Over the years, surveys of meeting attendees have found that the three elements most critical to their satisfaction are 1) ease of travel to the destination, 2) accommodations at the host property and 3) quality of food and beverage served during the meeting.
That last factor might surprise some professionals, but not Matthew Fitzgerald, executive banquet chef for The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, an oceanfront property outside Charleston, SC. Having coordinated the food and beverage offerings for countless business conferences, incentive trips, weddings and social events over the past three years, Fitzgerald knows that good things happen whenever a chef actively participates in the event-planning process.
"Our group menus are more than 60 pages long, so we can create every meal, reception or refreshment break in a way that fits into any budget," he says. Then again, Kiawah Resort's setting in the Carolina Lowcountry "dictates a lot of what we do with our food. Many people come here for the Charleston experience — our unique cuisine and its history are central to that." As a result, "planners almost never limit themselves to what's on our menus, because we can also provide so many local seasonal items that will make for unforgettable meals."
First, the property's oceanfront setting means that groups "can't help but do the seafood," says Fitzgerald. Rather than bring in cold-water fish such as salmon, halibut or cod, Kiawah Resort offers fresh local catches such as mahi, wahoo, striped bass and wreckfish (a light and flaky fish caught only in the waters off Charleston). There's also locally-harvested shad roe (similar to caviar), oysters and shrimp. "Guests can actually watch the shrimp boats pass by our shores during the day," he adds. "Shrimp and grits is a staple around here."
For themed events, Kiawah Resort will create a Lowcountry boil featuring seafood, perhaps combined with a "pig-picking station" that features a whole hog roasted on a spit. Groups can also have an authentic oyster roast; "The Sanctuary has an oyster pit on its terrace lawn, where a chef will steam oysters wrapped in burlap and then shuck them, all while talking with guests", says Fitzgerald. "If a group puts all of these elements together, they get South Carolina's version of a luau. At Mingo Point, guests also enjoy the benefit of exquisite river views as the backdrop to their event."
Another strength of Kiawah Resort's food and beverage operation is the relationship between the property's chefs and local farms. Situated adjacent to Kiawah Island is Johns Island, a rich agricultural area that supplies the resort with a huge variety of fruits, vegetables, spices and other items that shape the property's standout cuisine.
"One farmer has a hothouse that grows heirloom tomatoes for us, while a local monastery grows hundreds of pounds of shiitake and oyster mushrooms for us each year. Another farmer makes his own grits and grinds them down to any size we ask for," Fitzgerald notes. "So for our group receptions and buffet meals, we'll build a whole station around certain items and tell attendees the story behind what they're eating."
Local growers are even able to fulfill difficult special requests that the resort gets from some meeting clients. "They can use their greenhouses to raise crops that aren't in season, so our guests can experience something completely unique," Fitzgerald says. For instance, when one corporate planner wanted alpine strawberries as a welcome amenity for attendees of a May meeting, "we worked with a local farmer starting in January to make sure the strawberries would ripen the same week attendees arrived on property. Those are the lengths we'll go to when food is that important to a group."
Kiawah Resort's culinary team also keeps its eye on healthy-eating trends and adapts its offerings so attendees have appealing choices during meals and breaks. "We've seen growing demand for smoothies, so we now offer 'action juicing stations' during meeting breaks. They're going over very well," Fitzgerald says. To entice attendees to choose fruit during breakfast, lunch or breaks, he recently began using tiny ornamental wheelbarrows lined with burlap to hold single-serving portions of various berries and sliced fruits.
On opposite ends of the spectrum, "many people want to let go a little bit when they are at a meeting, so we still offer our southern-style rice pudding," Fitzgerald notes.
Like all the other aspects of hospitality at Kiawah Resort, the culinary team embraces an overarching philosophy. Fitzgerald explains, "Meeting planners can choose to take their groups anywhere, so we do everything we can to deliver the most memorable experience possible."