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Meet, eat & be merry

Published: 02/03/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » March 2014 » Destinations » Home » Archive » 2014 » March 2014 »

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Across the country and around the globe, meeting and event spaces are in tune with the desire to dazzle attendees. But while guests – and hosts – may be left with a breathtaking sense of wonder at the magnificence of the occasion, and the apparent ease with which it’s all delivered, behind the magic is a wealth of experience, imagination and no little amount of hard work.

Business Travelerwas privileged to take a peek behind the curtain at some of the top meetings and events destinations around the US to find what it takes to make fresh, creative, delightful ideas come to life for that seemingly effortless event. 

At The Breakers Palm Beach, Michele Wilde, director of conference services for the past two decades, has developed a longstanding reputation for seamlessly planning and executing high-caliber meetings and prestigious events. Beyond the complexities of delivering a flawless moment, for Wilde bestowing these occasions with what he likes to call ‘the wow factor’ is all in a days’ work. 

Wilde currently oversees a conference services department staff of 14, responsible for the execution of all group-related programs including $16 million in conference-driven food & beverage that take place at The Breakers and its satellite venues. In total, The Breakers hosts approximately 300 to 400 meetings, incentives and events each year – a segment of business that drives 55 percent of the resort’s total room nights. 

“With an unparalleled location and magnificent beachfront setting, it’s a luxury destination resort that couldn’t be duplicated today. We’re the only oceanfront resort in the heart of Palm Beach, situated on 140 acres in tropical climate, yet easily accessible and convenient to airports,” explains Wilde. Over $250 million was invested over the past decade in The Breakers’ revitalization and expansion. “The evolutionary hotel and grounds are continuously re-mastered while its rich history, heritage and architectural design remain preserved. We are an iconic property fully renewed with modern amenities and a range of services.”

Since 1972, The Breakers has on numerous occasions hosted a national meeting of 2,000 drug store executives, suppliers and spouses. At these events branding and decor are married to surprise and delight guests, removing the perception of anything that could be construed as commonplace. 

“For example,” says Wilde, “it is not unusual to see 15-inch tubes of lipstick paired with lipstick readers and lipstick shaped cookies in an array of lipstick colors. Sugar spinning artists at a dessert party or for a twist, break dancers at a Marie Antoinette themed lounge are also among the possibilities.” 

Further incorporating whimsy with a sense of wonder, it’s often even possible to eat the décor, as you might discover at several of the hotel’s lavish events: 

• A Willa Wonka-style party where guests entered over a flowing chocolate river with food in the forest; fruit topiaries and cupcakes in trees; sugar-spinning artist that created edible lollipops resembling glass-like sculptures; an apothecary station with candies; 12 bakers created gravity-defying, five-foot tall leaning cakes and more.

• Undersea parties bringing buffets to life with body-painted and costumed “live mermaid” models positioned as living décor on the buffet table, moving blue lighting to create an underwater guest experience as bubbles topped the ceiling.

• Fire & Ice-themed events: Half the room was set ablaze by a thousand burning candles and walls draped in rich, red velvet highlighted with amber-colored moving lights to resemble flames, while fire dancers danced and fire roasted food was served. Meanwhile the other side of the room was awash in ice blue, with chain-sawing ice carvers who created beer mugs, carved tables and chairs amidst simulated snow while raw bar food was served in ice.

Venues Across the Country

At The American Club Resort in Wisconsin, two particularly unique venues include Whistling Straits Irish Barn – a rustic, yet Five-Star, three-sided stone-façade event space that overlooks the 18th hole of the Straits Course and has panoramic views of Lake Michigan – and the Kohler Design Center, where on the upper level, Kohler’s designer kitchens and bathroom spaces are showcased. 

The multitude of kitchen settings works great for use as live action stations with chefs. The complete company history is on display on the lower level. Altogether, “the venue fosters great conversation because of the many unique products throughout the building, including a wall of toilets,” explains Jenna Check, the resort’s senior sales manager. 

Meanwhile on the West Coast, Rosewood Hotels and Resorts offers the luxurious northern California enclave of CordeValle. “Because we are located in the Silicon Valley we are consistently hosting C-level meetings for some of the most influential and technologically advanced companies in the world,” says Kim Pennel, director of catering and conference services at CordeValle.

Pennel goes on to describe a 60-person meeting for one of the most successful, globally-recognized companies on the world stage.

“We were told that the meeting would be intense, of the highest importance and video conferenced around the world. Because this was a company that defines themselves by ‘thinking outside the box,’ they asked that their meeting ‘be outside the box.’ To start, we created a beautiful and comfortable lounge serviced by roaming barista carts with specialty coffees, biscotti, profiteroles and seasonal sweet breads,” she explains.

