Connecticut features stellar food and beverage options
As the state that lies between New York City and Boston, Connecticut has always had a natural advantage in the meetings market. With that enviable location—along with the fact that it’s within a six-hour drive of nearly 25 percent of the nation’s population—Connecticut hosts everything from executive retreats in its seaside towns to midsize programs in its smaller cities. Large convention centers in the state capital of Hartford and the two sprawling Native American-owned casino resorts in the southeastern corner of the state ensure groups of every size and taste have a place to meet.
The southernmost New England state is famed for small towns such as Mystic, thanks to it’s renowned museum and aquarium, and cities such as New Haven, home to the prestigious Yale University and Peabody Museum of Natural History.
But another aspect of Connecticut’s location brings substantial benefit to meetings and events: the natural bounty provided by the state’s farms, vineyards, bodies of water and other native sources of food and beverage. Known as the Nutmeg State, Connecticut has become more sophisticated in recent years with its promotion and use of locally produced foods at meetings and events to ensure that attendees develop a long-lasting mental connection between the meeting and the destination where it is held.
In fact, the ample variety of food and beverage offerings native to Connecticut has resulted in the creation of several food-and-beverage trails for visitors to explore. Although meeting attendees have business-related matters as their priority, event planners can partner with local suppliers who participate in those F&B trails to deliver memorable culinary experiences within a meeting itinerary, whether it’s delivered to the boardroom or part of an evening offsite activity.
Munson’s Chocolates, Newington
Chocolate & Cheese—Oh, My!
Many people think of imported chocolates as the standard for quality. But Connecticut is home to several world-renowned chocolatiers and chocolate artisans that can create offerings meant to be enjoyed during group receptions, or used as in-room gifts so that attendees take something home that extends the memory of the meeting.
Jeff Musumano, director of sales for Connecticut Convention and Sports Bureau, says that many meeting planners enlist Munson’s Chocolates (with locations near Hartford and Mystic) or Bridgewater Chocolate (with locations near Hartford and Danbury) to create customized gift boxes that are placed on attendees’ pillows on the final night of a meeting. At least four or five other chocolatiers across the state are also amazing, he notes. To learn more about these artisans, visit the Connecticut Chocolate Trail website at ctvisit.com/trail/chocolate.
Another food item that enjoys surprisingly robust production in Connecticut—and plays a central part in the meeting experience there—is cheese.
“The state is lucky enough to be peppered with a number of dairy farms that make their own cheese,” says Brenda Cote, co-manager at Meadow Stone Farms, which produces varieties from both goat milk and cow milk. “Many of our local products have won national culinary awards.”
Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford and many meetings-heavy hotels throughout the state are well-aware of the outstanding quality of locally made cheeses, and use them often in their group receptions. Like the convention center, Hartford Marriott Downtown consistently uses Beltane Farms and Cato Corner Farms for goat-milk cheeses that are similar to brie and other types, notes Stephanie Simmons, director of catering.
Those two dairy farms, plus the many others listed on the website for the Connecticut Cheese Trail, derive the milk for their cheese from hormone-free animals—and this organic aspect is increasingly important to meeting groups.
Ballroom at Hilton Hartford
Ali Dezfoli, director of operations for Hilton Hartford, says that his property saw a 20 percent increase in requests for organic foods at meetings in 2016. “[As a result], we source from more than half a dozen farms locally, and the items include organic chicken and beef in addition to produce and cheeses,” he says.
In fact, the property hosted a November gathering of the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Education and Research Group, and was able to source all food and beverage products from local purveyors. One other accommodation for this demanding group: Menus for each meal had to list the source farm next to every item that was served.
At Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spa in Groton, director of sales Lori Woll says that group receptions sometimes include employees from Cato Corner or another dairy farm to explain how each cheese is produced, and which meats and breads it best pairs with as an hors d’oeuvre. Of course, meeting attendees can then opt to sample each combination to find their favorite pairing.
Jonathan Edwards Winery, North Stonington
Vineyards All Around
Naturally, the beverage that matches up most pleasantly with cheese and chocolate is wine. Connecticut’s soil and climate are actually quite conducive to wine production, evidenced by more than 25 vineyards from around the state that make up the Connecticut Wine Trail.
“[For meetings and events], we have really picked up our efforts with wine in the past two years,” Musumano says. “During fam trips in Hartford and other places, we’ll bring planners to a vineyard to show them what kind of offsite events they can do there.”
When Mohegan Sun hosted a recent Destination Northeast event, more than 25 planners traveled to a nearby vineyard on the state’s southern coastline for a “lunch and learn” event that educated them on how wine is made; why Connecticut is a prime location for grapes to grow; and how groups can use vineyards to host special events and to supply local wines for receptions back on property.
The areas of the state with the most vineyards are Litchfield Hills to the north; Housatonic River Valley in western Connecticut; Thames River Valley in eastern Connecticut; and the hills between Hartford and New Haven. Because the vineyards are so widespread, meetings taking place in any destination in Connecticut can easily bring in employees from different vineyards to conduct tastings and education during a reception.
Octagon dining room at Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spa
For instance, Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spa recently hosted a business group that themed its evening event on an outdoor terrace as a coastal food-and-wine trail, with representatives from Jonathan Edwards Winery, Stonington Vineyards and Saltwater Farm Vineyard pouring samples to go along with local cheeses, meats and seafood.
Saltwater Farm Vineyard, Stonington
For many folks, cigars are an enjoyable complement to a glass of wine. Interestingly, the Connecticut River Valley is home to several farms that grow the leaves that serve as wrappers for some of the finest cigars in the world.
“Because of this, wine and cigar dinners have always been popular among business groups that come to Connecticut,” Musumano says. “We can bring an expert cigar maker in-house during a reception or dinner to hand-roll cigars for attendees right on the spot.”
Seafood bake at Connecticut Convention Center, Hartford
Bold Brews, Sumptuous Seafood & Sweet Treats
With more than 40 craft breweries and a dozen upscale brew pubs in its fold, the Connecticut Beer Trail is the largest F&B trail in the state. “We have developed marketing materials that outline both the wine trail and the beer trail for group planners, and they are among our most-requested pieces,” Musumano says.
Hotels across the state have also been proactive in assisting meeting planners with using breweries and brew pubs either for offsite tours followed by a tasting or sit-down meal, or for receptions in the hotel ballroom that feature tastings led by local brewmasters.
“In 2017, we will have a meeting group in house who wants at least 10 to 12 breweries to come in at one time to run a tasting and educational event,” says Simmons from the Hartford Marriott Downtown.
Stamford Marriott Hotel & Spa promotes the beer trail because it has two breweries nearby that can host events, says Barri Bialko, director of group sales. She cites Half Full Brewery in Stamford as an interesting venue for up to 50 people, while groups of up to 75 can have a more upscale dinner (or simply bring in food trucks) at Two Roads Brewing Company in Stratford (25 minutes from Stamford, 15 minutes from New Haven).
In fact, Two Roads Brewery will even send a brewmaster with product to receptions held at Hartford hotels or the convention center, upon request. For offsite events in and around the capital city, charming environments can be found at Steam City Brewery Cafe (adjacent to the Residence Inn Hartford Downtown), Hanging Hills Brewery Company and Thomas Hooker Brewery.
Southeastern Connecticut—a short drive from The Spa at Norwich Inn, Foxwoods Resort Casino, Mohegan Sun, Mystic Marriott—boasts a few breweries that can host events. Beer’d Brewing Company is set in the historic Stonington Velvet Mill alongside other local craft makers, including Cheese Boro Whey, which can provide artisanal cheeses to complement the beer. And in Groton, Outer Light Brewing Company has a tasting room that holds 48 people.
New England is nationally known for its seafood, and host properties work with local suppliers to deliver an authentic experience. Earlier this year, Connecticut Convention Center hosted a seafood bake for 120 people attending a regional magazine event; they enjoyed lobster, crab, clams and mussels while overlooking the Connecticut River. Stamford Marriott regularly serves clams and mussels from protected sea beds in nearby Stratford, while the Mystic Marriott uses extra-large “Stonington bomber” sea scallops.
To satisfy attendees’ desire for sweet-tasting items, The Spa at Norwich Inn actually has its own apiary—a collection of beehives—that is harvested twice a year for honey that’s used at breakfast or to enhance dessert, coffee or tea. And besides working with nearby farms to bring local fruits and vegetables into its menus, Connecticut Convention Center also uses honey, fair-trade coffee and jams from local organic growers.
Rob Carey is a business journalist and principal of Meetings & Hospitality Insight, a content marketing firm for the group-business market.
F&B at Foxwoods: Authenticity Abounds
As executive chef of North America’s largest casino, Edward Allen (pictured) is responsible for food and beverage decisions that result in more than 5 million meals every year. One element is becoming more important to this huge operation.
“[It’s] using local products as much as we can,” he says. “From the culinary perspective, the advantage comes from being fresh as well as being interesting. Especially with group banquets, the food we serve is not just for substance—it’s for enhancing the experience. So whenever we can be entertaining and even educational regarding what people are eating, then that supports the purpose of a group event.”
For the produce that is used in the resort’s restaurants and banquets, Allen partners with Connecticut Farm Fresh. “They are a distributor that sources from many local farms, so they provide me with a wide-ranging produce list based on seasonality,” he says.
Allen is able to go straight to the source for beef and pork, though. “We buy a lot of beef from New England Grass Fed, where cattle are raised on free ranges,” he says. “And Firefight Farms out of North Stonington supplies our pork. It’s great that I can visit the farm and see the animals.”
For seafood, Allen works with local producers of oysters and other shellfish. Allen also has developed an educational dining experience. “[It’s] understanding the varieties of oysters, and how to eat them,” he says. “If people can use that knowledge to have enjoyable dining experiences in the future, then we’ve done our job.”
Given the casino resort’s Native American roots, Allen makes sure to infuse traditional elements into the offerings for banquets and receptions. One example is the agricultural three sisters.
“Beans, corn and squash are central to Native American cuisine because rotating the fields among those crops helped maintain the soil’s fertility,” he says. “So, we use the three sisters as the base of our Pequot Seafood Stew.”
Some group events are held at the resort’s Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center—accommodating 500 for a sit-down dinner and 800 for a reception. “The combination of the historical elements, the decor and the food is so powerful and beautiful,” Allen says.
Major Meeting Venues
Connecticut Convention Center
Overlooks Connecticut River; short walk to Adriaen’s Landing Entertainment District and its many restaurants; largest meeting facility in the state; 140,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space; 65,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space includes divisible 40,000-square-foot ballroom.
Hartford Marriott Downtown
Adjacent to convention center; guest rooms refurbished and Marriott Great Room public-space concept installed in early 2016; 401 guest rooms; popular L Bar; 13,500 sq. ft. of meeting space.
One of the nation’s leading resident theaters; can be rented by groups; main theater can hold 489; groups can also use upper and lower lobby, both of which can hold up to 100 standing.
Heritage Resort and Conference Center
IACC-certified facility set in rural location in Southbury; one-hour drive from Hartford; 163 guest rooms; spa; golf; 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Connected to XL Center, which hosts concerts and games; eight-minute walk to convention center; meeting space received new carpeting, wallpaper and furniture in March; 393 guest rooms; 15,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Mark Twain House & Museum
Home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka Mark Twain) from 1874 to 1891; 25-room property that caters to private events.
Located in the historic landmark G. Fox Building, erected in 1847 in downtown Hartford; 18,086 sq. ft. of elegantly designed meeting space; mezzanine; ballroom; atrium.
Radisson Hotel Hartford
Short walk to Connecticut Science Center; near Bushnell Theater, Mark Twain’s House and Cabela’s destination store; 350 guest rooms; 8,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts
One of Connecticut’s premier performing-arts facilities; 13,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; six separate stages can handle group events; Seaverns Room accommodates 200, Belding Stage holds 908 and Mortensen Hall accommodates 2,799.
Mystic & Old Saybrook
Foxwoods Resort Casino
Four-hotel complex on Mashantucket Pequot Indian Reservation; 23-minute drive north from Mystic; 2,230 guest rooms; museum is a unique reception venue; golf clubhouse plus 14 restaurants and bars can be rented; 150,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spa
Near historic Mystic Seaport, Mystic Aquarium and craft breweries; 25-minute drive to casino resorts; 285 guest rooms; 20,297 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Saybrook Point Inn & Spa
Waterfront inn; 81 guest rooms, plus eight-bedroom Three Stories guest house for private retreats; 9,230 sq. ft. of meeting space.
New Haven Hotel
Walking distance to Shubert Theater, New Haven Green, and Yale University and its museums; 118 recently refurbished guest rooms; two meeting rooms can fit up to 50 attendees.
Omni New Haven Hotel
Short walk to Yale University and its museums, New Haven Green and Shubert Theater; 306 guest rooms; 22,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 9,200-square-foot ballroom.
Located in the heart of downtown New Haven; surrounded by restaurants, boutiques and Yale University; 1,600-seat Broadway-style theater available for private group events.
Norwich & Uncasville
Located in Uncasville; new 400-room Earth Tower opened alongside 1,200-room Sky Tower in October; 16 bars and restaurants; 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 10,000-seat arena.
The Spa at Norwich Inn
Set on 42 manicured acres; close to vineyards, craft breweries and casino resorts; meeting-space refurbishment to be completed this month; 100 guest rooms and villas; 7,979 sq. ft. of meeting space; ballroom seats 160 for banquets.
Stamford & Norwalk
Chelsea Piers Connecticut
Stamford property; 80,000 sq. ft. of indoor space; aquatic center, tennis, squash and basketball courts; large field and track.
IACC-approved venue near Maritime Aquarium and IMAX Theater; 60-minute train ride to New York City; 120 guest rooms; 10,500 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Hilton Stamford Hotel & Executive Meeting Center
Short walk to rail station for New York trains; 484 guest rooms; 59,000 sq. ft. of meeting space plus 7,300-square-foot outdoor pavilion.
Stamford Marriott Hotel & Spa
Situated next to Stamford Town Center Mall; local dine-arounds and food trucks are popular for meetings; 508 guest rooms; 26,594 sq. ft. of meeting space.