This Transcript is From Episode 27 Of The Savvy Event Planner Podcast
To listen to this podcast visit: http://SavvyEventPodcast.com/27
Transcript Of Guest Interview Only
Tom: Folks, I'm on the line today with Tracy Stuckrath. Tracy, first thing I'd like to say, congratulations, because I understand Meetings and Convention magazine named you one of the top 25 women in the meeting industry.
Tracy: Thanks! Yeah, it was a complete shock and honor at the same time. I was kind of floored, but it makes me really proud of what I've been doing the last four years promoting healthy, sustainable and safe events for meeting planners as it regards to food and beverage.
Tom: I want to welcome you to the Savvy Event Planner Podcast. I'm thrilled to have you here and it just beside myself with the fact that you're willing to sit down and talk with our listeners today.
Tracy: Well, I appreciate the opportunity, thanks!
Tom: I was wondering if you could start by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you became involved in the event industry.
Tracy: I have been a planner for 24, 25 years if you want to include being a social chairman of my sorority back in college. So I started out doing that in the late 90s, or early 90s and then I went to an association, got an association planning job and then actually moved to Atlanta to work for the Olympics and then I went corporate from there. And I've worked the Vancouver Olympics five years ago now, and I've been on my own since then, since the Vancouver Olympics.
And so in the gamut of those 18 well, now, 24 years, I've done corporate meetings, association conferences, golf tournaments, fundraisers, Olympic games, etc. So my planning experience is wide-ranging. And then, 12 years ago, I found out I had food allergies, and I was planning events, about a hundred a year, and realized I couldn't eat what I was serving everybody else. And I was like, “Well, there's other people like me,” and I started doing some nutrition training and education and I'm like, “I want to combine these two things and make the world healthier one event at a time.” That was my first impact or first look at what I wanted to do with it and then just started speaking and creating sessions on that and it's just gone gangbusters from there, and I'm really excited about it.
Tom: Well, I tell you, that's a great goal to have. Now let's go back before we get into the…I'm talking about the dietary part of it. You mentioned the Olympics. Tell me a little bit about what you did for the Olympics.
Tracy: So for the Atlanta Olympics, I drew route maps for the bus transportation systems and so this was back in 1996, and there was no Google Maps. There was only Rand McNally printed maps and the routing department, the scheduling department would say, “We need officials to go from here to here by this time.” And the routing department would go out and drive and figure out how they would get there and then bring it back to the graphics department and within transportation and then we actually had… we started to scan them in, but think about scanners way back in 1996. They were like…it would've taken us like forever to scan them in. So we had to hand draw them on the computer and so we did all the route maps for that. And then during the actual games, I was a transportation manager and helped the IOC members who didn't have their own transportation get to the competitions of their athletes.
And then for the Vancouver Olympics, which is in 2010, I still did transportation but it was under the sport production department. So my team's responsibility was taking the winning athletes, the medalists from the competition venue to the podium to pick up their medals and then back to the residence, and so we coordinated the transportation for all of those athletes.
Tom: Very cool, very cool.
Tracy: Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
Tom: So now, you got involved in dietary needs because you said you developed a food allergy. Tell us a little bit about what happened and how you became educated in that area.
Tracy: So I was having a variety of different issues and going to a bunch of different doctors trying to figure out what was wrong with me, and I was diagnosed with an allergy to yeast and had to remove yeast, sugar, vinegar, dairy, peanuts, pistachio, pork, alcohol except for vodka, out of my diet. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, what am I eating.” And having to tell hotels, “Hey, I need a special meal for me because I can't eat all this other stuff.” And people were like, ” Why are you eating that? That looks so much better than what we're eating.” And it just evolved from there, and I saw an article on a magazine one day about this one woman who would take in this program then it completely changed her life based on what she ate and now what she's doing and I'm like, “I want to go that program.” And I did it.
And, ironically, after like three months after I finished that program, I lost my corporate job and I'm like, “Okay, this is what I'm going to do.” And I, of course, then went to the Vancouver Olympics and worked to that and came back in 2010 and said, “Okay, I'm going to go out of my own and do this.” And I just, I created an education program or one session and somebody hooked me up with the Exhibitor's show which is held in March every year in Vegas and that was my first speaking opportunity was to do two sessions there on helping planners understand what different dietary needs there are, especially food allergies and then how to manage them. My opportunity with them, they require you to go to speaker training which it's two days with all the other new speakers that are going to be at the show, and they're like, “Tracy, you're so passionate about this. You're somewhat defensive.” And that really changed my perspective on how I present it because I'm like, “This needs to be done.”
