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From social engagement technologies and unique social activities to gluten-free, vegan and other food options, meeting planners are juggling a host of new requests and requirements as they create group events.

Even the quoting process preceding the events is changing, said Dawn Marie Barth, group sales manager at the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit and president of the Michigan Chapter, Meeting Professionals International.
“From the time I get the (request for a quote,) groups booking a block of rooms, a meeting or convention … need a response very, very quickly,” she said. “Last year we maybe had a week to return that information, and now we have a couple days.”

Groups are also asking for a lot more alternative dates, Barth said, and being more flexible in booking a date to go with the best rates.

At the same time, companies are showing more confidence in the economy, once again asking to book events several years out, she said.

People booking meetings today aren’t just booking training or education sessions, Barth said. “They want to have fun, build camaraderie, tour the city, so everyone can take their suit coat off and just relax and get to know each other.”

Depending on the group, planned activities might include a scavenger hunt in the city, a game show-type theme night or cupcake decorating, Barth said. The demand is to include fun activities that have nothing to do with work but bring everyone together.

People from out of state or out of the country want to explore the city, and some local companies want to show it off for their out-of-town employees, she said.

Planners are looking for healthier activities during breaks to get everyone up and moving, like taking a walk to Campus Martius to check out a restaurant.

On the health front, caterers and venues are also increasingly being required to fulfill specific attendee dietary needs, said Carol Galle, president and CEO of Royal Oak-based Special D Events Inc. Trends include more requests for vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.

Dietary restrictions for event attendees have increased by 30 percent to 50 percent over the past five years, she said.

To accommodate dietary requirements in ways beyond “a lame salad” and to gain an edge, venues are increasingly bringing their chefs into the sales process, she said.

“Should venues, caterers and planners provide separate plates or simply an expanded buffet? In years past, we offered special plates, but now we hesitate to call people out because it can make them uncomfortable. We just try to offer healthy, build-your-own options on the buffet.”

There are also rising concerns about food allergies, Galle said, noting that since January 2013, severe food allergies have been considered a disability under federal law.

“That means venues and event planners can be held legally responsible if they fail to accommodate dietary allergies for attendees.”

When Special D Events manages event registration, it always asks guests if they have any dietary restrictions or accessibility concerns, Galle said. “If they answer ‘yes’ regarding dietary, it’s not our place to question whether their response is due to allergies or just preference; we accommodate them either way.”

If attendees volunteer that they do have a food allergy, Special D will ask if it is life-threatening. If the answer is “yes,” it will then ask the attendee to provide his food allergy and anaphylaxis emergency care plan, Galle said.

“That way, if something were to occur, we would be as prepared as possible.”

Sustainable event practices are increasingly on the radar, as well, Galle said, noting Special D is negotiating compliance in this area with venues it uses.

In its venue contracts, it adds a clause that requires venues to identify, recommend and use as many environmentally responsible practices as possible and feasible for the meeting. Those include waste management, recycling, use of renewable resources and conservation of nonrenewable resources.

Special D provides examples of ways venues can incorporate sustainable practices for contracted events, Galle said, including not replacing consumable amenitiessuch as soap and shampoo unless they are gone. Others include:

  • Instructing housekeeping staff to shut blinds and turn down heat/air conditioning during the day in rooms while attendees are gone.
  • Using glass or other nondisposable catering plates, cups, and glasses.
  • Serving condiments such as sugar, cream, butter and cream cheese in bulk containers, not individual servings.

“Our company has a people/planet/profit mission and, because our clients are also making requests for these sustainable practices, we feel strongly about making sure they are on our suppliers’ radar,” Galle said.

As with other spheres of business, technology is increasingly playing a larger role in events.

Social engagement is increasingly important to clients, said Craig Erlich, senior vice president and general manager, Auburn Hills and Nashville, for George P. Johnson Co.

“Our role is to facilitate ways that engagement can take place.”

Encouraging the use of social networks before, after and during an event is one way to grow the event’s exposure, he said. George P. Johnson often includes a “social wall” or screen showing live tweets about the experience during the event.

The company also issues radio frequency identification (RFID) bracelets to attendees when they check in, Erlich said. The bracelets include their static information and give attendees the ability to check in and activate activities, such as gaining access to certain sessions.

Meeting planners, associations and companies increasingly are also offering an application that attendees can download to their cellphone or tablet to access their customized conference schedule, Barth said.

The applications at times also enable attendees to chat with others attending the conference, she said.