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Conference Success Series: Conference Chicken – It’s What’s for Dinner

We've asked Annie Pettit, who arguably attends more industry events than anyone else in the industry to distill what she has learned about making conferences a success into a series of posts. We’ve shared one each week for the past four weeks, and here is the final one.


Editor’s Note: We’re ramping up into conference season in market research, and there are more and more choices for speakers, sponsors, exhibitors and attendees to pick from (although why anyone would attend any other event but IIeX, I just don’t know!). We decided to ask Annie Pettit, who arguably attends more industry events than anyone else in the industry (and who always provides useful critiques of them) to distill what she has learned about making conferences a success into a series of posts. We’ve shared one each week for the past four weeks, and here is the final one. Enjoy!

By Annie Pettit

Bacon is important to me. I have tweeted about it at pretty much every conference including MRIA in 2012, AAPOR and QRCA in 2013, CASRO and CRC in 2014, and Netgain in 2015.

Equally important to me is the short list of food I won’t eat: Onions, mushrooms, zucchini, turnip,pic 1
parsnip, squash, hot peppers,  brussels sprouts, artichoke, eggplant, asparagus, raspberries, peaches, nectarines, rhubarb, mangos, seafood, alcohol, any fruit or vegetable I don’t recognize, anything spicy, anything that looks or smells weird, anything that looks fancy, anything where one food item touches another item on the plate. As such, the beautiful meal illustrated here fails on multiple levels.

If you’re a conference organizer, you might be a little worried. That list eliminates pretty much everything on every menu anywhere. Fortunately, despite being a very picky eater (with no valid reason), I am a reasonable person. I completely appreciate that cooking for 300 to 1000 people means venues cannot cater to individual likes and dislikes. You can’t serve anything remotely risqué or creative. The kitchen staff can’t serve each meal direct from oven to table in just three minutes. You absolutely cannot please everyone especially when we have unfairly pre-decided that we hate conference food. On top of that, I know you can’t afford to feed us like queens and kings. Something, somewhere has to give.

So what do I expect of conference food? Let’s take it one stomach at a time.

Breakfast: If you have chosen the bacon route (I love you), advertise the heck out of it like MRA did this year. Brag that people pic 2should arrive early and starving. On the other hand, if you’re going the no breakfast route, explicitly advertise that people should “Grab breakfast at a local café before you arrive.” And, list a few nearby options in the conference program. Make sure these options reflect the culture of the area even if you end up recommending a chain restaurant. (Next time you’re in Canada, visit Tim Hortons for breakfast or lunch, and Swiss Chalet for lunch or dinner. I like the double leg dinner.) If you’ve decided on a more moderate breakfast, offer the lowest tier of carbs, and cut fruit or yogurt. I’m sick of hearing healthy people whine about having only carb options so offer just enough to appease both the ridiculously health conscious people as well as me.

Breaks: For goodness sake, in addition to coffee and/or tea, offer juice and/or soda. Beverages don’t need to be fancy, local pic 3brands (although you will win my heart if you can source a local root beer) but do have a couple of not hot beverages. As for snacks, I know that everyone, and possibly especially me, gets excited over the fresh chewy cookies, ice cream, brownies, macarons, and candy. I also know that these options can be expensive. But, please don’t dump 50 bags of Costco cookies into a giant Tupperware bowl and pull the bowl out every break. At least put a different kind of cookie out for each break so that we can ponder what the next cookie will be, particularly when a speaker has gone all sales pitchy and we’ve brain farted into break time. And as with breakfast, have at least one healthy option whether it’s fruit or yogurt or pretzels. Not that I’ll be wasting on stomach space on that.

Lunch/Dinner: Personally, I prefer a buffet meal. I can choose which food has the fewest number of things I hate and I can take my plate and find some green grass, blue water, or yellow sun. But lots of people do like a sit down meal so I won’t take you to fight club on this one. What I will fight you on is going to Mexico and getting chicken not empanadas, going to Quebec and getting chicken not tourtière, going to Chicago and getting chicken not deep dish pizza. If we are going to be stuck in a windowless conference hall for three days in a fabulous city bursting with cultural uniqueness and we don’t get to experience that uniqueness, you have failed at your job. Feed me the local stew, the grits, the tourtière, the pho. Maybe it’s not fancy.  Maybe I’ll hate it. But at least I’ll go home saying I tried some new food from an awesome city.

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