Every year, Oracle's OpenWorld user conference gets bigger and bigger and more and more multicultural. Among the logistical problems this creates: How do you serve lunch to 4,000-plus attendees while respecting their dietary requirements?

Debra Avella, senior event manager for Oracle, Redwood Shores, Calif., came up with a cool idea: Let them get lunch themselves. Attendees at OpenWorld have the option to purchase a meal package when they register. To cover lunches during the two-day conference, instead of meal coupons, they get a custom-made American Express debit card with the Oracle logo on it that is good for $75 at any restaurant that accepts American Express.

Oracle first used the card at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco last year. Interestingly, convention center management's fears that attendees would leave the convention center in droves proved unfounded. Most attendees lined up at the Moscone's own restaurants.

The custom card program is called Encompass Select (www.aeis.com/Encompass_Select.html). “The program meets many needs,” Avella says. “It fulfills the requirements of that registration level [meals included] the attendees are fed ‘autonomously,’ and the brand is exposed with every use of the card.” It even worked for people who didn't eat lunch: The card functioned like an ordinary debit card and could be used to buy books, souvenirs, or anything else up to the $75 limit. It is usually used in incentive programs — but it works as a lunch program, too.