And I still am that way, but I changed how I present it. And I present more education and this is what food allergies are, and this is what celiac disease is, and this is what vegan…the difference between vegan and vegetarian and…because a lot of people don't even know that. They don't know the difference and so teaching them those things and to be aware of them is more of an opportunity to get their buy in. And then, what are the ways that planners who already have five zillion things to do on their plate, how can they make it easy for them to communicate that information to their food and beverage partners? So it really has evolved the last four years.
Tom: That's amazing and you've done this talk all over the world, correct?
Tracy: I have. I've had the opportunity to speak in the Philippines twice, and I went Imax [SP] Frankfurt and I went to MPI's EMEC in Poland. And in April I'm going to Rio to speak down South America, so and then Canada as well. So yeah, it's been a great opportunity. And no matter what country or what city you go to, food is an important part of any event, and as you're welcoming people from you know, Topeka or you're welcoming people from Europe or Japan or India, you're welcoming them to your table and at your event, and you're welcoming them into your home. I consider your event your home and you have to welcome them and provide them an environment that they feel good about and feel safe in.
Tom: Now, I saw an article that I think was on your site and it talked about what every event planner needs to know when it comes to guest dietary needs. So out of curiosity, what do event planners need to know?
Tracy: They need to understand what their need is and then and how…whether it's a medical need or a preference. A lot of what planners get hung up on a lot is that they have to…I don't know if this is a preference or dislike or if this actually is going to kill them. And in some respects, you really can't ask them that. You need to treat it across the board. So my suggestion is to ask, “Do you have any dietary restrictions?” And list…there's about eight that I recommend listing, vegan, vegetarian, kosher, halal, food allergies, gluten-free and then other. And when you're talking about food allergies and, actually, even gluten-free, there's a big…the way you prepare their food actually has to be a lot stricter than you're going to prepare somebody who's vegetarian because you have to understand that there's a possibility that even a crumb of shellfish or a crumb of wheat could actually cause somebody to get deathly ill, and so being very succinct in how you understand and ask those questions is very important. That's the first start of it and to get to know who your attendees are.
Tom: There's a couple of questions that are going to spawn off of that and so I don't want to lose my place. I'm taking down notes as we're talking. There are so many guests at an event and a lot of times the budget is set. So how do you figure out how to create all these different meals without destroying the budget when at the last minute you find out somebody has a food allergy, somebody has a you know maybe a religious preference for how their food is prepared? Can you give me any tips or ideas on how that's taken care of without destroying the budget?
Tracy: Well, so that's actually knowing your history and I don't remember if I…in my list of what I said, I think halal and kosher are two that you should definitely put in there as check boxes of what dietary need that you have. And Hindu is actually probably the next one that's coming up as another option, especially if you got people from India. But especially when you're doing an online registration form, you have the opportunity to do checkboxes or the open-ended question. To me, the open-ended question leaves a lot of room for assumption on what those needs are. But that registration, one of the other biggest complaints I get from planners is, you kind of said it, is that last minute person that says, “Oh, by the way, I'm gluten-free.” or “Oh, by the way, I'm vegan.”
Make that question mandatory for all attendees and then also make an option on that choice thing of none because if you force them to make a choice between, “Yes, I have a food allergy.” or “No, I don't,” you're putting it on them, putting the own on that attendee to say, “Yes, I'm telling you what my need is,” And “No, I'm not.” And if I show up, that planner's got documentation that is saying, “Hey no, you told me you didn't have any dietary restrictions.” So that's one way to get around to get that information. And then it's recommunicating out to all of your attendees as you're going to the process and when they print the registration form say, “Confirming that you ordered a vegan meal.” “You ordered a Hindu vegetarian meal.” “You ordered a food allergy meal, special meal,” to reconfirm with them that they get it and that they're saying yes.
