hollywood movie.
Fast forward to how planners and venues are coping with meeting in a COVID-19 reality and you will find that there are some bright spots and a willingness to pivot and experiment with novel designs and experiences.
Shawn Lewis, food and beverage manager for The Prince George Hotel in Halifax, says: “It’s definitely the toughest time our business has ever had. I’ve been in this industry for 30 years and this is a completely different ball game. As a society we have to move forward.”
But moving forward is not without a huge change in how F&B is managed, handled and presented.
“We are down to a third of our meeting space as meetings slowly start to return in Nova Scotia,” says Lewis. “We have done a number of small meetings where groups of local people gather to have a Zoom call with their teams in Toronto.” Coffee breaks are served through the Lobby Bar, which is not open to the pub- lic during the day, and staggered 20 minutes apart to allow for cleaning between visits.
“We’ve also researched and invested in eco-friendly containers for hot lunches in a bag. They produce waste, but they compost. Now more than ever we are talking about sustainability—not just for climate but for our livelihoods, our community and workforce,” says Lewis.
So far, food security is not an issue, although sometimes suppliers aren’t able to source a certain item, says Lewis. “They substitute as best as they can, and it is really driving home local, sustainable suppliers. We are blessed in the Maritimes with our local food economy.”
Halfway across the country in Toronto, Peter & Pauls Hospitality Group has looked “inside the box” on how to cre- atively present breakfast, lunch and dinner.
With their large gift basket division, they can handsomely deliver a meeting in a box. Erin Breckbill, vice-president of sales and marketing for Peter & Pauls Hospitality Group, says, “One of our biggest concepts that has really taken off is events in a box. We can package it up with food, agendas and any sponsored col- lateral for attendees to have a Zoom call meeting. We can deliver breakfast, lunch, coffee breaks or dinners. Our biggest meeting so far is 1,100 people. Now we’re shifting our gears for Christmas and how we can do a holiday party in a box.”
They also hosted a drive-in theatre experience for the Canadian Mortgage Brokers Association in August in the parking lot of Peter & Pauls’ Universal Eventspace in Vaughan, Ont. “We like to run events throughout the year just to keep our name out there, but with COVID-19 you are limited in what you can do,” says Petra Keller, manager of events & membership development. “We decided to host a socially-distanced movie night. You still can’t network, but people were happy to get outside and at least they could wave to colleagues and sponsors.” Swag bags were handed out on arrival and boxed pizza was delivered to cars, followed by popcorn and sweets just before the start of the movie.
Large spaces in convention centres were meant to handle huge crowds with large food and beverage requests, but these days, smaller events are the norm. “The confidence to hold meetings is not quite there yet,” says Greg Smith, senior director of food and beverage at the Halifax Convention Centre (HCC).
“We had lots of time in April and May to write a safety protocol for everything,” he says, and a recent banquet at the HCC for 100 members of the Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance attests to that.
Each table was set, served and cleared by the same server, and hands were washed between every course. All staff were masked and there was no intermingling between tables. “We’ve met and exceeded every provincial protocol,” says Smith. “It’s all about guest and staff safety.”
Smith has also taken a proactive approach to get the latest updates and news. He chairs an ad hoc cross-country group with convention centre colleagues. “Every two weeks we get on a Zoom call to go over updates, as each province has their own regulations. We talk about new products or procedures that will help us all to recover.”
For food and beverage event service, the focus is now on safe delivery, rather than the latest on-trend food ingredient or style. Jennifer Rafuse is the general manager for Centerplate, the exclusive partner and provider of food & beverage at the Vancouver Convention Centre (VCC). She says, “The Van- couver Convention Centre has implemented custom-created hors d’oeuvres individually plated to reduce risk of transmis- sion, and a new in-seat beverage ordering system that allows guests to order a drink directly to their seat without having to line up, use cash or needlessly touch surfaces.”
Planners are looking for non-shareable food items, with increased interest in boxed or individual serving menu items. The VCC has created Individual Serving Menus that have ex- panded the hot and cold menu items available for guests.
Here’s a quick checklist of what to look for:
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