Forget the ordinary. When it comes to food and beverage trends, the meeting and events industry will be driven to create nonstop Instagrammable moments in 2020.

“Say bye-bye to standard banquet offerings, including generic white wine, red wine and domestic beer options you might be used to,” says Jason Adler, director of operations for Spellbound Entertainment, which includes Dakota, W Scottsdale, aloft Scottsdale, Maya Clubhouse, and Maya Day + Night Club. “Instead, brands like ours are investing in locally sourced ingredients, fresh-squeezed juices and ‘wow’ elements to develop custom event signature cocktails and menus that would never be described as cookie-cutter.”

While meetings, conventions and events were once seen as a necessary part — or evil — of doing business, event-goers now view meetings and events as experiences and opportunities to see, taste and learn new things — both professionally and personally. And while meeting planners have to factor in the experiential element into each event, experts say they need to keep it Facebook-friendly — for the participants, planners and venues.

“Social media currently, and will remain, the dominant force behind exposure and marketing for any brand in the food and beverage industry,” Adler says. “Smart brands will market to events and meetings as part of their holistic approach to digital communications, and insert calls to action in their strategic communications.”

And beyond social media exposure, interaction will be a key to creating those positive experiences for those attending meetings and events in 2020.

“As event planners, personal engagement and social interaction will be key in ensuring memories made at the event are stories shared for days and weeks after the event,” says Mark Nelsen, director of food and beverage at Great Wolf Lodge Arizona. “Make your own guacamole with the guidance of the chef. Make your own mojito with the guidance of the master mixologist. Education and interaction will be at the core of these activities, and how photos of these moments translate to social media will be a major influence in their design.”

So besides making sure each event-goer has a selfie-stick and gets to meet the chef, what are the food and beverage trends to watch in the meeting and events space heading into 2020?

Food trends to watch

Teamwork: “We think we will continue to see partnerships – especially those that highlight a venue’s connection to the local market – help shape the industry into 2020,” Adler says. “For example, partnering with a local brewer or winemaker for a specialty tasting event or pairing dinner to elevate and customize an event or meeting, or with a local farm to bring in native ingredients for specialty menus during an event or meeting.”

No meat: “Hands down, watch for vegetarian and vegan menu items,” says Nate Kinstlinger, food and beverage operations manager at Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino. “Every year we see an increase in the number of requests for vegan and vegetarian fare. The growing acceptance of plant-based proteins requires us to be creative and provide plenty of options for our guests. Our culinary team works hard to create innovative and delicious dishes that include lentils, quinoa and tofu.”

Healthy options: “I’ve said it for a few years, and it hasn’t stopped: healthier food,” says Kevin Moul, director of catering and conference services at Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North. “Our clients are requesting healthier food and along with this, they need to identify individual ingredients to help guests make choices when they have special dietary needs. In 2020, we expect to see more dishes that are interactive and transform in front of the guest, such as a plate garnish that transforms when a soup is added, or dessert that is smashed to reveal a sauce that oozes, or when a layer dissolves to reveal something underneath. I hate to say it, but food really does need to be ‘Instagrammable.’”

Less is more: “Less food,” says Jeff Pilditch, executive chef at the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn. “Expect to see smaller portions, but with higher quality products that are being locally sourced. We are also seeing interest and appeal in healthier food items during the day and more playful and indulgent foods in the evening.”

Sustainability: “The big food trends include plant-based foods,” says Erik Forrest, director of food and beverage at The Scottsdale Plaza Resort. “Mindful consumers maintain a continued focus on sustainability.”

Interaction: “Involving our chef is something we have added to our offerings for meetings and event dinners,” says Oliver Badgio, chief brand officer at Steak 44, Dominick’s Steakhouse and Ocean 44. “Chef-manned food stations in the dining rooms are a great way to deliver a high-quality culinary experience and get your meeting guests up and out of the seats to meet and collaborate and enjoy more than dinner. Making great experiences is always in style.”

Beverage trends to watch

Handcrafted cocktails: “Handcrafted cocktails are big and will continue to be a strong trend,” Kinstlinger says. “Drinks that have a focus on locally-cultivated, organic ingredients and garnishes are very popular. At a recent event, we featured a drink called the Honey Buzz created with locally-sourced honey from a bee farm just down the road. The lemons we used in the honey sour were also locally grown. Preparing drinks with a local twist, gives our staff something to talk to guests about and is just another way we look to make every guest experience unique and memorable.”

