I read an article recently on the PCMA discussion board “Making a Disruptor Less Disruptive” and it made me think about some of the challenges I have had over the years with special needs diets. Kosher and Halal are often the most difficult because they must be special ordered from outside the facility most of the time and usually at a very high cost. I was never sure how much was a mark up by the provider and/or the facility but a lunch often came in at over $100.00 just as an example. The article noted above have some excellent suggestions on how a meeting planner might handle these types of requests.
However, a number of years ago I was doing a conference in Ottawa and the facility we were using didn’t know where to get Halal meals for a delegate. I found a restaurant and made arrangements with them directly, with the facility’s support. A couple of amazing lunches cost about $20 each and a great dinner $30.00. One of our local volunteers had to go pick them up but based on the positive feedback from the recipient it was well worth the effort. That was a very positive experience both for the attendee and financially. They are not always that way.
In recent years, I have also noted that gluten free, vegetarian, sugar free, and other special requests are often also incurring an extra cost by some facilities, at least here in Canada. Gluten free muffins added to a breakfast menu can be charged at double the price. Vegetarian, higher priced than the selected menu. I argue that If a special requirement is medical related, then the facility is obliged to provide for this need. I have been known to say that if I have advised the facility of the details on the special requirements the responsibility is on the facility to ensure the needs are met and not at an additional charge. (religious needs not included in this line of thought). I suggested to one property that I would not pay extra for special medical needs diets and if they chose not to provide in this case a gluten free option at the same cost, I would simply advise the attendee of the situation and if they became ill I would direct them to the property for any kind of complaint or action. Needless to say the gluten free muffins were available, at no additional charge.
Having said that, I do have some sympathy for the facility’s position as well. Too often, as noted in the article, attendees ask for special meals that are preferences, not medical… and once ordered, they don’t bother to pick them up. I have seen it happen over and over. Such a practice is not only inconsiderate and poor manners, it can be expensive. I like the suggestions provided in the noted article – there is a part of me that would really like to charge those ordering a special meal and not picking it up for the unclaimed meal. Unfortunately, I am not sure I would ever get the payment but I might feel better, and it might encourage those ordering to take more responsibility for their actions. It might work, it might not? It is important to honour dietary restrictions for medical reasons and religious purposes and Vegetarian is also relatively easy to accommodate. Preferences, to my way of thinking, do not need to be honoured.
It is important to ask for dietary restrictions on a registration form. The first question should be…
Is your restriction: MEDICAL? ___ RELIGIOUS? ___ OTHER? ___
Please provide details: ____________________________________________________
VEGETARIAN? Y/ N
That is really all you need
Assess the “Other” to decide if it can be accommodated. You can also track the special needs, by individual registrant to find out if they stick to the dietary requirements ordered or skip it when on site. You can warn folks on the form that if they do not follow through on their request, it will not be provided in the future. You can also follow up with those who do not pick up their special meal post conference, give them a warning for the future or let them know they can be tracked.
In reality, we have to face the fact that food in general is more processed than ever before, it is genetically modified and who knows what is being added to enhance shelf life. That is affecting much of the food intolerances today. Diet and lifestyle choices affect people’s health and as a planner the first step may be to work with your property to create menus that reduce the need for so many special meals.