2020 Meetings Trendwatching: Vegans Hopping? Teetotalers Stomping?

By Robert McGarvey

If the futurists are right, business meetings are about to change.  The latest trend report from af&co is out and this trend watcher is so right on even the New York Times cites it as the source for insights into what we’ll be eating in 2020.  And they are making predictions that speak to a transformation of what we eat and drink at meetings and conferences.

Personally I expect to see brawls at meeting I attend. Why?

According to the Times: “‘There is a sense that the rose-colored glasses are off,’ said Andrew Freeman, president of AF&Co., the San Francisco consulting firm that for 12 years has published a food and hospitality trend report. This year’s is titled ‘We’re Not in Kansas Anymore.’

“‘The world just feels different,’ Mr. Freeman said. ‘The labor market is tight, the political landscape is a mess. All of us are trying to navigate it.’”

The company in its press release on the report added: “The greatest challenge facing the industry is that the tried and true isn’t gaining traction in the same way and operators must find new ways to reach and engage with guests in a constantly changing world.”

Ready to eat and drink different?

According to af&co. There are many trends coming down the culinary highway – Laotian food rising, porridge has its day, and culinary mashups (Mexican-Korean for instance, already popular in Los Angeles) are rising –but two trends stand out as especially shaping our travels and what we do on the road.

Are you on board? And know we will all have to confront these trends in 2020 – two of the biggest trends in fact directly challenge the way I was taught to travel on business and that involved martinis (Manhattans were an acceptable substitution) and, always, steak for dinner (permissible to not even nibble the overdone veg served with the big hunk of beef – they are decor, aren’t they?).

Brace yourself for the first 2020 trend: veganism.  

No real surprise.  This has been percolating for a good half dozen years and now, apparently, it’s about to have its turn under the spotlights.  Said af&co. “Vegan cuisine has entered the mainstream; just don’t call it that (it’s plant-based!). No longer an obscure subset of vegetarian, well-established restaurants and brands known for indulgent, craveable foods are entering the action. It isn’t just about animal welfare, but about what’s good for the environment and what’s good for us, without sacrificing flavor or presentation.”

Agree or disagree?  

The second trend and another direct shot at my travel instructions when I first hit the road: going sober, ditching the booze.  Explains af&co.: “SPIRIT OF THE YEAR: NO SPIRIT. We’re not just ‘sober curious,’ we’re getting serious about our non-alcoholic drinks! It’s important to offer enticing, highly curated beverage options for those who choose to avoid alcohol but still want to partake in the celebration. Restaurants and bars are upping their offerings with an inclusive bar program and we expect to see many more pre-bottled and canned spirit-free cocktails in the grocery aisles as well. Just don’t call them mocktails – we’re talking zero proof, N/A, spirit free, and non-alcoholic drinks.”

Meeting planners take note: cocktail receptions are so Mad Men (and that was set in the 1960s, wasn’t it?).  

Are you ready to join the Sober Curious movement?

It’s no longer an academic question. My bet is that in 2020 people at an evening reception at a meeting will look at a martini swiller the same way they would look at the bloke who lights a cigar at the event.

And very probably those people will be as horrified by the fellow who slices into a bloody hunk of black and blue steak and chews with loud gusto.

Should I just put my rollaboard in storage and declare my unavailability for 2020 travel?

Well, no, because the strange irony is that nowadays I mainly eat a plant-based diet – not vegan but mainly veg and fruits and little meat.  Vegan strikes me as too limiting but with a bite of cheese, maybe even the occasional dab of butter and the very occasional pasta Bolognese I am fine with what I eat. The era of thick steaks nightly on the road is over.  

I am also okay with the switch to non alcohol drinks (and in fact am elbow deep into the 2020 Dry January movement and successfully completed Dry January last year too).

I cannot recall the last time I had a martini or a Manhattan.

Color me on trend.

What I am waiting to discover is how on trend the meeting and conference organizers I encounter in 2020 are. I am not optimistic – but that will make observing the scene all the more fascinating.

Will we have food fights at the breakfast buffet with angry attendees hurling pork sausage links at the organizers?

Will sober curious meeting-goers attack the bartenders at the next reception and demand mocktails?

We will see and I bet it will get interesting on the road this year as meeting realities lag behind attendee demands.

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