And then when they get on site, I would recognize them, when they pick up their badge saying, “Oh, Tracy, you noted on your registration form that you have an allergy to shellfish. Here's your meal ticket. Please present this to your waiter and he will give you a meal that is free of shellfish.” That gives them the opportunity to be very clear and consistent with the servers because the other part too is that servers…if you don't have a meal ticket that servers like, “How do I know who you are?”
And the meal ticket also offers the opportunity for the lack of… for someone else to get my meal. So a meal ticket offers the server clear communication method between the attendee and the back of the house and so that they are saying, “Here's my meal ticket with my name on it and my table number. Waiter, please go back to the back of the house and get my meal ticket so as Joe who is sitting next to me can't request the same meal.” A meal ticket is required to get a special meal and that helps reduce the amount of meals that are given to people who don't actually have the need or ask at the last minute. And it works really well with plated meals and if that person has an…if it's a buffet and that person has this special meal because there's nothing on the buffet, that person can then hand that meal ticket to them as well to get a special meal.
Tom: So it's a matter of having a couple of checks and balances, the response, original response, the meal ticket and, of course, coordinating with the caterer to make sure that everything's set.
Tracy: Correct and one of the things that you ask in that question was that how do you make sure that you know, you're not doing…say you've got a hundred people and 49 of them request special meals. That's 51 different plates that you have to make or 50 different plates that you have to make. And if you can give that information to your chef in advance, and I'm not saying 72 hours in advance but give them a couple of weeks in advance, that chef can actually take those needs and, with your help, narrow it down and say maybe there's 15 gluten-free, and there's 15 milk allergy or milk lactose-intolerant and then there's this. Can that chef make meals that are free of wheat, rye and barley as well as free of milk and give all of those people the same meal? Because they're never going to know. That that milk allergy person is not going to know that they are actually getting the gluten-free meal nor are they going to care if it tastes good.
So narrowing it down and working with the chef, that also entails working with your event on the aftermath, on the back side of it and talking to your hotel and talking to your catering manager going, “Okay, I've requested 15 gluten-free meals. How many did you actually serve?” And if they only served 7 or if they ended up serving 30, then you know that you need to communicate that information to the next event hotel that you're going to use. So carrying your history and knowing the percentage of special requests that you get is invaluable data that you have when booking your next venue and talking to your next catering company and so that you can communicate your needs in advance so that they can start planning that menu in advance and not at the last minute.
Tom: Excellent information. I was going to ask you about the best methods for response and you put that in right at the beginning there where you said, “Make sure that they have to fill that out on the form.”
Tracy: Correct and to make and, to me, checkboxes are a lot more clear than using an open-ended box and you will need to use an open-ended other and let them fill it in. But using check boxes on the front end, first of all, is very clear and sortable. And two, it doesn't require the meeting planner to have to spend time filtering out the messages that are written just “hand-written into an open [SP] box.” And so you don't get annoyed with John who said, “Oh, I only eat chocolate, dark chocolate from, you know, Peru.” So the checkboxes really makes it clear and easy way to provide the information to your chefs.
Tom: Are there any other questions or things that the event planner needs to discuss with the caterer when they're talking about these special meals?
Tracy: That's a great question on what you need to talk to your catering companies and food and beverage purveyors about. And this is a question that you should have before your contract is “How do handle special meals? Do you have people that are certified with the food allergen training that ServSafe does? Do you have people who are certified food handlers that know how to address food allergies? What does your banquet staff understand about them?” And then, “What is actually your health code grade?” When you go into a restaurant and you see the A-plus or the A-minus and the B. Ask your catering partner what they have and what their grade is because they are graded just like restaurants are.
And so, that shows you the detail of food safety that they have because it's not just necessarily about dietary restrictions these days. There's a lot of food recalls, and you want to make sure that your catering company is aware of those and is taking precautions on how to handle them. But also asking the questions, “How do you handle dietary restrictions? Is there one person that handles it in the back of the kitchen? How are they handled in the hot boxes? Who delivers those meals to the attendees during the event?”, etc.
So those are the kind of things that you really need to ask of your catering partners before you contract with them. There's a planner I know who was planning a wedding for a client who was a completely gluten-free and she said the whole wedding needed to be gluten-free and the caterer is like, “Sure, we can do that.” And then a month out that caterer had research what that meant, and said, “Oh no, we can't do that.” And it was a month before this girl's wedding and she had to go find a whole another caterer. So you don't want to come into that situation like that. You want to be able to be prepared as a planner to handle those and make sure that your catering partners know what they are doing.
