If you’re a regular reader of the MC Talks blog, you’ve seen it mentioned here and there that if you want to bump up attendance at meetings and conferences, feed your attendees.

Last week I read a blog that made me eat my words (pun intended.)

Aaron Wolowiec shared an unfortunate experience he had at ASAE 2013 concerning his special dietary needs. Being a lacto ovo vegetarian, he required a meal that contained no meat but dairy and eggs could be a part of it. It took several attempts before he actually got his meal (way later than everyone else) and it wasn’t exactly a culinary masterpiece.  Read about his whole ordeal here!

Should you feed your members?

(Not a current picture of Aaron)

Aaron brings up a good point. Even though his experience wasn’t the norm at the conference, it was definitely frustrating for him. And honestly, he’s not alone. Hardly a day goes by where a new diet isn’t being touted as the best thing ever and leads to people choosing to avoid very common ingredients such as dairy, gluten, or corn syrup. Not to mention a lot of people are choosing to eat organic and that adds another cost layer. Then there are, of course, the loads of people who prefer to lie somewhere on the vegetarian spectrum, anywhere from pescatarians who allow fish in their diets to strict vegans who avoid all animal products including eggs, dairy, and often honey.

These “–tarians” aren’t trying to be difficult. They are making food choices based on what they feel is best for their health, and chances are have done a boat load of research and consulted medical professionals or even a dietician.

And these are just dietary requests. Food allergies and sensitivities are very real and a critical concern. If someone with a food allergy gets a taste of the wrong thing, at best they’ll be an unhappy attendee both physically and emotionally and at worst it could mean shots, ambulance rides, and emergency treatment. It sounds dramatic but it is absolutely true: food allergies can come down to life and death and you’d be surprised how common they are and how common the foods they must avoid are.

Enough of the scaring, let’s do some problem solving. You want to be able to offer your guests, members, and attendees food without worrying about anyone needing an Epi pen.

If it’s possible, ask ahead of time for food allergies/preferences and give your members plenty of time to respond and give your caterers plenty of time to prepare. If a person has special dietary concerns, chances are he or she will be looking for that question anyway and may even reach out on their own. This may not always go flawlessly, but advance notice helps both you and the caterer make some decisions.

Buffets are always an option if there aren’t any critical allergies, but remember that table service just seems classier. Not that anyone minds a buffet. If you do go with buffet-style (or even with plated service) labels are huge help too. Make sure the buffet workers and the servers know which dishes to avoid for the most common allergies (these usually include dairy, gluten, and nuts) and if necessary, give them some papers to carry around. Don’t worry if it looks “less professional.” The information will be appreciated by those who need it.

You could avoid food entirely, but MAKE THAT CLEAR. If your meeting goes over lunch, your attendees will probably assume they’ll be fed. If you don’t plan on catering, provide a generous allotment of time (at least an hour) for people to grab their own meals. Also if this is your option, make sure there are places nearby to grab a bite.

Finally, give yourself a break. It is really, really tough to make everyone happy. You can do everything possible to make sure dietary preferences are met, but ultimately it’s up to the individual to speak up if they have particular needs (assuming you have an association full of adults and not children.) 

It’s frustrating to have one more thing on your plate, I know (pun intended again.) But taking that one extra step can make mealtimes go smoother at your event!

If you need some other help planning events, check out our free event planning guide!