Eating Out Is in at Events

Where relationships are made, and business happens: Dine-arounds shape the conference experience.

Eating Out Is in at Events

From the inception of its annual Marketplace show more than 30 years ago, the American Bus Association has set aside time for dine-arounds, offering opportunities for attendees, vendors and exhibitors to meet away from the exhibit hall.

Some of Marketplace’s 3,500 attendees, who are primarily bus and motor coach owners, get as many as 10 invitations to restaurants around the host city where organizations have reserved space to showcase their tourist destinations. 

“They try to pick a location and provide entertainment to give [attendees] an experience as if they were in their own city,” says Lynn Brewer, senior vice president of meetings, events and education for the 4,000-member association, which promotes motor coach travel throughout North America. “They are hosting those operators and they want them to come and bring their business to Branson or Tennessee or New York.” 

The events are popular, Brewer says, because they’re fun. “Relationships are made and business happens,” she says.

Less Costs, More Experiences

Dine-arounds, usually off-site dinners during conferences and meetings, have been around for decades. But Mike Butts, Visit Charlotte’s vice president of sales and executive director, says he’s seen an uptick since the 2008 financial crisis as meeting planners sought less expensive ways to entertain attendees. Dine-arounds allow them to cut a big banquet from their schedule while still providing an activity. 

Their popularity also points to another meetings trend—the desire for experiences, Butts says. According to IACC’s Meeting Room of the Future report, a survey of meeting planners found that 85% of respondents agree that “experience creation” is more important now than it was five years ago. Food and beverage offerings are a popular way to create an experience for conference-goers, the report says.

“They can go to the restaurants right around the convention center and feel like they’ve had a special experience,” Butts says. “It actually works out to be great for the city and a great experience for the attendee.” 

Networking Opportunities

While meeting planners often work with host cities to identify restaurants, not all dine-arounds are created equal. Some, like the American Bus Association, provide a list of restaurants to organizations and attendees who coordinate them on their own.

Others take a different approach. Dine-arounds have been on Training Magazine’s Training Conference & Expo’s schedule for about six years. To plan them, Kim Grant, conference events manager, sets up reservations at a variety of local restaurants. Conference speakers typically host each of the meals. Diners sign up for them in advance but pay for their meal at the restaurant.  

The National Parking Association also organizes the location of each of the dine-arounds during its annual convention, but diners pay a fee for their meal when they register. “For us, it’s about facilitating that networking environment and taking the pressure off the sales side of it and the business side of it,” said Jason Glei, the association’s vice president of marketing and information technology. “It’s not that that stuff doesn’t happen. But it happens with greater ease because you are forming bonds and becoming comfortable with someone.” 

Pro Tips

Get a Sponsor

The National Parking Association recently added Southland Printing as a sponsor. As a perk, the company had two seats at the table at each of the five restaurants that hosted a meal out. Glei said it worked for all involved. “It’s going to take the right sponsor based on what they’re looking for,” Glei said. “If the sponsor is looking for a party, this isn’t right for them. If they’re looking to make intimate, one-on-one connections and have actual discussions, this is what will help facilitate that.” 

Think small 

If you’re not hosting big parties, like some of the organizations at the American Bus Association’s Marketplace, Grant and Glei both recommend thinking small to encourage conversation and connections. Eight to 10 people attend the dine-arounds at the Training conference and expo. The National Parking Association’s dine-arounds hover around 10 to 15 people at each.

Have options

Not everybody will want to nosh on a burger. And not everybody will have the budget to tuck in at a fine dining establishment. Provide different cuisines and price points, Glei recommends.

Give a lift

For restaurants not close to the convention center or hotels, provide transportation to the destination. If it’s walkable, organize a meet up so attendees can walk together. 

Prepare for popularity

Training Magazine’s dine-arounds usually fill up within a week after registration opens as attendees rush for a coveted spot at a table. The only complaint Grant has ever fielded was about the noise level in a restaurant.