by Linda Hayes | October 01, 2016

Keeping attendees engaged in curriculum may be a specialty of meeting planners and hospitality professionals at hotels and conference venues, but food and beverage directors have long played an integral role in feeding attendees’ appetite for success. And they, in turn, are increasingly reaching out to those who can help assist in their endeavors: namely chefs, who are constantly creating tasteful new ways to nourish the body and mind alike.

After 23 years of customizing every aspect of meetings and events, the 500-room Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort & Spa in San Antonio has gleaned a unique perspective on how best to entertain the groups utilizing its more than 100,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor function space. And not surprisingly, how well an event is carried off has to do in large part with the food and beverage being served—which is why the resort has come to rely on Dave Barrett, its executive chef and an employee of Hyatt for 31 years.

“It’s not just breakfast buffets, pre-set lunches and breaks with cookies and coffee anymore,” Barrett said. “Foodism—enthusiasm for and interest in the preparation and consumption of good food—has changed people’s expectations and activities. They want good food and knowledge. They want to know more about what they’re eating, where it came from, how it fits with local culture.”

Moreover, he has noticed that today’s attendees are more curious about ingredients, and they like to interact with food professionals to learn tips and techniques. “Chefs aren’t just in the back of the house anymore. They need to be out front, showcasing what they do.”

During a recent Hyatt Convention Alliance event, a special dinner featured a progressive meal with food stations and, as each course was served, the chef at that station was spotlighted to give attendees an overview of the course’s ingredients, where they were sourced and how they were prepared. It’s a concept that is being used more frequently at meeting venues across the country and beyond, with seemingly endless variations.

Nourishing Teamwork. According to the American Express 2016 Global Meetings & Events Forecast, planners are looking for “unique hotels that can offer a new experience to attendees.” On the food frontier, that can mean organized team-building events that incorporate innovative activities with a culinary theme.

One property that has taken this on with relish is the 65-room Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Its food and beverage program was, until recently, overseen by executive chef Andrew Cooper, nominated for the 2016 James Beard Award. Cooper presented group activities such as foraging for local mushrooms and outdoor pig roasts. In addition, outdoor excursions offered to attendees, such as hiking through lush mountain canyons and biking through trails in the Ghost Ranch area (made famous by Georgia O’Keeffe), were often paired with a menu that includes team challenges like wine blending.

The Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado recently named a new executive chef, Kai Autenrieth, who is expected to continue to innovate by merging a global perspective (he has worked in Nevis, Tanzania, Saint Lucia, Australia, St. Maarten, Bermuda and the U.K.) with local ingredients such as New Mexico’s famous corn, honey and chillies.

In Baltimore, fast gaining national recognition for its culinary offerings, the 116-room Hampton Inn & Suites/Baltimore Inner Harbor has partnered with Food Tour Corp, one of North America’s leading culinary tour groups. The alliance means that small private groups now benefit from customized “foodie” team-building experiences such as “Iron Chef”–inspired culinary challenges.

Going Back to the Source. Banyan Tree Mayakoba, a 1,600-acre resort enclave on the shores of Mexico’s Riviera Maya with 118 guest villas and 14 event venues, takes the concept of unique food-and-wine experiences to extremes. The resort offers a nightly outdoor dining experience that brings ancient Mayan culture, customs and cuisine to life. Called the Haab, after the Mayan calendar, the event takes place in the jungle found just steps from the resort. Groups of up to 16 are greeted by Mayan warriors in colorful traditional garments, feathered headdresses and face paint. The meal is then served family-style against a backdrop of flaming torches and includes dishes that pay homage to ancient cooking traditions: warm sopas, fresh fish ceviche, spiced pibil suckling pig, locally caught fish wrapped in banana leaves, and banana flan.

Sergio Serra, Banyan Tree’s area director of sales, marketing and business development in the Americas, said the Haab takes guests back in time and reproduces an authentic Mayan dining experience. “The natural surroundings beneath the treetops and under the stars provide a sense of place unlike any other. Everything, from the guest involvement preparing the food and interaction with the warriors to storytelling throughout dinner, creates a one-of-a-kind experience with a cultural connection to our land that our guests will remember for years to come,” he said.

Offering a different kind of ambiance and cooking—but no less memorable—is the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort in Incline Village, California. Unique activities are centered around the lake and the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains, and both outdoorsmen and foodies will enjoy the “Fishable Lake Tahoe” line-to-table dining experience, which allows groups to spend an afternoon fishing on the lake (peak season in June through September). The day’s catch is cleaned and hand-delivered to the resort’s Lone Eagle Grille, where it’s prepared by chef Shane Hammett and served up for dinner.

Over at the Resort at Squaw Creek, in Squaw Valley USA, a garden-to-glass cocktail program with a small herb garden has grown with the addition of a large rooftop hydroponic garden, which is expected to grow enough vegetables and herbs to supply the on-site restaurants.

Providing a Local Experience. Any association event will benefit from the chance to offer attendees a taste of the local cuisine, and the Loews/New Orleans ensures that experiencing a taste of the Big Easy is an integral part of its meetings package. “Our guests and tourists from around the world come (to New Orleans) because of the history and reputation for great food and cocktails, so we have all our menus designed with the most popular dishes of the region,” said executive chef Jeff Sommer. For example, its New Orleans Breakfast features Creole County andouille sausage, grits and grillades, while its Naturally N’awlins Morning Breaks include strawberry-filled king cakes (a New Orleans staple), along with pecan pralines and beignets dusted with powdered sugar. Lunch items showcase local favorite dishes such as grilled chicken étouffée and blackened Gulf fish. And customized special events may include food stations where po’boys or bananas Foster are prepared to order.

As part of a culinary revitalization project, the Lansdowne Resort & Spa, a Destination Hotel in Leesburg, Virginia, has recently opened the new Coton & Rye restaurant. In celebration of the land, farm and Virginian lifestyle —past and present—the restaurant features reinvented Virginian recipes prepared with locally sourced ingredients. Group dinners, TV viewing parties and happy hours are some of the possibilities, and a locally inspired food hall and an interactive tasting-room concept are both on tap for the fall.

In San Francisco, known for its rich food culture, a wide variety of gastronomic meeting venues are available for group buyouts. Two popular picks are Bistro Boudin, a restaurant part of the famous waterfront sourdough bakery, and the historic Ferry Building, which offers a second-floor private-dining space. In addition, a new upscale market space called Foodhall is expected to open soon in the Mission District and offer food classes and tasting events. Some of the city’s most talked-about restaurants that are available for events include Pabu, Crystal Jade, The Vestry at the Chapel. New options include Verso and the Dorian.

Talk about a recipe for success.