Who among us doesn’t talk about food? Unquestionably, delicious food puts a meeting on the map. It not only gives event attendees an enjoyable multi-sensory experience, but it can also connect them with the local community and with each other. Plus, “if attendee ROI is measured in the social media buzz of Instagrammable pictures or videos, then I think planners can hit the jackpot with food events,” says Steffi Kordy, owner of Miami-based Cocoon Incentives.
How to create the culinary wow? It involves detailed planning that is curated for the attendees and the specific meal, says Kordy. “For one incentive, we booked a hotel suite and offered ‘breakfast in bed.’ The group met in the suite, with the buffet set out on its king-sized bed. This was a breakfast setting that would not be forgotten. It tweaked the idea of breakfast in bed to something different than attendees had expected, and it led to informal talks among them.” Lunch, says Kordy, tends to be an informal event, and she will often tie it in with a local activity, such as fishing or gardening, to create a hands-on lunch with the chef using the local bounty. For an atypical happy hour, she recently offered a mixology class using edible flowers, where incentive participants learned about the flowers’ nutritional benefits and how to use them to create picturesque drinks.
Dinner, Kordy notes, is where event planners get most creative. “I think a big part of a spectacular dinner is in the presentation. This ranges from live entertainers serving food or drinks to using robots to deliver food. There are many ways to present food in spectacular fashion. Attendees can create instant custom ice cream with much fog fanfare using dry ice, for example. And if the group appreciates a multi-sensory culinary experience, and the budget allows, a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant is definitely a big draw for attendees.”
Food always tells a story, says Anastasia Nisenbaum and Thomas Serrano of luxury event management company Exclamation Group. One way of communicating that story to attendees is by connecting them with the chef. For one event, Nisenbaum and Serrano had the Michelin-starred chef attend and take the time to visit each table to speak directly with attendees. However, “when preparing a menu, it’s important to keep in mind that not all attendees have the same level of sophistication when it comes to food. You don’t want to make the menu overly complex and therefore inaccessible to some of the group. It can be luxurious and entertaining without feeling alienating.”
Read on to learn about local good eats in Austin, chef-driven dining in Las Vegas, innovative food and wine pairings in Napa Valley, acclaimed and authentic cuisine in New Zealand, the diverse, sustainable food scene in Philadelphia, and Taiwan’s singular blend of modernity with culinary traditions.
Located 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, 30 mile-long Napa Valley is known for its picturesque tapestry of vineyards, with 400 wineries and tasting rooms. More than that, “Napa Valley has always been at the forefront of farm-to-table cuisine,” says Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley. “Many chefs and restaurant owners prioritize forging partnerships with local farmers and purveyors—not only to ensure the freshness and quality of their dishes, but to also give a taste of what makes Napa Valley such an important agricultural region.”
It’s only natural, Gallagher adds, that Napa’s wineries and restaurants work together on innovative food and wine pairings. “We’re also lucky that, year after year, new cohorts of talented chefs graduate from The Culinary Institute of America and start their careers in Napa Valley. These new minds bring fresh ideas and continue to push the boundaries of cuisine at restaurants and food purveyors up and down Napa Valley.”
There is increasing demand from MICE groups for food and wine pairings, says Gallagher. “Wineries offer a variety of unique and stunning group venues, from the tasting room itself to wine caves, vineyards and outdoor terraces.” Cakebread Cellars, notes Gallagher, was one of the first wineries in Napa Valley to offer a culinary pairing with a wine tasting experience. “Today, groups can enjoy curated wine and food pairings, multi-course meals and even private cooking classes with Cakebread’s in-house professional chefs.”
Among Galloagher’s other recommendations for singular group experiences is The Culinary Institute of America at Copia, with one of the largest test kitchens in Napa. ”Planners can have private cooking classes here that are completely curated to each group’s specific interests and skill levels,” she notes. “It is also home to the Chuck Williams Culinary Arts Museum, with more than 4,000 artifacts of specialty cookware.” She also recommends the Cooking with Comedians dinner at The Meritage Resort and Spa, where chefs and comedians work together to create a 3-course farm-to-fork meal. And for an authentic Napa Valley meal picked fresh from the garden, she suggests Chandon’s classic family-style meal called “Togetherness at Heart.”
