Should Attendees Pay More For Special Meals?

When meeting participants request special meals for non-medical or non-religious reasons, should they shoulder some of the costs?

Almost half of those who responded to our survey about dietary restrictions said no to surcharges for attendees who ask for special meals. A few, 5 percent, said yes — and another 51 percent said that it depends on how those requests are structured and presented.

There’s lot to chew on in this question. As a person who lives with food restrictions, I’m aware that it can be expensive, and more than a little inconvenient, to accommodate them. Survey respondents agreed: When asked to identify the biggest challenges when accommodating dietary requests, 38 percent of planners said cost, and 57 percent cited extra work.

It sounds like a good idea to me to charge an affordable amount — maybe $25 a day? — to ease the burden. I always spend at least that much to buy supplemental food when traveling to a multiday meeting. I fill my suitcase with gluten-free crackers, energy bars, packets of nut butter, and gluten-free granola — then I might spend an additional $25 or more a day on site, depending on the destination. If pastries, waffles, or unlabeled oatmeal and yogurt comprise breakfast options, I go out in search of a hard-boiled egg, or order room service. I can get by on a skimpy lunch, but by the end of the day, I may come back to my room hungry and order a protein-rich snack. Paying a little extra, and knowing that I’d be able to eat full meals along with other attendees, would be a win for me.

As much as I am personally in favor of it, is it legal to levy a blanket surcharge at meetings? Last year, Thrive! Meetings & Events’ Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, addressed this issue in a guest column published at pcma.org. “Since eating was added to the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 as a major life activity, it covers any person that needs to eat a specific way to remain healthy and safe. That includes individuals with food allergies, diabetes, celiac disease, and more,” Stuckrath wrote. “Under the ADA, we must provide a reasonable accommodation for them that is of equal value and quality. The only way that we could possibly charge more is if it caused an undue burden to the caterer and/or planner.”

It’s a seemingly intractable problem — but two written responses to our survey, taken together, strike me as near-perfect solutions. One read: “For special meals, [attendees] need to identify it in the ADA section. Those with preferences typically do not put the info here. Those with allergies do — and then we contact them.” The other comment: “Only charge if it is a preference, and not a need.” That completely turns my original impulse on its head: Ask straightforwardly about whether a medical need is involved, and then create a surcharge for those who identify their requests as preferences. It has the potential to solve two problems. One of the things that 71 percent of survey respondents found most annoying are attendees who request special meals and don’t eat them, or those who request special meals only after they are on site.

Charging in advance for preferences would discourage the dietary-restriction dabblers — those who check a gluten-free box, but then bail out at the first sign of a crusty baguette or chocolate cupcake, or who specify vegetarian but can’t resist the steak. By charging attendees with a food preference — not an actual need — for a special meal, meeting organizers educate those who order special meals on a whim that they do come with a price tag.

It is possible that some people might claim to have medically mandated dietary restrictions when they do not, even knowing that they had another, more ethical option available by requesting a meal as a preference. Those numbers, one would hope, would be small. And there are groups for whom charging extra for meals would never be appropriate, including charging extra for meals that are a result of religious beliefs. But given graceful wording, it seems as if it could work for others.

What do you think? Let us know at convene@pcma.org.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.