Behind the Scenes

Meal Plans

Nothing could be a more basic attendee need than food and beverage. Yet meeting that need has become a lot more complicated.

I had just gotten back to my office from a business lunch — I’d had a mildly spicy dish of shrimp and rice at a great Mexican restaurant — when I started feeling a little funny. A colleague noticed red splotches appearing on my skin, and that I was having trouble breathing. She helped me to the elevator and over to our company nurse’s office. Once the nurse took my blood pressure, she called the paramedics.

It’s been more than 25 years since I was wheeled out of my Midtown Manhattan office building on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to the emergency room, but I can remember every detail like it happened yesterday. My allergic reaction eventually subsided by itself — I was fine. But that single episode convinced me to steer clear of shellfish.

Food allergies are scary. Even if the culprit ingredient has triggered only a mild allergic reaction in the past, there’s always the potential for the reaction to become life-threatening.

Luckily, I haven’t found it too difficult to figure out where the shellfish might be lurking in the food I’m served at events. I’ve had it easy compared to others who must avoid more ubiquitous ingredients. I know this because I’ve been traveling to meetings for the past five years with Senior Editor Barbara Palmer, who must follow a strict gluten-free diet for health reasons. I’ve learned from Barbara that gluten can be found in a great many unexpected places, from salad dressing to soy sauce.

I’ve seen that how a gluten-free dietary requirement is accommodated varies widely from one venue and meeting to another. I’m dismayed each time I’ve seen how Barbara is made to feel like a picky eater at sit-down meals during conferences, or quickly yessed by clueless wait staff when she asks if the passed hors d’oeuvres are gluten-free.

And at the other end of the spectrum, I’ve witnessed her being served gluten-free meals with a big flourish. I know that kind of blatant special attention embarrasses Barbara, even though she is always gracious, whatever her meal experience. She has been more patient than I think I could be, because the times when her dietary needs have been accommodated without muss or fuss have been few and far between.

But maybe her patience is beginning to pay off. As she writes in this month’s CMP Series, the meetings industry is growing more sensitive to special dietary needs. That’s because there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of requests among attendees for special — particularly gluten-free — meals.

The care and feeding of attendees who can’t just eat what everyone else is having is no easy feat. Barbara’s indepth article — which could only have been written by someone in the know — will help meeting planners and their food-service counterparts rise to the challenge. There may be a lot more “finicky eaters” coming to your events, but paying attention to their needs really is, at least for some, a matter of life and death.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.