Asked about Napa’s hot new restaurants, Gallagher gives a shout-out to Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch and Brasswood Bar + Kitchen in St. Helena, “offering impressive views from indoor/outdoor spaces with flexible capacities for different sizes of groups.” Also in St. Helena, PRESS Restaurant was recently awarded its first Michelin star and welcomes small groups in a variety of private and semi-private spaces. The food here features fresh, local ingredients and includes such entrees as black cod, cordyceps mushrooms, green asparagus and abalone consomee. In Calistoga, Truss Restaurant + Bar at the Four Seasons Resort and Residences features farm-to-table cuisine and majestic vineyard views. At Stanly Ranch, “The Grange is a private event space located in the chef’s garden that is perfect for larger groups seeking their own culinary oasis,” says Gallagher.
“There is no other destination in the world that combines the variety, caliber and convenience of the Las Vegas food scene,” says Lisa Messina, chief sales officer, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). “From celebrity chefs and Michelin-starred restaurants to unique concepts that combine entertainment with mouth-watering menus, groups have an endless list of options suited to satisfy even the pickiest of palates, all within an easy-to-navigate stretch of the famous Las Vegas Strip.”
Top meeting and incentive hotels under the Caesars and MGM Resorts umbrellas in Las Vegas recently introduced hot new chef-driven dining spots, with more in the pipeline. The 200-seat Stanton Social Prime at Caesars Palace, with iconic offerings ranging from dry-rubbed steaks to a “strawberry blonde milkshake” (strawberry mousse, vanilla sponge cake, Chantilly cream and an edible white chocolate cup and straw), is already a top culinary experience since opening this spring. Due to open later this year at Caesars Palace, Brasserie B by Bobby Flay will serve up French-inspired fare inspired by Flay’s extensive travels to the Amalfi Coast. At Caesars’ Horseshoe Las Vegas, James Beard award winner Chef Martin Yan’s M.Y. Asia opened in March, and Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Sports Kitchen will open this summer. Here, up to 279 diners can enjoy Fieri’s signature American-style cuisine in a variety of spaces and groups can reserve the MVP Lounge for exclusive dining and viewing. In other Caesars’ news, the DiscoShow at the new Spiegelworld Glitterloft in the LINQ Hotel + Experience is due to open summer 2024 with a diner and bars as well as experiential live entertainment.
At MGM Resorts, new culinary adventures abound. In May, Retro by Volaggio, the first Las Vegas restaurant from celeb chefs Michael and Bryan Volaggio, opened at Mandalay Bay for a 1-year culinary residency experience featuring the brothers’ modern take on classic American dishes. Also opened in May, Cathedrale at ARIA offers a menu featuring coastal cuisine influenced by the regions of France, Spain, Italy and Greece. At Bellagio, chef Julian Serrano has introduced new dinner, lunch and brunch menus at the acclaimed LAGO overlooking the resort’s famous fountains, with food that celebrates Italians’ passion for scratch-made pastas, slow-aged steaks and fresh seafood within the larger-than-life style that fuels Las Vegas. Coming this fall to The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas is the heralded LPM Restaurant and Bar, with its signature French Riviera-inspired cuisine.
“One of the biggest trends we are seeing in Vegas right now is food halls,” says Messina. “Proper Eats at ARIA and Famous Foods at Resorts World Las Vegas, for example, boast dozens of cuisines ranging from well-known brands and chefs to under-the-radar finds,” she says. At the same time, celebrity chef restaurants continue to proliferate. “From Martha Stewart to Giada De Laurentiis and from Gordon Ramsey to Bobby Flay, chefs love to have a presence in Las Vegas, and that speaks volumes to the allure and longevity of the dining scene,” notes Messina.
For group culinary adventures, Messina recommends touring the local food scene with Lip Smacking Foodie Tours: “They offer several experiences including taking guests to the up-and-coming arts district or downtown Las Vegas to explore locally focused culinary hotspots.” She also recommends XPot at Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian Resort. “This is a unique venue for groups due to its impressive private dining room. The restaurant utilizes ‘5D’ mapping that produces designs covering the walls, tables and even the glassware. The experience can be customized with personal photos or company logos.” And, she says, “as Vegas is the entertainment capital of the world, planners should definitely consider dinner and a show for a group event. Incredible restaurants that offer live performances alongside their amazing menus including Mayfair Supper Club at Bellagio and Delilah at Wynn Las Vegas.”
