Business & Creativity Conference MELT Forum

How I helped the MELT Forum conference forge new connections between guests through a communal, inclusive, and interactive dining experience.

How do you design the best dining experience that has ever taken place at a conference in Estonia?

MELT Forum is a one-day business and creativity conference held annually since 2016 at Kultuurikatel. A former power plant, it’s now a cultural and creative venue in the center of Tallinn, Estonia. Created to prove that teaming up with creative companies is “a smart strategy rather than an unnecessary expense,” it welcomes creative industries professionals from Estonia and the Baltic region to upskill, connect, and share best practices.

The organizers of the first edition – Tallinn Creative Incubator in collaboration with the Tallinn City Enterprise Department, Tallinn Creative Hub (Kultuurikatel), Estonian Design Centre, Creative Estonia, the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Office in Estonia, and Enterprise Estonia – planned to throw a soiree for two hundred guests at the spectacular 35 m high Cauldron Hall.

That’s when Dagmar Kase, one of the project managers of MELT Forum, reached out to partner for this dining experience. Dagmar and I had been working together for some time on presentations and workshops around food culture and design at Kultuurikatel, so I seemed to be a natural fit for this project as well.

The organizers, however, weren’t after the typical conference dinner. But a highly curated, communal, and inclusive experience.

The dinner would be creative, seasonal, local, site-specific, and inclusive in her dreams. A continuum of the program of keynotes and workshops. It also had to convey the idea that creativity “is a smart strategy rather than an unnecessary expense.”

Finally, Dagmar said, “it must be the best dining experience that has ever taken place at a conference in Estonia.” But, she added, “it’s happening at the beginning of June.” Meaning: less than two months ahead. I had my work cut out for me.

Concept Design & Development

Creative Direction

Menu Development

Culinary Partners Search, Brief, and Coordination

Production and Oversight

Hosting and Facilitation

We quickly realized that the food would only be one element of this dining experience

With a site-specific project like this one, I usually spend hours reading up on a location, browsing through the pictures, and researching anything that helps me craft a concept. I also spend time on site, chatting with anyone involved with the project. All that to say this: understanding the sense of place is essential to my process.

This time I couldn’t fly to Tallinn in advance. But I was familiar with Kultuurikatel since I had done some work there previously. I also had already worked with Dagmar before. So I knew we were aiming for a high standard. (My favorite projects).

But back to the space: I knew this job would be a tall order. And here’s why.

The two well-preserved steam cauldrons in the Cauldron Hall are jaw-dropping. However, if Dagmar and her colleagues were expecting warm, feel-good vibes (which they obviously were), that was a challenge. With a height of 35 m and 780 sqm of space, the area is so enormous that it quickly feels empty. You would probably agree: the industrial vibe is captivating. But it’s also unfriendly. 

Then add that Kultuurikatel is a famous concert and event venue amongst our audience of creative professionals, we had one more challenge on our plate.

In short:

  • There was waaay more space than people. (Not good for dining spaces). How could we “fill” it? How could we create spaces for convergence? 
  • The industrial vibe is hyped yet unfriendly. How could we turn the space into a feel-good environment?
  • The space was nothing new to guests who visited Kultuurikatel regularly. So, how could we bring the elements of surprise to the experience?

It was clear to everyone that food would be only one facet of the experience. We needed something else to give our experience some teeth. A combination of interiors, lights, scents, flavors, service, and a well-thought-out architecture of interactions.

I already said this: I knew this job would be a tall order. But I couldn’t turn down such an exciting opportunity. After all, how often do you get a chance to design an event in one of the coolest venues in Estonia and set a new nationwide standard of excellence? So I rolled out my proverbial sleeves and got ready to do what you need to do when you’re still not clear about your vision: more research.

Learning from co-working spaces

Ok, I had Dagmar’s existing expectations for the event (creative, seasonal, local, and site-specific). But I still needed a guiding vision for the design of dining experience.

So, as with every new concept, I began by asking questions, such as: 

  • What’s the purpose of MELT?
  • What makes it a unique conference?
  • What is the most critical need for this group to gather around?

And here is what I discovered about this conference:

  1. It convenes business and creative leaders across backgrounds and industries, celebrating their creativity.
  2. It also recognizes that successful companies are both creative and business-oriented.
  3. And, until MELT Forum’s founding, there weren’t many spaces available in Estonia to hold such discussions or gather such diverse professionals.

Then it dawned on me: for a day, MELT Forum does what co-working spaces do permanently. They facilitate community, convergence, and creativity. How? By applying design principles, such as variety, choice, and flow. They also avoid fixed workplace schemes and default norms.

With that insight, I added another pillar to the brief; “fluidity.” To me, “fluidity” summed up variety, choice, flow, and togetherness.

Fluidity would inspire the design of the physical space, the menu, and the service flow.

Once I had this vision, I built the essence and experience of co-working spaces into my concept for the event. Then, finally, I was ready to present my idea and show Dagmar the mood board with the concept before moving on to the design phase.

The MELT mood board. There are flowers, leaves, coffee beans, wooden boxes, a brown sofa to convey the mood of the eventThis is the moodboard I presented to Dagmar to visually convey the vibe of the MELT dining experience.