Mocktails: “I think the big trend for 2020 meetings and events will be mocktails and local spirits,” Forrest says. “Attendees are looking for an experience and mocktails offer an opportunity for guests to enjoy a drink that feels fancy without over indulging. For those who still desire a little kick in their cocktail, local spirits always provide an opportunity to taste something totally unique to our area.”

Seltzer, anyone? “Seltzer. Seltzer. Seltzer,” Nelsen says. “The recent boom of hard seltzers in the market took everyone by storm, even inspiring many local craft beer brewers to add this emerging option to their lineup. Offering a universal, low-calorie and approachable option to the menu, the likes of Truly, WhiteClaw and locally-produced ‘craft seltzers’ served on tap, will be prevalent for the foreseeable future.”

Kombucha: “Kombucha is a beverage that’s having a moment right now,” says Conor Favre, executive chef at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. “It’s versatile, healthy, and can also be used in cocktails and mocktails for a refreshing drink at the end of the day. Craft beer has maintained its popularity, particularly local brews and IPAs.”

Regional drinks: “After the trend of flavoring liquors and the popularity of micro brews, there is growing demand for small, regionally produced hard liquor, such as gin, with strong botanical flavoring,” Moul says. “We also are expecting even more demand for the highest-quality mixers. We also are seeing the use of botanical extracts for cocktails, which is a complete departure from sweetened syrups. Post-meal ‘digestifs’ — in particular the Italian Amaros — are growing in popularity, as are sherry, port, sweet vermouth and the classic cognacs.”

Holistic approach: “I expect to see a lot more holistic and health conscience beverages like cactus water spritzers, Kombucha mocktails and CBD-infused drinks,” Pilditch says. “Any kind of play on retro always comes full circle with modernized twists on the classics. Low-sugar drinks and flavored ices are on the rise as well.”

Tiny tastes: “Mini-signature cocktails offer an interactive and unique experience in which a group has an opportunity to taste a wide variety of mini versions of our signature hand-crafted cocktails, fully dressed up and presented like a small scale version of the real thing,” Badgio says. “It’s very experiential.”

Making it special

Forrest says it’s important to realize that attendees no longer see business meetings. They see business events.

“I believe we will continue to see groups turn their annual meetings into full-blown festival-style events,” Forrest says. “The demands will grow for menu customization and creative food to fit the theme of the event. Meeting and event attendees will also continue to become more demanding in having venues meet their dietary needs. Guests are much more mindful of their dietary intake.”

Attendees of 2020 events will also be looking to enjoy a sense of connection.

“Clients are looking for stories, such as the chef or bartender’s local or cultural ties,” Moul says. “They want freshly made foods that are far from packaged consumer foods. It started with potato chips and popcorn, and now we see it in cold pressed beverages and Kombucha on tap. Meeting planners are beginning to look for new and interesting items that are not mainstream. These may be something locally made or reflective of the location — like cactus water or agua fresca..”

Moul says he expects there will be demand for a more even balance of healthy and unhealthy food options, such as fresh pressed juices served alongside milk shakes. Which is exactly what experts say meeting and event planners will see in 2020: a mix of the old and new.

“Guests still want all the traditional elements of an event — good food, service, linens, themes, etc.,” Favre says. “But they want to leave having enjoyed a unique experience they will remember for a long time. Planners should be prepared to work with event hosts to create unique experiences that are on brand for the organization and on theme for the event.”

That’s the bottom line: Creating an experience for guests is a must in 2020.

“And it will go far beyond drink specials,” Adler says. “Our Maya concept is a key example of this in action. Most know the brand as Maya Day + Night Club, an indoor/outdoor club offering daytime pool parties, bottle service and DJ nights. During fall and winter, however, we now transition the brand into Maya Clubhouse, open to all ages during the day and providing guests with yard games, craft cocktails, a complete food menu, live music and sports. It’s an experience that lends itself perfectly to team building, holiday parties, customer appreciation events and even private parties for the many groups in town during the high season.”


Alison Bailin Batz contributed to this story.