The basis of New Zealand cuisine, says Tourism New Zealand general manager NZ & Business Events, Bjoern Spreitzer, is “fresh, sustainably produced and locally sourced food, which is authentic to its roots yet speaks to New Zealand’s great diversity, from our indigenous Maori culture to other influences from our Asian and Pasifika communities and beyond.”
New Zealand has always been a great destination for foodies, but its F&B has recently been the focus of international acclaim, notes Spreitzer. “In May, Hawke’s Bay was announced as the 12th Great Wine Capital of the World. With 125 wine producers and more than 30 cellar doors [tasting rooms], the area offers wonderful experiences for groups, from long vineyard lunches to bike tours between cellar doors.”
Food website Eater included Auckland in its guide of the 11 best cities in the world to eat in 2023, citing 38 “essential” restaurants. “Eater said when picking 2023 dining destinations they thought not just about must-try dishes, but aspects of meals that made them feel immersive—‘the people, environment, culture and history behind foods.’ I think that’s representative of New Zealand’s culinary scene overall,” says Spreitzer. “The act of sharing food, called kai, is very important in Maori culture as a means of connection and providing an authentic experience of our place and our culture.”
For a traditional Maori feast, Spreitzer recommends that groups take in a Maori cultural experience at Te Pui Rotorua’s Te Whakarewarewa geothermal valley, followed by food cooked in a traditional hangi (pit oven) and a steamed pudding cooked in a natural steam vent. Or, for a modern experience, the award-winning Hiakai restaurant in Wellington serves a sophisticated spin on traditional Maori cuisine.
New Zealand cities offer varied and vibrant dining options, and food is never far from the source, says Spreitzer. “This allows plenty of opportunities for foraging adventures and farm to table dining. New Zealand is well known for its fresh seafood, high quality beef and lamb, excellent produce and dairy products from cheese to ice cream.” For an unforgettable culinary adventure, Spreitzer suggests that groups take the ferry from Aukland to explore the award-wining wines and olives on Waiheke Island and sample the fresh produce and shuck local oysters in nearby Matakana. Or, from Christchurch’s bustling city-center and hip new restaurants, it’s not far to the Canterbury wine region, acclaimed for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. As well, “from Wellington—a foodie city boasting more cafes and restaurants per capita than New York—it’s a picturesque train trip to Martinborough, renowned for its world-class Pinot Noir,” says Spreitzer. “Due to open here late this year is a new venue called The Runholder, home of Te Kairanga Wine and Martinborough Vineyard and Lighthouse Gin. It will offer a restaurant, tasting room, private dining room and gin distillery against a backdrop of spectacular views of the Wairarapa.”
New Zealand foodie experiences are not only fun and delicious, but they also help create meaningful and memorable connections, emphasizes Spreitzer. He cites a U.S.-based restaurant group incentive program as an example. Attendees stayed at Camp Glenorchy Eco Retreat near Queenstown. “The aim was to deliver special food experiences combining the area’s natural environment and history as a means of inspiring and educating the restaurant team,” explains Spreitzer. “These included [everything from] making a traditional Maori sourdough bread called rewena, to using a 100-year old potato starter from the host’s family, to planting vines in the vineyard that produces the New Zealand wine attendees serve in their restaurants.”
Group travel to New Zealand is getting easier, thanks to a new service from Delta Air Lines starting this fall. “Delta is launching nonstop service between Los Angeles and Auckland, providing our customers with direct access to New Zealand for the first time,” says Norma Dean, director of specialty sales for Delta Business. “With our new route launching Oct. 28, customers will have easier access to attend meetings and conferences, while enjoying the premium Delta experience they have come to know and expect from us.”
“Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., and the dining scene here is certainly one of the fastest growing and most unique as well,” says Linda Atkins, Visit Austin VP of services. Austin, which ranked as the country’s 10th largest city in the 2022 census, is a foodie paradise. It has garnered numerous culinary accolades ranging from “Best Taco City in America” to “Best Cities for Food in the U.S.” Even the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport gets culinary shoutouts, including a 2023 ranking as one of the top 10 “Best U.S. Airports for Food.” Attendees waiting for flights can enjoy local fare from brisket to breakfast tacos while also taking in live music performances at five stages in the airport.
