Food & Beverage

The Dietary Requests Dilemma

How far can — and should — planners go when accommodating dietary requests at meetings?

PCMA Senior Meeting Manager Alison Milgram
PCMA Senior Meeting Manager Alison Milgram

Kelly Peacy, CAE, CMP, PCMA’s senior vice president, education and events, likes to leave a spot open in the Convening Leaders agenda to give attendees time and space to discuss late-breaking issues. This year, the spot went to the surge in the number and percentage of attendees that submitted dietary requests.

In advance of this year’s Convening Leaders in Vancouver, PCMA received more than 400 such requests from registered attendees, said Peacy, and judging from the discussion at the session, “Dietary Restrictions Pop-Up,” the association is far from alone in seeing that number rise. It was added to the schedule only two days ago, but more than 100 attendees, mostly planners, attended the interactive session.

The underlying dilemma, Peacy said, was the question of “how can we give the customer a customized, personal experience without driving up food costs and driving ourselves crazy?”

Peacy, who was joined by PCMA Senior Meeting Manager Alison Milgram, structured the hour-long conversation not just as an opportunity for planners to share their frustrations and dietary-restriction hacks, but as the beginning of a 2016 initiative to create an industry-wide set of standards on for meeting planners. “Treat this as the first step in our research,” Peacy said.

It was a lively hour. Planners and other attendees offered the following observations:


The majority of the attendees in the room collected requests via registration, and some reported that they asked attendees to specify whether requests were based on underlying medical conditions or whether they were lifestyle preferences.

A minority of planners said they followed up with individuals. One planner said she began doing individual follow-up after what she called “Koshergate” — almost two dozen attendees requested kosher meals, at a cost of $125 for lunch and $225 for dinner — and none of them were picked up.


In another fiasco — what her team came to call “Short-ribgate” — one attendee related how many of the attendees who had registered for vegetarian meals abandoned the plan when they got a look at the short ribs that were being served for dinner. The kitchen ended up running out, the planner said.

The converse also happens, with those who did not request vegetarian or other special meals, switching when they saw something appetizing being served as a special-meal request. One way to avoid that, a planner suggested, is to make sure that regular and special-meal requests are resemble one another in quality. “We don’t want the special meals to look better,” she said. “They can look as good [as regular meals] but not better.”


A decade or so ago, there used to be four different categories of special requests; now there are 33, one venue manager offered. “I blame Starbucks,” one meeting professional told me after the session. The coffee chain is “what started everyone thinking they could order everything exactly like they wanted it.”

“My feeling,” another session attendee said, “is that it is not our responsibility to become a restaurant, catering to people’s preferences. It is a group we are trying to feed, not an individual.”


The need to fulfill dietary restrictions is not going to disappear, Peacy said. Planners offered a slew of ideas, which were met with varying degrees of approval, on how they might to keep attendees happy and healthy without breaking the bank.

  • Label food on buffets.
  • Offer vegetarian meals for kosher.
  • Charge a small fee for those making dietary requests — not to cover costs, but to discourage unnecessary requests.
  • Publish special-request menus in advance.
  • Set up a special buffet for vegetarian-only or gluten-free diners.
  • Ask diners with special requests to be seated at table with others with special requests, to simplify serving.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.

  • Tyra Hilliard

    Was any mention of the obligation to accommodate dietary needs that fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act mentioned in this session? It isn’t always just a preference. Those whose dietary restrictions are due to an allergy or intolerance have a disability and must be accommodated.

  • David Korn

    Tyra – I did not attend the session, but spoke at length with someone that was there, for purposes of writing an article. (His summary covered most everything in this article and then some, as he added his perspective as an event manager at a large Dallas hotel where he encounters these issues regularly.) He specifically mentioned the ADA was noted at the session, and the challenges it could represent would someone’s request not be accommodated.

    On a separate note, having read the summary, I think that something should be clarified for planners unfamiliar with religious dietary preferences/restrictions. While people requesting kosher (and halal for that matter) vary in their degrees of observance, suggesting planners “offer vegetarian meals for kosher” would be tantamount to telling the more orthodox attendees that they should bring a sandwich. If providing the special meal becomes difficult, planners should be aware that other options are available – fresh fruits and greens generally do not require kosher/halal certification – but assuming vegetarian is kosher is a mistake.

  • Maureen Condon

    Barbara do you know if the session was recorded? A planner who is hosting a meeting with the conference center I work at just told us about this session, and how much she loved it while at Convening Leaders, would love to see the video if possible!

    • Barbara Palmer

      Yes, it was recorded, Maureen. It was a hot topic! We are checking on the availability of the video.