What was served for lunch at the last conference you attended?
If you can’t remember, you aren’t alone. Ask anyone who’s attended any of the big B2B, marketing or technology conferences around the country and they aren’t likely tell you that the meals were the highlight of the event. In fact, the talk at after parties is usually about apps rather than the appetizers.
Convention food has reputation for being conventional
Convention food has a reputation for being conventional and, in the past, that was a well-deserved rep. However, this is changing, and B2B News Network recently talked turkey—and various other victuals—with people who attend, serve and manage B2B and other tech conferences and conventions.
Old perceptions die hard. When asked about standout conference meals, most of the attendees we spoke with voiced a common refrain that goes something like, “how am I supposed to remember such unmemorable food?”
“Tech conferences usually don’t have interesting food,” software automation engineer Meera Viswanathan of Toronto said before recalling the customizable Mexican tapas served up at AppSphere 2015 in Las Vegas. “Those were really good,” she said. Others recalled regional specialties, like crawfish étouffée in New Orleans, deep-dish pizza in Chicago and cioppino—a hearty seafood stew served in a rich tomato broth—in San Francisco. Speaking of the Bay Area, people generally spoke highly of Northern California convention cuisine. Combine a bustling conference calendar, discerning denizens and a world-renowned food scene and you’ve got a recipe for deliciousness when you head to events in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
Liza Silva is a supervisor at Savor SMG, the company that caters as many as thousands of daily meals at events including Salesforce’s Dreamforce, Oracle OpenWorld and even Super Bowl 50 at Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco. Silva, a native of Brazil, said she’s served up everything from the standard salads, sandwiches and pastas to palate-pleasing Indian food and even Brazilian-style churrasco, or barbecue during her long daily shifts. Her favorite? “I really like the Veracruz fish,” she said. Some notable names have noticed her hard work. Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg once personally thanked her for her role in feeding thousands of meals to some of the area’s many homeless residents.
“The Facebook people were really happy with our work,” recalled Silva. “Zuckerberg came up and thanked me for helping to feed thousands of homeless people with the leftovers from the Facebook event. Every single meal Facebook wanted to make sure they saved something for the homeless people.”
Some B2B companies have even gotten into the conference grub game, offering their own mouthwatering morsels or creative snacks to hungry, hurried conventioneers. In 2013, marketing software leader Marketo kept Dreamforce attendees smiling and awake with fortune cookies stuffed with $5 Starbucks gift cards, a tie-in with the San Mateo, California company’s award-winning Fortune Cookie Campaign. Two years later, Adobe upped the alimentary ante at Dreamforce by corralling some of San Francisco’s best food trucks to serve up everything from Beulah’s Bean Truck coffee to lobsters rolls from Lobsta Truck and even sweet treats from Frozen Kuhsterd.
With all of this deliciousness on offer, it’s hard to imagine that many conferences still can’t shake that reputation for uninspired eats. But a former conference manager blames quantity and cost more than a lack of culinary imagination for the garden-variety offerings at many events.
“It’s all about volume,” explained Renee Jones, former senior director of marketing and events for First Conferences, now FC Business Intelligence, home to a number of industry-leading B2B brands. “They have to produce a large quantity of food very quickly. What is the go-to food that you can produce quickly, cheaply and that everyone is comfortable with? That everybody, with all the food restrictions there are, can eat?”
“It’s going to be chicken, rice and some random mixed veggies,” Jones answered her own question. “That’s pretty much it.”
Some savvy conference-goers, especially the VIPs, have found a way to dine better than the average attendee by scoring seats at sponsored meals. Although Evan S.*, a customer success manager for a leading life sciences tech company, attended Dreamforce last year, she didn’t eat any of the catered food there. “My company sponsored client lunches so I ate those. We ate at Roy’s and it was very good,” she said, referring to the upscale, Hawaii-based Asian fusion chain.
With the ever-increasing quality of fare on offer at more and more conferences, there’s no need to leave the convention center to munch a memorable meal. Oh, and don’t forget to save room for dessert—pineapple or mango cupcakes, anyone? Or ice cream. Delicious, delicious ice cream.
Photo credit: Brett Wilkins