I would say that I have a lot of food preferences. I like healthy food: nothing fried, no white sugar or processed food. I often have a hard time when the only options at conferences are sugary breakfast items or processed meat sandwiches. The frustration!
I thought I had it hard… until I spoke with a few colleagues who have serious food allergies and heard what it is like to be in their situation. I now have a sense of how it would be to live with a serious food allergy such as gluten (Celiac disease), peanut, shellfish or other allergies and realize how daunting it would be to attend mandatory meetings and events. Attendees often feel frustrated and anxious going to events because they fear either eating something risky or going hungry because there isn’t anything safe for them to eat. Attendees with severe food allergies can experience social anxiety when they become the center of attention as they sit to dine and the topic of conversation turns to their dietary issues.
Food allergies are considered to be an invisible disability. As meeting professionals, I think we would all agree that attending our events should be safe and inclusive, where everyone is able to eat! We have a duty of care and responsibility to our attendees to remove barriers and risks for them. Now, what are some possibilities of what can happen if food allergies are not properly handled?
Your guests don’t get to eat. They eat, but get sick. They get rushed to the hospital. They could die.
Did you know that even if an Epi-pen is administered after eating a food they are allergic to, this only provides 20 minutes of reprieve but they still need to go to the hospital to get additional treatment? While we can’t guarantee that things won’t go wrong, it is our role as meeting planners to be the communicator between the guest and the venue and to advocate for our attendees. Some things are out of our control, but there is a lot we can do!
- Always ask for dietary restrictions in registration – even if it’s only a small snack being provided.
- Ensure your registration questions are clear so you can differentiate between preference and allergy. For example, list Celiac disease separately from gluten-free if you are using a drop down.
- When sourcing venues, ask specifically how they are able to accommodate food allergies and give your business to ones that have a good plan in place and take this topic seriously.
Ask questions of the guest
- Contact the guest before the event to discuss their allergy and find out how severe it is. Some allergies might be mild and don’t need many accommodations while others can be extremely severe. Ask if it’s an airborne allergen and what level of risk it is.
- Share the menu ahead of time. This will reduce anxiety.
- If a guest has specific questions around food handling, they might want to speak to the chef themselves. You can help facilitate this.
- Confirm whether they are staying in the hotel. If they are, ask for the guestroom to be cleared of any allergens and disinfected, if necessary. Ensure a fridge is in the room to keep their own food or medication.
- Ask for their emergency action plan to understand what you and the venue can do to help in case of an allergic reaction.
Speak to the venue
- If it is a buffet, make sure the venue is prepared to offer a separate meal which is covered and placed on a separate table – they should never be told to eat from the same buffet in case of cross contamination (unless the food allergy is very mild). Their plate of food should have their name on it, not just gluten-free as other people might take it.
- Ask venue to label everything with what the food contains and does not contain. Label food on buffets and food being passed – this can be lifesaving information!
- Speak to the chef about providing food alternatives which look similar to what the rest of the group is being served – for example, if everyone gets chicken, provide the guest chicken, but without the allergen. This will avoid the focus of conversation being on their meal.
- For a reception of passed appetizers, ask for a plate to be created of foods that can be offered to the guest at the beginning of the event.
- If the allergy is airborne, have a conversation on how the venue plans to keep your guest safe. Make sure the food will not be on your menu but also ask if they will avoid the allergen being served in other areas near your group. Will they disinfect shared surfaces?
- If the venue cannot accommodate the dietary request – ask if they would allow guest to bring their own food and use a fridge and safely heat up their meal.
- Ask who you can speak to onsite if you have any concerns? Are there Epi Pens available? Find out where the closest hospital is, just in case.
- Meet the Banquet Captain and do a walk-through of procedures.
- When guest arrives at the registration desk, provide a dietary card for them to use to show server at meals (use a discreet card, not one visible to everyone outside of meal time).
- Tell guests how to use their dietary card and where they can find their meals throughout the event. Tell them what to do if they run into problems, who to tell and how to get to the hospital.
- Introduce them to the Banquet Captain and/or other staff who can help them during meals or breaks.
- Discreetly check in with them during the event to answer questions and ensure they are being accommodated.
With some careful planning, your guests will be able to enjoy the event knowing that the meeting planner and venue understand the severity of their allergy, are advocating for them and are fully prepared. It is our opportunity to protect the safety of our attendees and there is nothing more important than that!
To learn more about food allergies, here are some helpful websites: