Expectations of the dining experience have many influences for attendees. Among those influences are the generational expectations of food, food culture, and how we dine together. While some trends change year-to-year, we can also observe trends in expectations generation-to-generation. Ultimately, different age groups respond differently to trends in food service and in turn, we try to manage a responsiveness to expectations.

Boomers were king in the 80s, and so was Caesar salad, hot sauce, ranch dressing, and buffalo sauce. The flavor lifecycle is about 5-8 years. We saw the hot sauce peak and give way to familiar global cuisines, such as Mexican and Asian food. We also saw emerging chains, fine dining, and an increase in fast food. Boomers are willing to pay for their experience, but also want convenience.

Generation X is often forgotten in discussions these days, given the size of the boomers and millennials, but the fact is, generation X does have money to spend as well as their own set of dining expectations. Xers were the generation of alternatives. They created alternative music, the ‘be yourself’ motto mentality, and grunge fashion as an alternative to the multi-decade high-pressure to dress up (e.g., dress for success, dress up for church, dress for work, etc…). In regards to food, we saw Xers begin the healthful food movement with the Mediterranean diet, as well as a preoccupation with atmosphere. Gen X wanted authentic, homemade, and premium experiences.

Millennials have expectations around the experience more than the taste, similar to Gen X, but have magnified the need making food service and menu planning an incredibly competitive effort. Millennials expect a heightened experience. It needs to be authentic, just like Gen X expectations, but more importantly, it needs to be novel. And they don’t want to experience dining alone or in small groups. They enjoy communal dining and sharing in the innovation the culinary landscape competes to provide. To top it off, Millennials have next generation tastes. While Gen Xers were satisfied with pizza, millennials’ preoccupation with labels and brand awareness has brought about a dialogue on menu expectations that include labels (e.g., grass-fed, non-GMO, and farm fresh, etc…).

Here comes Generation Z. This category makes up 12% of the population and 16% of the adult population. They are typically college students right now, but they’ll be a major part of our meetings and events attendee make-up soon enough. Generation Z is the most price sensitive age group. Different, new, and innovative food and experiences are important, but weighing even heavier on their decision to use their buying power is the extended label expectations from the millennials. Gen Z has been pivotal in growing the label dialogue to include labels such as, natural, organic, and sustainable.

Even with these categories, a few things consistent to all generations is the growing concern with healthy food. The increasing digital fluency has made the demand for instantaneous availability of information a must. Knowing what our food is made of, where it’s from, and how it got to the plate are an imperative part of the dining experience now. Lastly, a customized personalized experience is juxtaposed against the expectation for communal and shared dining. Being able to remain responsive and flexible, while serving large groups is a true ability to meet the needs of our attendees and their evolving generational expectations.

As we grow the dining experience we provide to include accommodations for all age categories with a focus on those age groups we know make up the majority of our attendee mix, we’ll be that much closer to truly meeting the needs and exceeding the expectations of our attendees.