Arriving at the first face-to-face meeting since Covid struck more than two years ago is a little daunting. It feels so long since we’ve been in the company of colleagues, customers and business acquaintances that the thought of returning to a meeting room and conversing with so many people feels strange.
But the team at Make Venues were keen to impress on me the subtle, but important, role food will play in our industry’s return to normality. They also wanted to showcase the quality of the food at their venues, so my job is to try and understand both.
As I arrive at Woodland Grange, one of the group’s venues, based in leafy and luxurious Leamington Spa, the role of the environment does immediately hit me. The venue is set on 16 acres of land and it’s great to be meeting in a setting that embraces the outside space and doesn’t feel restrictive or small. But it’s also a reminder that delegates place value on venues because they break the norm; this isn’t an office building or coffee shop, it means business.
On entering the venue I’m welcomed with a good quality coffee, but that’s not the point. The first step of my food journey represents a microcosm of what is to come. In front of me is a display that someone has lovingly put together; it showcases brownies, biscuits, bars, fruit, and sweeties. Healthy options meet treats, but the display itself is a great big welcome sign.
Within just a few minutes, what has struck me is the immediate feeling of normality; that’s it, I’m back in a hospitality setting where this sort of thing matters and where we have probably been underappreciative in the past.
I’m spending a ‘food day’ at Make Venues and taking the opportunity to have a few meetings with the team. I’m always thinking about food though, for example, how the subtle welcome has set me up for the day. How it adds kudos to the experience as well as class.
Lunchtime arrives with many ravenous delegates keen to sample the famous Woodland Grange cuisine. The hype was large as I arrived and the challenge to the venue, and others like it, is how can you put functionality and hospitality together. How good can this really be?
Immediate impressions are positive; colour. As I enter, I’m immediately struck by the variety and colour of the produce on offer. I’m drawn to the salad bar which has five equally colourful options on offer; each fresh, innovative without being ‘showy’, and that sell the salad. It’s obvious that the venue doesn’t want guests to walk past health, they want to sell it, to make it viable.
Locally-sourced produce is front and centre of the offering from top to bottom. From fresh radishes, heritage tomatoes, roasted broccoli and cauliflower combinations, to Moroccan and Persian inflections. I’m a meetings and events journalist, but even to me, the quality of the ingredients is clear and makes healthy eating feel far more luxurious than I expected.
As a vegetarian, I’m used to being given one, solitary food option, that often lacks imagination and leaves me feeling a little disappointed. However, here the options feel endless and well-thought-through, with a vegetable tagine and cauliflower steaks complementing the salads. What feels extraordinary about the food on offer is how healthy it feels, but also how indulgent it looks; fresh and colourful yes, but also soulful and delicate.
Clearly, my focus was on the vegetarian options, however, it’s fair to say that my meat-eating colleagues were no less impressed with their own robust carvery and roast option, and plenty of attractive vegetable dishes. They tell me that meat can go wrong, especially at events with large numbers, but not this time, and never here.
Lastly, a range of oils, sauces and spreads sit at the end of the table providing the perfect accompaniments for everyone’s taste.
While it was clear to see the commitment to providing healthy, sustainable food and natural produce - the attractive, retro desserts were too good to be missed. Knickerbocker glories, cakes and brownies provided a sweet treat for those looking to round off a varied and modern interpretation of buffet cuisine and went down a storm.
All in all, it’s been a welcome return to meetings and I’ve felt truly enveloped in the warm hug of hospitality that has been missing for so long. But this is also a pitch for the importance of food. I’ve noticed it more than others because my focus was all about the food, but I see others interacting in the same way. Food fuels people, it also fuels conversation. It lubricates normality. It’s a warm welcome.