Meeting planners across the nation have reported a significant increase in specific dietary requests in recent years, and not just for vegetarian or vegan guests. No matter what the reasons—religious beliefs, medical restrictions, concern for animal welfare or simply a desire to eat healthier—we as hospitality professionals need to understand the basic guidelines for the most prevalent requests and plan for them accordingly.
We also need to understand that when it comes to food allergies, “special plates” are not a matter of lifestyle choice. The way a meal is prepared could make the difference between an enjoyable experience or a medical emergen-cy. Meeting participants with food allergies have a lot to navigate each time they sit down at a table; and when it comes to providing their meals, so do planners.
In 2008, “eating” was added to the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act as a “major life activity.” That means a food allergy (or other condition that requires someone to choose a specific diet to main-tain their health) may now be considered a disability under federal law, including Title I of the original ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
It also means that if an event is either mandatory or considered a benefit of employment (a management meeting, sales conference, company picnic or other function where food is served) and/or is held at a place of public accommodation such as a hotel, convention center or even a park, organizers must accom-modate the needs of food-allergic attendees. The prospect can be daunting, but we needn’t be overwhelmed. Here are eight ways meeting planners can advocate for participants with food allergies.
1. Start at online registration. Ask in detail on your registration form about dietary restrictions and provide a checklist of functions to be attended. Don’t forget to gather allergy information from exhibitors, speakers, sponsors and others included in meal functions.
2. Follow up on-site. At on-site registration, provide each attendee with a meal ticket for each function they will be attending. Tickets should include the attendee’s name and outline specific dietary needs in detail (e.g., no gluten, dairy, pork, yeast, cucumbers, sesame, peanuts, celery). Let attendees know to give the card to their server or banquet captain so it can be matched with the meal that has been prepared for them. Provide the name of an on-site contact in case something goes wrong.
3. Work with F&B partners in advance. Communicate the needs of individual food-allergic attendees to your catering part-ners well in advance of the event so they can properly prepare. They may be able to plan crossover menus (i.e., vegetarian dishes that are also vegan and peanut-free) or even create an entire menu without a specific food allergen.
4. Be transparent about the food you’re serving. Labeling buffets and/or menus with allergens will decrease attendee anxi-ety and help ensure their safety. It will also inform other participants that food allergens are present and alert them to be cautious about cross-contact.
5. Make sure servers are informed. Communicate with chef and banquet captains so that all servers understand what ingredients are present in the food being served and how to provide options, if needed.
6. Be familiar with your venue’s emergency procedures. Ask your food-allergic participants for their emergency action plans so that you, your staff and your vendors know what to do in case of allergic reactions.
7. Create standard operating procedures for allergy safety. These might include staff training sessions on food allergies, how to spot the signs of allergic reaction and incorporating signage into buffets.
8. Take your concern to the guest room. Provide refrigerators in attendee hotel rooms free of charge if needed to store food or medication. Food-allergic people always travel with foods they know they can eat just in case the meeting or event does not accom-modate them.
Tracy Stuckrath is found-er and chief connecting officer of Atlanta-based Thrive! Meetings & Events, and one of 15 million Americans with food allergies. She is a popular presenter at gatherings of meeting professionals in California and around the world.