“We took advantage of our stunning outdoor space by offering group hikes, yoga and on-site archery during meeting breakouts. Each outdoor activity was coupled with corresponding food and beverage – archery was set with lemonade stand and smoked meats display, yoga was set with flavored waters, seasonal berries and smoothies, and each person on the hike was sent with a logo’d pack that included energy bars, bottled water, sunscreen and whole fruit.” 

Meals were designed to showcase the bounty of the region. As an example, the welcome evening reception began with a display of local honey, fruits, house smoked meats and cheeses and a grill station serving house-made sausage.

“Our executive chef and sous chef were on hand to speak to tasting notes and origins of the displayed food as well as to that which was passed. Each guest was given a reusable bag and invited to fill the bag with local honey, marmalades and dried fruits. The group then moved to dinner set in our rose garden which had market lights strung from the terrace, an acoustic guitar trio and rustic farm tables. Guests dined family style; everything was served from beautiful platters then placed on the tables for guests to enjoy just as they would sitting at a Sunday family dinner.” 


The Food Factor

In Howard Beach, Queens, Russo’s On The Bay, winner of The Knot’s 2013 Best of Weddings, Wedding Wire’s 2013 Bride’s Choice Award, and the three-time winner of TLC’s “Four Weddings,” has broken the boundaries of large events with its signature 11-selection entree menu. Each attendee is given an appetizer course, pasta and risotto combination, intermezzo and or salad course and the 11-choice entree selection for a restaurant experience. 

And while options are always great, there are those times when a more one-of-a-kind approach is required.

“In the matter of menus in general, the meeting planner-chef relationship must go hand in hand,” explains Ed Harris, who prior to winning the Food Network’s CHOPPED “Turbo Powered” during Season Four, cut his teeth in some of New York’s top kitchens. 

“With the chef’s understanding of the event concept and all menu related requests, considering such variables as what’s in-season and accessibility in general can often work to the advantage of the event, the chef as well as the overall event budget.” 

The challenge of serving hot food is another all too common concern in the business of events. 

“Food comes out less than hot due to the kitchen set up,” Chef Ed says. “For example a kitchen may plate up 40 to 80 plates at a time, with each of the plates receiving one item – say green beans – before moving on to the second item, potatoes, followed by the meat. If those plates have to then wait for the next 80 plates to go through the same process, the first plates are cold.” Chef Ed goes on to explain his method to ensure the most appetizing presentation possible.

“My way to eliminate that is to have all meals I serve taken immediately to the dining room once plated. No, everyone will not get their food at the same time. But when they do, it’s hot. Gang style service looks impressive. But to avoid the guest’s disappointment of experiencing a less than hot protein, be sure to have hot entrees plated and served immediately. Salads, on the other hand, along with other courses served on in the meal that do not require being served above or below room temperature can easily be served gang style.”

Chef Ed goes on to cite a laundry list of other culinary concerns that must not be overlooked including: 

• Spacing in terms of entry and access for servers to circulate food to avoid having to hover near the kitchen door

• The importance of scheduling a tasting so that the event host and planners know exactly what guests will experience

• Since people eat with their eyes, the artful essentials of proper plating is vital. “If it looks good, chances are people will taste it. But equally as important as the optics, the food must also taste good.” 

• Options are also important. Something for everyone and every palate including vegetarians, pescetarians, as well as good ol’ meat lovers.

Communication is Key 

Touted by Oprah Winfrey as “My Favorite Spa,” Miraval, is a glorious resort situated in northern Tucson, AZ, amidst the Santa Catalina Mountains. Similar to southern California’s Rancho La Puerta, though not quite as rustic, luxury laden Mirval is known to specialize in Fortune 500 executive leadership retreats, teambuilding, incentive travel and board meetings.

“Miraval hosted the first annual Giving Pledge in May 2011,” explains Kelley Siefert Shaw, director of national accounts. “The Giving Pledge was founded as ‘A commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.’ The event is specifically focused on billionaires or those who would be billionaires if not for their giving,” she says.

“In hosting this exclusive and highly-secretive affair, Miraval and its employees maintained impenetrable privacy and security for the 61 billionaires visiting the resort for meetings and networking. The event was kept under wraps – so much so that the transportation team did not know who they were meeting at the private airfield, nor where they were going with them, until they greeted the guests.”

With the event marking the first group gathering, not only was effective communication paramount in the planning, but throughout every step of the execution as well. 

With such an elite audience, the event had to be more than exceptional – it had to be unforgettable. 

By Michael André Adams

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