As a conference planner, I love scouting out restaurants and caterers to learn what they have to offer in terms of both food quality and overall dining experience. My recent night out at Hiakai did not disappoint! They are unlike anything I’ve encountered, and I’m so glad to have connected with them. The Auaha squad is always looking for industry stars that have the ability to make local events unique and exceptional, and Hiakai fits the bill in so many ways.

Before you get dressed up and head for the car, however,  here’s what you should know:

  • Dining is by booking only, with evening meals served Wednesday through Saturday.
  • There’s no menu, and you don’t get many choices! Instead, you inform the restaurant of the number of courses you would like (6, 8, or 10), as well as any dietary restrictions your party has. These details are attended to during you booking, and when you arrive your meals have been carefully crafted to meet your needs.

Accommodating dietary restrictions while still delivering quality is definitely an art, and if you’ve ever planned an event or worked with a conference organiser you know how challenging it can be. Over the last 18+ years of executing meaningful business events across a wide range of industries, I’ve seen these restrictions grow from a small handful of serious allergens, into a long list of preferences, including: low carb, paleo, pescatarian, vegan, gluten free, keto and lactose intolerant. It can get quite overwhelming to plan for, as you never know what a guest to your event may feel they need.

In fact, sometimes it’s easy to feel frustrated with all these details and fail to make the necessary effort; sadly, I’ve seen guests with restrictions relegated to munching on extra side salads because their dietary needs weren’t successfully cared for.

This is terrible for everyone – the attendees certainly don’t appreciate it, and it takes away from the prestige of your event and the reputation you are seeking to create.

As a professional conference organiser (PCO), I believe it’s our job to think beyond providing only the most basic concessions for our guests with special dietary restrictions; instead, we need to work closely with the in-house chef or catering company to ensure that they are prepared to develop the options necessary to meet a variety requests. Ideally, I choose professionals willing to develop customised options, rather than those insisting on only offering their own pre-set menus.

Fortunately, this is becoming easier and easier. In fact, the IACC reports that 87% of venues have made menu changes as a result of client feedback related to their health and wellness needs; this percentage will likely continue to increase, as fully 100% of venues said that they have received more gluten-free requests over the last twelve months than in any previous year.

While planning your conference, you might consider adding a section to your registration allowing guests to indicate allergies or dietary needs. This allows them to feel that their circumstances have been immediately and thoughtfully considered, eliminates the need for them to try and follow up with you independently, and gives you plenty of advance notice to plan for their requests.

For my meal at Haikai, I had informed them in advance that I was a gluten-free vegetarian. Because I understand that those restrictions are limiting, I don’t often have the highest of hopes when attending industry events. When I get surprised with amazing options that I know for a fact have been created to satisfy me, I always have a more positive reflection of not only the restaurant or caterer, but also the organisation whose conference I’m attending.

In terms of accommodating my needs in a delicious way, Hiakai far exceeded my expectations! The food was exquisitely presented, and each flavour was a celebration for my taste buds and a party in my mouth!.

Every course is paired with either a wine or a non-alcoholic beverage, another wonderful example of customisation and  genuine focus on the comfort and satisfaction of each guest. Personally, I’m in the non-alcohol category, and I was blown away with the variety of mocktails presented. They were all made in-house, perfectly matched with each course, and allowed all diners to feel they were having an extra-special experience, with or without actual alcohol.

At any business event, food plays a huge part in our overall experience. When the event has been skillfully planned and executed, there has always been attention paid to what is being served, and how that menu reflects the preferences and palettes of all guests.

At Auaha, every member of our innovative team works hard to ensure the food experience at your event will contribute positively to the overall theme and guest experience. Of course this will be different for everyone; for one of our client’s morning tea must be savory and substantial to meet the needs of attendees who were up early to travel to the hosting site, while for another lunch is meant to reflect the creative and eccentric elements of their business.

Whether we’re helping you prepare for 1,000 or 50, we want to ensure that each individual walks away satisfied and impressed with you, the business that has taken the time to not only organise a phenomenal event, but also to meet their simplest needs.

We often hear questions and concerns about whether all this customisation is going to get a bit expensive; food always seem to want to eat up more than its share of an event budget, and creating more specialised food doesn’t seem like it will save any money.

Here at Auaha, we don’t believe that customisation needs to be expensive. The best way to go about it is to make sure your conference planning and preparation includes clear communication with a chef that is willing to make adjustments and mix things up. We don’t create costly, extravagant options, but rather work together to move things around and form amazing combinations that leave everyone satisfied (budget included)! It can also mean adding a bit of creatify to build excitement around foods that may be a bit unusual to serve in a conference setting.

While planning an event last year, we realised that donuts were an unusual menu option that the catering company was offering. Since you don’t often see that here in NZ, we decided to do something interesting with them for an afternoon tea. Rather than simply serving them on plates, we asked the caterer to create a donut wall – and we still have people talking about it! In fact, it was such a hit that the caterer went on to create a customised donut wall package for other event planners.

Experiences like this remind us of how powerful our relationships are; we are honoured to work with professionals in the events industry that are open to new ideas, flexible in their delivery, and excited to partner with Auaha to add innovation and creativity into the realm of professional conferences and events.

See-yah later mini pies – hello doughnut walls


Here are some tips from Hiakai we can all use to improve the dining experience of our conference guests:

  • Ask guests about dietary restrictions prior to their arrival
  • Use the information guests have given you to create something unique to their needs
  • Provide alternate options that offer the same fine-dining experience that anyone else is receiving (alternate should not mean lower quality)
  • Appreciate your guest’s differences and strive to serve everyone with excellence
  • Remember that food is an important part; a conference attendee’s impression of what they were served is directly linked to their impression of the entire event (which links it to you!)

In the same way that Hiakai went out of their way to pair each amazing dish with an amazing drink, alcoholic or not, the food you serve at an event should pair thoughtfully with who you are as a company and how you want to be perceived by your attendees. This is an opportunity to feed the mind, body, and soul of your delegates; at Auaha, we make sure you leave them with an amazing impression that they’ll be talking about for years to come.

Dietary v. Fussy will always be a challenge for conference organisers and event owners, but let’s have fun rising to the challenge.

Mā te wā!

Sandra Julian
Event Director, Auaha


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