Learning patterns/Meals during conferences

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A learning pattern forconferences
Meals during conferences
problemOrganising meals during conferences
solutionMeal time is the best moment for informal exchange during conferences. Organisers should think of dietary preferences to avoid conflicts and let people take their meals comfortably and without rush
created on06:10, 2 April 2015 (UTC)

What problem does this solve?[edit]

Meal time is the best moment for informal exchange during conferences: you can normally do literally anything from sharing your ideas to "finding that person I wanted to ask".

The problem organisers are facing is to let people focus on the exchange but not on resolving issues related to meals:

  • All people should find food corresponding to their dietary requirements, otherwise they will eat elsewhere and not with other participants
  • During lunch (or dinner) participants should spend most time eating and discussing around the table, but not in a queue or looking for a place where to eat
  • During coffee breaks participants should discuss around a cup of coffee or tea, not look where the coffee is or why there is no hot water.

What is the solution?[edit]

Dietary requirements[edit]

For events with registration

If you have a registration in advance, you should absolutely ask people to list their dietary requirements. The most common categories are:

  • Meat
  • Vegetarian (people who do not eat meat or fish, in some cases also do not eat milk, eggs and cheese)
  • Vegan (do not eat any products of animal origin)
  • Kosher (dietary system in Judaism)
  • Halal (dietary system in Islam).

You should also ask if people have allergies. This must be an open question, as you never know what people are allergic to. The most common allergies you can find are (source):

  • cow's milk
  • eggs
  • nuts (peanuts or tree nuts)
  • fish
  • shellfish
  • wheat
  • soy

This will give you the number of each type you will have to order for your conference. Please note you can rather easily find a meal that meets most of allergy requirements, thus you do not need to explicitly order "meals without eggs" or "meals without fish".

For events without registration

If you do not have registration and you cannot ask people to provide their dietary preferences in advance (e.g. on the first day before the first meal), try to estimate the number of meals you will need.

From the experience of Wikimedia CEE Meeting 2014, you should estimate that between 10 and 20% of attendees will be vegetarians (vegetarians are a bit more common among Wikimedians than among the average population), incl. 1-2% of vegans. You should estimate the number of Halal and Kosher meals depending on the origin of your participants.

Concerning allergies, try to make it a way that you have at least one dish without milk and eggs, at least one dish without nuts and at least one dish without fish and shellfish, this should be enough to leave everyone satisfied, just label the meals appropriately (e.g. "Contains nuts").


The best conditions for the lunch are the following:

  • attendees should preferrably be seated (it is the most appropriate atmosphere for exchange during lunch)
  • attendees should receive their meals approximately at the same time (it would be problematic if, say, those who choose vegetarian meals wait much longer than those who opt for meat or vegan meals)
  • queues should be minimal (people usually do not exchange in queues and are quite annoyed).

We will look at different options for organising catering during conferences:

On-site restaurant.
Lunch in an on-site (university) canteen during Wikimedia CEE Meeting 2014

If you organise an event in a congress center, a university campus or a similar location, they will most likely have an on-site restaurant. A university canteen may be worse than average for your town but it is the most comfortable option for participants: they are seated in an appropriate room, they are served quickly and they can easily have lunch with whoever they like. If your on-site restaurant does not offer dishes meeting particular dietary requirements (most common: no vegan dishes), just ask them if you can order ones somewhere else, they don't have any reason to refuse.

Outside restaurant.

If your group is small (i.e. less than 100 people) and the site of your conference has no restaurant, you can try to find one in the immediate proximity of the site. It might be difficult to find a restaurant of high quality, but once again that would be a comfortable option for participants. Just provide the number of people having chosen each meal in advance, and if they cannot satisfy some, order them somewhere else.

Catering company.

If your group is large (over 100 people), it might be worse inviting catering company to the site. This company should normally bring their staff who will serve meals to the attendees (or offer them a self-service). In many countries such service is not quite cheap, but this is usually the best option if you have too many attendees to fit into a single restaurant. Make sure to have enough place to have all of your attendees seated: it is quite difficult to stand and eat, especially if meals are hot. Another problem is that there are chances people will choose meals that were not supposed for them (e.g. vegetarians will opt for vegan meals), so please expect a bit more portions of meals other than standard meat meal.

Boxed lunches.

You can order ready boxed lunches to be delivered to the site of your event. This is usually the best option if you have a small quantity of meals of a particular type that cannot be prepared in the restaurant of your choise, and thus you can order them from a specialised restaurant (e.g. on-site restaurant does not serve Kosher meals, so you order them from the specialised Kosher restaurant). The problem with boxed lunches is that they are usually neither hot nor cold, so you will most likely get all meals just warm (both hot meals like main courses and cold meals like desserts). Thus you should order them to be delivered precisely few minutes before the lunch. In this case you definitely need to have enough place to have all of your attendees seated, as people usually need to put a box on the table in order to eat its contents.

Home-made self-service lunches.

If your group is really small (up to 20-25 people), you can choose home-made lunches like salads, sandwiches etc. that will be prepared just before lunch, possibly even by participants themselves. It is usually the cheapest option for small groups and it's quite feasible as 2-3 people can quickly prepare sandwiches/salads for 20 or so. This is not the most delicious option, however, and you can rarely find appropriate hot dishes in this case.

Up to you to choose the most appropriate concept. Same applies to dinners.

Coffee breaks[edit]

Coffee break during Wikimedia CEE Meeting 2014

The main point of coffee breaks is to give an opportunity for attendees to get together between the sessions and discuss what they heard in the previous session(s). The only "must have" is actually coffee and tea — and perhaps some cold drinks, like water or juice.

The worst problem you may have is not to have any coffee or tea ready immediately after the end of the session. If there is no hot water, the topic of discussion will be "where is hot water?", not what people heared in the previous session.

Thus you should think of the following:

  • Your coffee break should be ready a few minutes before the end of the session (in case of early end), and it must be ready by the end of the session.
  • There must be someone in charge of a coffee break.
  • Preparing a coffee break is not really compatible with attending the previous session until the end.

The easiest way to organise a coffee break for you is to work with a company specialised in organising them. It might be a partner of your venue, or you can find some interesting sponsorship deals (e.g. for Wikimedia CEE Meeting 2014 we had a company that organised "creative' coffee breaks). Such partnership can be beneficial to you (you have less problems and more reasonable prices of coffee breaks) and to that company (they get a promotion to a large group of people). In this case they will usually bring their own equipment, so you will not have to think where to find that many kettles...

Things to consider[edit]

  • Vegetarians can eat vegan meals (they might be slightly disappointed but it will work fine). The reverse is not true: vegans will never eat vegetarian meals that are not vegan. This means that you can order vegan meals for vegetarians and vegans only if you have limited choise.
  • If you give people a choice of meals, there is a chance that non-vegetarians will choose vegetarian meals, but the reverse is not true. This means you should order more vegetarian meals than the estimated number of vegetarians etc.
  • If a restaurant where your attendees will have lunch has no particular meals (e.g. vegan), ask them if you can have them delivered from a specialised restaurant: they cannot refuse as they are unable to provide these meals themselves.

When to use[edit]

While organising conferences, from small local to large international events.


See also[edit]

Related patterns[edit]

External links[edit]