More than just a dining experience, the MELT dining experience is a gathering designed to bring the business and creative leaders together to help them start a conversation and forge new connections through the Nordic summers’ colors, flavors, scents, a series of intimate, and less so, spaces seamlessly linked together, and some casual (yet carefully designed) interactions with and through a tablescape of herbs.

Spaces designed to mingle

The interiors mirrored the essence of co-working spaces. Think about the freedom and flexibility to work how you like. Have as much social interaction as you need. Even enjoy the occasional perk, such as a cool napping corner for when you want to scrutinize the inside of your eyelids.

We used all the space indoors and took advantage of the outdoor area by the ramp leading up to the entrance. We wanted to allow our guests to enjoy the endless summer night. Pillows and sun umbrellas outdoors sparked curiosity, attracting some passersby. Using the outdoor space was a pleasant surprise for many regulars of Kultuurikatel, who usually just enjoyed the indoor area.  “How nice! No one has ever thought of using the staircase!” a few guests said. 

Imagine walking through the entrance and stepping into a hall lit in pink with ribbons of string lights hanging over the tables. The immersive smell of edible herbs and colorful wildflowers whispering, “summer.” On the spot, a helpful server hands you a coupe filled with something sparkling. The party has started. You are in the right place.

At a glance, you can’t spot the typical round tables clothed in white tablecloths and assigned seats that limit your interactions. We have taken the opposite approach than the norm at most conference receptions.

Instead, learning from co-working spaces, we imagined a series of both open and intimate spaces. Then, we tied them together to create areas for mingling, dancing, eating, hiding away, or even napping on velvet armchairs. You deserve it. After all, it’s been a long day.

Bringing people together through the palate

Working with Estonia’s finest ingredients, I curated an unpretentious yet intentionally artful eight-course tasting menu with no assigned seats or formal service. Our chefs plated and displayed the courses on a large table resembling a restaurant’s open space kitchen.

Once the plate was ready, the guests could sit wherever they desired while mingling and switching places between courses.

A keen eye would notice the unconventional use of local ingredients such as rye, herrings, and fresh potatoes. We interpreted them from a global perspective to homage the international guests. Such ingredients found their place in casual dishes with an international sensibility, such as tacos and avocado toasts.

Because “togetherness” passes through the palate, our feast welcomed all guests with particular dietary preferences. 

Most dishes were vegetarian. Some were vegan and lactose-free. There were also always alternatives for dishes that featured meat or fish.

For the menu execution, I teamed up with local caterer Tervise Catering who executed the menu according to my creative direction and recipes. I introduced every course while the servers ensured that every glass or plate was full. 

To drink, we offered seasonal craft beers by the Estonian brewery Põhjala. Not drinking? No problem. There were plenty of non-alcoholic drinks. Finally, those yearning for caffeine could order from one of two pop-up coffee bars on-site, where baristas were on hand to craft specialty espresso drinks from roaster Kokomo Coffee.

Co-creating with potted herbs

The experience, of course, couldn’t be anything but active. At each table, we set up a tablescape of edible herbs. A joy for the senses, they served another purpose as well.

The vases of basil, dill, mint, and parsley also included scissors attached through a string. I didn’t reveal their use until the first course when I invited everyone to grab the scissors and cut some leaves to season and garnish their food. 

Besides the satisfying act of co-creating their own meal, the herbs also acted as conversation prompts for our guests.

For example, “How shall I season this toast? With parsley or basil?” were common questions. Because locals don’t use basil or mint much in their local cuisine, many keynote speakers, who were foreigners, gave tips on their use. In a second, the person whom you thought was inaccessible was not only accessible but also your spokesperson. You could ask her anything you wanted about her presentation or workshop.

Potted herbs on each table at the MELT ConferencePotted basil, cilantro and dill decorated each table at MELT
Veronica Fossa chatting with dinner guestsDuring the dinner I chatted with the dinner guests.
Long tables with vases of flowers and potted herbs on topThe tablescape of flowers and potted herbs encouraged connection between our dinner guests.

Delivering an experience that people don’t want to leave

Choosing “fluidity” helped us provide a fantastic, memorable event experience that guests remember till today. Sure, I stirred in a combination of visual, flavorful, and healthy, feel-good elements, but that wouldn’t be enough alone. We maximized interaction and connection by translating fluidity into everything from the tasting menu and the seating arrangement to the linked-together spaces and interaction with herbs.

Dagmar had warned me that Estonians don’t usually stay late at events. “Don’t take it personally if by 9 pm most people had left,” she told me. But, on the contrary, most of the guests not only stayed past nine, but they also lingered around until midnight when we had to call it a day and gently kick them out!

Our guests appreciated our effort to include every dietary need. They felt considered and taken care of because there were no distinctions or labels excluding some people. As one vegetarian guest told me before leaving, “I’ve never been to a conference before where I could eat everything from the appetizer to the dessert. And by this, I mean not just eating, but thoroughly enjoying every course. Thank you!” 

With MELT, we set out to provide an event experience that is different from a typical conference dinner, and instead, highly curate it. Veronica helped us not only make a difference but a success. She formed a clear vision for the project and energetically guided and motivated a large team of 20+ people. She was a pleasure to work with, and we couldn’t have been more satisfied with the result.

Veronica Fossa Clients -Dagmar Kase
Dagmar KaseProject Manager, MELT Forum 2016 and Tallinn Creative Hub, Tallinn, Estonia

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