By Laura Bradley

Some of the most pressing questions the business events industry has posed since the onset of Covid-19 surround the future of food and beverage at events.

Will the humble buffet be a thing of the past? Are individually packaged meals in conflict with the sustainability push? Are event planners opting for individually packaged food anyway? Is there a way to order coffee via Zoom? (Oh, wait, the last one was just me).

On Tuesday, in front of the in-person audience for the Professional Conference Organiser Association’s (PCOA) inaugural hybrid conference at Hyatt Regency Sydney, a panel of event food specialists answered each of these questions and more.

When asked if we will ever return to standard buffets – which see delegates help themselves to cuisine that is not individually wrapped – executive chef for Hyatt Regency Sydney Sven Ullrich answered in the affirmative.

“We will. We have to,” he said.

“When you look at hotels like Las Vegas that serve 5000 meals a day, there is no way we can change that to an à la carte concept.

“Buffets will come back, but they will be modified. We will be more vigilant with our usage of tongs for example.

“We really can’t get away from buffets. People enjoy it, it’s a smorgasbord of different items and people like that choice. We can’t take that away.”

Earlier that morning, Hyatt Regency Sydney, under the direction of Sven, served up a buffet to PCOA20 delegates comprising individually packaged items. But Sven says this method has its problems.

“It has an undeniable impact on our planet,” he said.

“We did tremendously well in 2018 to get away from all of that, and now we are back to square one.

“It’s also very labour-intensive having everything pre-packaged.

“So, I don’t think that’s the future, I think overall it is definitely not here to stay.”

Director of culinary services for the International Convention Centre (ICC) Sydney Lynell Peck agreed with Sven’s sentiments, saying that especially with venues like the ICC, which runs events in the thousands, buffets are a necessity.

“We are currently still running buffets, but everything has been taken to extreme precautions,” she said.

“We’ve got plexiglass and our teams behind them serving food. Labour is an issue for us because this takes time, but when you’ve got a venue like ours, and you do 1000-pax events, you need to host buffets.”

Lynell continued that the events industry should not lose sight of sustainability during Covid, a cause that the ICC Sydney has championed since its opening.

“We’ve all been working for so long to reduce single-use plastic and now everything has gone too far the other way,” she said.

“I’ve seen the use of individual packets of tomato sauce… no one is going to catch Covid from tomato sauce.

“We shouldn’t forget that currently Covid is not transferred via food. It is respiratory, not transferred via food or packaging.

“[individually packaged food] will cease in the not too distant future, and we will go back to how things were.”

In response to the sustainability hurdle, panellist Andrea Stapleton, operations manager for SMC Conference and Function Centre, said her team has begun sourcing biodegradable products.

“Most of the boxes and packaging that we are using are biodegradable,” she said.

“It’s the only thing we can do at the moment to stay on top of sustainability.”

But the question on my lips – and no doubt countless others’ – is… are all event planners opting for individually-packaged meals anyway?

Not at the ICC Sydney. Lynell said that most of their clients are opting for a plated buffet service.

Panellist Emma Barr, general manager events for Merivale, also said that the group has only hosted one event with boxed lunches, with every other event being plated or having canapes delivered to the delegates’ tables.

I guess, as with everything else, we’ll have to see where things go. And remember, buffet servers can wear masks, and clean tongs, and disinfect plates. There has been enough suffering this year and, if we can help it, our planet shouldn’t be thrown into the mix.