“Austin offers eateries serving up Tex-Mex, barbecue, breakfast tacos and more,” notes Atkins. “From James Beard Award-winning eateries to the best dives in town, there are tons of good eats and endless opportunities to introduce meeting attendees to them.” Meeting planners typically request barbecue, Tex-Mex, tacos and food truck experiences, notes Atkins. Sustainability is also on the radar for group dining, with requests for locally sourced cuisine. As well, “we’ve seen a lot of groups host events with food truck offerings that mirror local festival experiences,” she says. For example, the National Electrical Contractors Association held their closing event at Palmer Events Center with a concert and food trucks. And at the 2022 AfroTech conference (returning to Austin in 2023), Trinity Street outside the Austin Convention Center was closed to the public for a group lunch with food trucks. In convention center news, a redevelopment and expansion that will nearly double the existing 376,000 sf of meeting space is moving forward to the design phase.
What are some of Austin’s new and noteworthy culinary experiences for groups? “For a unique-to-Austin dining experience, I’d recommend Emmer & Rye, Hestia, Kalimotxo and Canje,” says Atkins. “Another new trend in Austin is fusion cuisine. A few popular spots include Loro, Bar Peached and Nixta Taquariea. Austin also has an outstanding line up of Tatsuya restaurants, including Tiki Tatsu-ya, Ramen Tatsu-ya and DipDipDip Tatsu-ya, just to name a few, which all have fun and unique experiences to offer. New spots that are proving to be hot spots for foodies include La Popular, Nido, Este, Proud Mary Cafe Austin and Chapulin Cantina.” At The Carillon, the fine dining concept within the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center, reimagined wine programs are paired with seasonal menus.
Lastly, says Atkins, “a traditional Texas barbecue experience is one groups don’t want to miss out on. Austin has plenty of options to choose from, including Franklin’s BBQ, La Barbecue and Terry Blacks.”
Philadelphia’s award-winning and chef-driven food scene is thriving. Notes Maria Grasso, sr. VP, convention division, Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau: “For the past several years, Philadelphia chefs and restaurants have appeared again and again as James Beard finalists, helping put the city on the map for culinary experiences. Last year, chef Cristina Martinez won Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic for her standout eatery South Philly Barbacoa. Acclaimed Israeli cuisine restaurant Zahav won for Outstanding Restaurant in 2019.”
The diversity of the city has a significant impact on Philadelphia’s food scene, says Grasso. “Incredible Black-owned restaurants include Booker’s Restaurant and Bar in West Philadelphia and South Jazz Kitchen, serving up Southern comfort dishes. Philadelphia’s Chinatown, the second largest on the east coast, is located just steps from the Pennsylvania Convention Center and is teeming with popular, locally owned restaurants serving a variety of Asian cuisine. Another great stop near the convention center is Reading Terminal Market, one of the nation’s oldest public markets, with vendors serving up everything from local staples to global cuisine.” Groups can take food tours of the market and hands-on cooking classes at La Cucina at the Market, recommends Grasso. She also recommends chef-led tours of Philadelphia’s Italian market. And of course, Philadelphia is known for cheesesteaks. “When groups are touring the city’s historic district, they can stop by Campo’s, one of the many well-known steak shops in the city.”
This year alone, 60 new restaurants are set to open in the Philadelphia region, Grasso notes. For large groups, Liberty Point, opened in May 2022 on the Delaware River waterfront, can host up to 1,400 people. There are three main levels for food, drinks and live entertainment, along with smaller sub-levels, a stage for live music, five bars and breathtaking views of the water.
A few new restaurants available for small groups are south Philadelphia’s Mish Mish serving up Mediterranean meals and Bolo, a downtown Latin American restaurant and rum bar.
A thriving culinary hot spot for locals and groups alike is the city’s Fishtown neighborhood. Here, the recently reopened and expanded Kalaya Thai Kitchen serves up food from chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon, winner of the 2023 James Beard award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, in a new space with four times the seating of its previous location. Also located in Fishtown, restaurateurs Steven Cook and James Beard Award-winner Michael Solomonov, whose CookNSolo restaurant group includes acclaimed Philadelphia restaurants such as Zahav, K’Far and Laser Wolf, have opened a new private event space. Named Lilah (Hebrew for night ) the former industrial warehouse can accommodate up to 300 attendees with onsite customizable tasting menus by CookNSolo.
