As meetings and events made their big comeback, David Hackett, Executive Chef at Caribe Royale Orlando, noticed a shift in how attendees preferred to dine. Instead of sitting down for a multi-course, plated dinner, there’s been heightened demand among attendees to rove about and have face time with colleagues they’ve exclusively seen over Zoom for the past several months.

“They’ve been away for so long that instead of sitting next to someone at a table they’d rather mingle and catch up with their friends and colleagues they haven’t seen in a while,” Hackett said.

The culinary team at Caribe Royale Orlando responded by expanding its “activation station” options, which creates a more casual setting, maximizing those coveted mixing-and-mingling opportunities. In a way, this approach to dining borrows a page from gourmet food festivals. Meals are themed around dishes like street tacos or poke bowls, and the gatherings have a social, celebratory feel. Chefs can also be nimble, too, adapting to attendees’ varying dietary preferences.

Today’s meetings are all about creative customization—from reception-style meals to marquee events, according to the team at Caribe Royale Orlando. Even smaller moments that could easily be overlooked, like those 20-minute meeting breaks, are tailored to a tee for meetings and events guests at this Floridian resort, from breakfast activation stations that can feature anything from omelets to citrus-vanilla French Toast to themed lunch buffets and sushi receptions with maki and nigiri.

Demand for in-person meetings and events remains high: 49 percent of organizations held in-person meetings in 2022, compared to 37 percent in 2021, according to Omnipress’ 2023 Conference Industry Report that included responses from more than 200 executives and event professionals.

And Orlando is at the epicenter of the meetings and events industry as it rebounds. In fact, the Florida city is the second largest meeting market in North America, just behind Las Vegas, according to Amex Global Business Travel. These factors position Caribe Royale Orlando, which has 240,000 square feet of meeting space and fun new event spaces in the works, to lead on the innovation front.

“People are looking for more customization and more individuality,” said Amaury Piedra, Managing Director at Caribe Royale Orlando. “They want those memorable experiences.”

Ahead, a further look at how Caribe’s culinary and events teams are pushing the boundaries to customize one-of-a-kind events and meet pent-up travel demand.

Culinary Carte Blanche

Being an independent hotel means the culinary team isn’t tethered to, say, sourcing from particular vendors, Hackett said. This allows his team to think outside of the box and prioritize using fresh, wholesome, quality ingredients, which ultimately leads to full-flavored dishes.

One of the most popular activations, Hackett said, is the “Sausage Bazaar” where guests have options like kielbasa and beer-poached bratwursts along with sautéed peppers and onions, sauerkraut, relishes with apples or pears, pretzels, and gourmet accoutrements like whole-grain mustards and tomato-onion jams.

As another testament to the culinary creativity at Caribe Royale Orlando, Joshua Cain, the resort’s pastry chef who has more than 25 years of pastry and culinary experience, competed on Food Network’s Spring Baking Championship.

Chef Cain is well-known for his impressive holiday chocolate displays like last year’s holiday wonderland featuring Santa in his sleigh with nine reindeer made from 2,000 pounds of chocolate and a 32-foot steam engine train made with 1,800 pounds of chocolate in partnership with high-quality chocolates from Valrhona and Barry Callebaut. The hotel has a “chocolate room” that’s furnished with high-end equipment like a tempering machine and marble slabs for molding.

Dessert options at meetings include a number of sweet treats like flaming crepes and gourmet cookie sandwiches.

The “Crème Brûlée Your Way” activation station, for instance, allows guests to pick a custard base (chocolate, vanilla, or orange) and the dessert is torched by the chef, giving it that caramelized sugary top that you can shatter with a spoon. From there, topping options range from caramelized bananas to berry compote or chocolate sauce.

“Attendees are looking for an experience; they don’t just want to be fed, they want something to stimulate their senses and show them something they haven’t seen before,” said Laura Hartmann, Director of Group Events at Caribe Royale Orlando.

Amped Up Creativity with Events

Even mini experiences like a.m. or p.m. breaks can be opportunities to surprise and delight meeting guests, said Hartmann.

As an example, instead of simply setting out bags of chips and cans of soda during the breaks, Caribe Royale Orlando can roll out a charming gelato cart and blend a few different flavors of milkshakes, which are served with colorful straws in cute cups, Hartmann said. Or, for those who slept in or were getting a workout in during the traditional breakfast hours, the events team can do a “You Snoozed, but You Didn’t Lose” activation with breakfast bowls and coffee, she said.

“It’s those little pick-me-ups throughout the day that help attendees stay motivated and inspired when they go back into their sessions,” Hartmann said.

As group travel has ramped up, Piedra points out, attendees want to flow between indoor-outdoor spaces and are looking for variety. When it comes to large-scale events, groups are encouraged to dream big.

For instance, one high-tech firm held an international event and the Caribe Royale Orlando team converted meeting spaces into a series of nightclubs, and each room had its own theme and music genre in addition to a karaoke club. Another event transformed the porte-cochère area into a food truck lineup.

The spacious pool deck, with a waterfall, is one of the resort’s most popular areas and groups have had dancers perform in inflatable bubbles in the pool. Soon, there will be a DJ deck on top of the waterfall, Piedra said.

In October, a 20,000 square-foot beautifully landscaped event lawn called The Grove will make its debut and can accommodate up to 2,000 guests for receptions, live music, banquets and team building events.

Then, next up, The Stadium Club will open in January 2024. Think of it as a sports bar of the future. The 9,000 square-foot, two-floor venue will be furnished with immersive virtual reality entertainment including eight pro-level sports simulators by Full Swing Golf and two bars. It’s game on.