April 01, 2001
Meetings & Conventions - World's Fare - April 2001 Current Issue
April 2001

World's Fare

What to expect when plannning group meal functions overseas

By Lisa Grimaldi

Nearly every planner who has ever held a meeting or incentive program abroad has experienced some type of incident, humorous or otherwise, involving that most key element of any event: the food. Given the many opportunities for mealtime confusion in a foreign country names, translations, customs it’s no surprise that ordering food and beverage without some advance knowledge about eating habits, food preparation and local dishes can be a recipe for disaster. Following are tips from planners and F&B experts to make menu planning overseas as easy as apple pie.

Ask a lot of questions. Much can be misinterpreted or wrongly translated when making selections from menus in different countries. U.S. participants on a French incentive program got stuck eating chocolate mousse for dessert four nights in row, because planner Vicki Pritchard, account executive at Reward Worldwide, a Mississauga, Ontario-based incentive firm, didn’t get to see or taste the desserts prior to the event. “When I was choosing the menu, all the different venues called the mousse something else, like ‘chocolate surprise’ or ‘special dessert,’” she says. “It became a running joke.” Conducting a tasting prior to the event or getting a full description of menu items can waylay similar incidents.

Call it what you will. Food names can cause major confusion. The banquet menu at the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel in Taipei, for example, lists dishes such as “Fall in Love with First Sight” and “Lover Forever,” neither of which remotely reflects the foods represented. In some cases, planners rename menu items themselves. For a meeting in England last year, Carolyn Plant, director, meeting and event solutions, at Philadelphia-based McGettigan Partners, felt compelled to change the traditional British dessert “Spotted Dick” to “summer pudding.” “I knew the group would have just lost it if they saw that,” she jokes.

Banish the language barrier. Unless you are multilingual, make sure your F&B contact is fluent in English; if not, hire an interpreter for important meetings (site and menu selections, etc.). Have contracts written in both languages, recommends Narelle Bailey, director of catering and conference services at the Hotel Arts Barcelona, to accommodate all concerned. It also helps to have menus written in English.

Reminder: The United States is just about the only country that doesn’t use metric measurements. Elsewhere, liquor comes in liter bottles, and shrimp is ordered by the kilo, not the pound.

Place to place
While F&B customs differ from country to country, some generalities apply in various regions. M&C asked planners and F&B professionals at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide and Swissôtel Hotels & Resorts to describe what planners can expect.

In Asia, the F&B contact at the hotel is not always the convention services manager; it is often someone in group sales who probably speaks English. Many chefs do not speak English, however, so an interpreter might be necessary.

Most meeting- and incentive-caliber hotels in the East have two kitchens, Asian and Western, manned by two separate chefs. The Asian kitchen is set up to accommodate industrial-size woks and often live fish tanks. For most meals, U.S. planners work with the Western chef and kitchen staff.

Food is generally priced on a per-person basis; according to hoteliers in the region, a deposit of 30 to 50 percent of the event is required in advance for F&B functions. In China, unless Western service is requested, hotels typically serve food family-style normally 10 people to a table, with no individual portioning, except for formal banquets. According to Kristy Lee, director of catering and meeting services at the Pudong Shangri-La, Shanghai, planners should specify whether they prefer Asian or Western service, because the styles including elements such as utensils, table settings and service are so different.

Service charges come in the form of a separate bill. In China, expect to pay 15 percent on top of the quoted F&B price. In Southeast Asia, service charges are generally 10 percent.

In Europe, where many cuisines are familiar to Americans, one key difference is dining times, especially in Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Portugal and Spain; cocktail and dinner hours are generally late by U.S. standards.

While most properties can adjust mealtimes at private events, difficulties can arise at restaurants. “I had a group that wanted to eat dinner right after a day tour, which ended at 6 p.m.,” says Vicki Pritchard. “I had to tell them that this is Italy, and no matter how much the DMC or I tried to get the restaurant to open before 8 p.m., they wouldn’t.” As a compromise, Pritchard arranged special snacks and cocktails for the group at the hotel prior to dinner.

Breakfasts tend to be lighter in Southern Europe (rolls, juice and coffee) and more hearty in the Central and Northern European countries (cheeses, cold cuts and pastries often accompany rolls, hearty breads and cereals). In Turkey, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers are often partaken in the morning, along with cheese, olives, hard-boiled eggs and ekmek, a white bread served warm.

While Americans might be most familiar with the wines of France and Italy, other countries produce local vintages worth sampling, says Hotel Arts Barcelona’s Narelle Bailey. Hungary and Switzerland, for example, have excellent wines, a well-kept secret since they don’t export much.

According to Wayne Joseph Coté, director of banquets and conventions at the Swissôtel Istanbul, it pays to try local wines in Turkey, because the government foists surcharges of up to 400 percent on imported wines and liquors.

Most F&B prices quoted include a service charge as well as tax. European properties typically require a partial payment for F&B events prior to the event.

In Latin America, a major concern of U.S. planners is the safety of water, ice and local produce, says Karin Salinas, director of sales and marketing, Swissôtel Quito. Planners should find out if the property and/or facilities they select have their own water purification systems and if produce is treated to kill bacteria and potentially harmful pesticides.

When ordering F&B, planners generally work with a group and convention sales manager, rather than a banquet manager. Advance or partial payments are not always required.



For the past year, European headlines have been dominated by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more popularly known as “mad cow disease,” and its human form contracted by eating infected beef. How to safeguard Europe-bound attendees from risk of this potentially fatal illness?

Avoid beef and beef products altogether, advises the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Or, select solid pieces of muscle meat (versus processed products such as burgers and sausages), which are thought to have a reduced risk of contamination with the BSE agent. Milk and milk products are not believed to pose any risk.

BSE is only one of the numerous food-or waterborne illnesses planners need to be aware of. (Foot-and-mouth disease, currently affecting livestock in the United Kingdom, is not harmful to humans, although humans can be carriers.) To find out more about other global outbreaks and warnings, call the CDC’s Travelers’ Health Hotline, (877) FYI-TRIP, or visit www.cdc.gov.

Another site that regularly posts global food and water safety information is www.medicineplanet.com.


Here is a sampling of local delicacies to consider offering a group.

Korea: Some variety of kim chee, the national dish of spicy pickled cabbage and other vegetables, is present at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Other favored specialties include bulgogi (Korean barbecued beef strips) and galbi (braised spare ribs in soy sauce and spices). Among the choices for native beverages are rice wine and Makkolli, a fermented rice liquor.

Malaysia: Offer nasi lemak (coconut rice served with chicken curry, anchovies, peanuts and satay), roti jala (rice pancake served with curried chicken or fish), pie tee (flour cups filled with shredded mixed vegetables and gravy) and bubur kacang (a coconut milk dessert). For drinks, serve mango, papaya, watermelon and guava juices; local beer, sugar cane juice (alcoholic) and rice wine.

Ecuador: Breakfast consists of humita (corn cake with cheese) and coffee. A typical lunch consists of ceviche (seafood salad), fritada (deep-fried pork), llapingachos (fried potato patty filled with cheese) and babaco (fruit) in natural syrup; dinner is usually a hearty soup such as locro quiteno, made with potatoes and cheese.

• L.G.

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