Outdoor and rooftop venues are in demand, says Grasso. “Philadelphia has an incredible skyline that makes for a beautiful backdrop,” she says. “The W Philadelphia in Center City is a popular choice thanks to its poolside deck and secret garden. Other downtown hotels with popular outdoor event spaces are Motto by Hilton Philadelphia and The Logan Hotel Philadelphia.”
Trending throughout the Philadelphia food scene, Grasso says, is a growing emphasis on sustainability. “Restaurants and venues are investing in sustainable practices, buying local produce for their menus and providing more plant-based options for diners. Newly opened Carbon Copy, Philadelphia’s first combined brewery and winery serving wood-fired pizza and vegetarian-forward options, is minimizing their carbon footprint and investing in carbon offsets as the company grows. As well, some long-time Philadelphia favorites were early adopters of sustainability practices. Fork, located in the Old City neighborhood, has been focusing on sustainability for more than 25 years, sourcing locally and responsibly for their rotating seasonal menu.”
Sustainability is also a growing priority for groups, Grasso notes. She recommends a food sustainability tour of Philly. “It highlights some of the most popular dining spots in the city that support and encourage sustainable food practices, and can be tailored to groups’ interests and needs.”
Taiwan’s culinary scene has undergone significant transformations in recent years, says Cathy Hung, deputy director of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, San Francisco. “The focus has shifted towards environmental sustainability, healthier eating habits and promoting local ingredients. Taiwan’s initiatives in waste separation and resource recycling have made it a global leader in this area. The concept of land respect and well-being has influenced dining habits, with a greater emphasis on vegetables and reduced meat consumption. The integration of agriculture with tourism has provided immersive experiences on farms, connecting visitors with the land and supporting local farmers. Michelin-starred restaurants in Taiwan showcase traditional cuisine using locally sourced ingredients, reflecting a commitment to health and sustainability. These trends contribute to Taiwan’s culinary pride and appreciation for its natural beauty.” Groups will appreciate the sourcing of ingredients and the art of storytelling behind the culinary creations, she says.
Taiwan’s F&B scene, Hung continues, is renowned for its blend of innovation and tradition. One iconic handcrafted beverage example is bubble milk tea, originating from Chun Shui Tang and combining tea, fresh milk and tapioca pearls. A new popular beverage, Caozaiguo milk tea, is a “refreshing sensation of 2023,” she says. Taiwanese cuisine, emphasizes Hung, goes beyond night markets to engage all the senses and connect diners with the land.
“Michelin-starred restaurants like Shan Hai Lou, for example, revive 1930s Taiwanese cuisine using locally sourced ingredients,” she says. “Their signature dish, ‘sugarcane-smoked chicken’, represents the new era’s focus on health and environmental consciousness in dining.”
There are many ways for groups to connect with the local food and farm scene in Taiwan and enjoy unforgettable culinary adventures. Hung recommends a unique agricultural tourism activity at the Sin Bow Farm in Sanxing Township, Yilan County, where the country’s famed scallion pancakes are produced. Participants tour the scallion fields, participate in picking and washing scallions and make their own pancakes. As well, “when it comes to MICE groups in Taiwan, indulging in farm-to-table and ocean-to-table cuisine is a must-do,” says Hung. “I personally recommend Din Tai Fung, Dian Shui Lou, Mitsui Japanese Cuisine (a Taiwanese-style Japanese restaurant) and JHU JIAN Hot Pot. These offer meticulous dining experiences that enable attendees to relish the authentic flavors of locally sourced ingredients while immersing themselves in Taiwan’s rich history and culture.”
As for hot new Taiwanese restaurants, Hung gives a shout-out to the innovative dining experience at Raw, which was awarded two Michelin stars for its seasonal multi-course tasting menus of experimental French cuisine using local ingredients. Another chef-driven Michelin-starred restaurant in Taipei is MUME, whose dishes combine European and Taiwanese flavors. And for an entertaining group dining experience, Hung recommends Wowprime restaurant Chamonix Xinxianxiel, specializing in interactive teppanyaki cuisine cooked on a hot iron plate by chefs in front of guests.
vegasmeansbusiness.com; visitnapavalley.com/meetings; businessevents.newzealand.com; austintexas.org/meeting-professionals; discoverphl.com/meet; eng.taiwan.net.tw