Tom: So the myth of the one size fits all menu, I guess, that's totally impossible. I guess that was a stupid question.
Tracy: I think these days it kind of is. No, it's not a stupid question. I was actually talking to a convention services manager today and she said, “For corporate clients, 90% of their menus are customized, but for association clients, they're still ordering off the menus.” It's the year of the personalization and maybe not the year but maybe it's plural, years of personalization. More and more attendees are wanting restaurant style service that can be customized to them, and it's not just about food and beverage. It's about how they interact with you at the event and what benefits that you can provide them personally at the event that makes them feel welcome, and food is definitely one of those ways.
Tom: Tracy, you've covered a lot of things here. And it's so much information that I have to ask. Maybe there's something I haven't drawn out. I'm not familiar with the culinary aspects of event planning. So if you're sitting down next to an event planner, is there anything else that they really should know or something they need to consider that we haven't discussed?
Tracy: Yeah, planners definitely need to ask a couple of other questions. One, if somebody says that they have a food allergy, I would ask them, do they carry epinephrine and what is their emergency care plan in case they have an allergic reaction at your event? And you can do that in the form of just to have them filling it out online or having them fill out a piece of paper. So that you know what to do to take care of them if that happens.
And the other thing too is to consider the room layout, and I've been talking a lot about food allergies and dietary restrictions but when you're talking about a food function, you also have to think about your attendees that have other forms of disabilities and that would include mobility. I have a friend who tried to get into a large food function in one of those mobile scooters, and they wouldn't let her in the room in advance. And 4,000 people were walking into the room, and she couldn't get in to find herself a seat because the tables were too packed in between and especially with all the people.
And then this summer, I was in an event where I sat down with two individuals that were in wheelchairs and that hotel had provided 72-inch round with all chairs at every single table. So they had no way to pull up their wheelchair to a table and enjoy their meal. And so those are the other kinds of things that you also have to take into consideration when you're planning your room, your meal rooms for your attendees. There's a lot that can go into making someone's accommodations or someone feel welcome into your event besides the food. And I think that's very, very valuable as an attendee or as a meeting planner to take care of your attendees.
Tom: Well, let me ask you, are there any suggested reading materials you have on this subject?
Tracy: On my website, I've got a couple of different links that…one that lists [inaudible 00:22:11] allergens that are monitored or regulated by… I actually should say 22 foods that are regulated by governments around the world as the tops allergens. So you can access that on my website under, oh my goodness, it's thrivemeetings.com international list of food allergens. It's not the right exact link, but if you go on to my website and look for food allergen listings, it will be there. And so you've got that and then on my blog post, I've got a couple of different posts about how to setup your registration form and ways to ask the questions and so that's some reading that you can do.
There are other websites out there. Food Allergy research and Education provides a little bit more education on food allergens. Attendees can…or planners can actually go on to servsafe.com. It's S-E-R-V-S-A-F-E.com and take their allergen training program. And that gives them some information from the front of the house and the back of the house on how their catering partners must accommodate the dietary needs when they're in the preparation method. And the other opportunity is to go on to the American Red Cross website and take epinephrine injector training class and that's, to me, very, very valuable because it just provides them meeting planners another step in this providing safety for their attendees before the EMTs arrive.
Tom: There is obviously a lot of information here that we're not going to be able to cover in a short podcast episode. So, Tracy, if somebody wants to reach out to you, how should they do that?
Tracy: They can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. So that's M-E-E-T-I-N-G menus at thrive T-H-R-I-V-E meetings, which is plural .com or they can go to my website which is thrivemeetings.com or they can call me, and my number is 404-242-0530.
Tom: I think you're the first guest to actually give their phone number out on the show. So that just shows you, folks, exactly how accessible she is. Tracy, thank you so very, very much for coming on the show and sharing all this information. you really opened my eyes up to everything that an event planner has to consider when they're thinking about the dietary needs of their guests. And I know that you're going to have people reaching out to you to learn more on this subject. So once again, from the bottom of my heart, thank you so very much for coming on the show today.
Tracy: Oh, I really appreciate the opportunity. I love educating our industry on how to make better events and make events safer and healthier for everybody across the board, and I appreciate it. So thanks for having me.