Business travelers spent $260B in 2012 with food services being the #1 source of expense. Salespeople love dinners with customers and prospects. Marketers love networking dinners. We have customer advisory board dinners, pre-board dinners, awards dinners, relationship-building dinners, team dinners, customer appreciation dinners, partner summit dinners, project completion dinners, analyst dinners, investor dinners, … the list goes on and on.
Because business dinners can be so powerful, I am a huge fan of them as a marketing tool. However, I’ve also been a part of many “dining accidents” over the years — the most infamous being the “white burgundy and stone crab incident” at Estiatorio Milos — almost invariably due to a combination of lack of focus on the business goals of the meal, lack of pragmatism, and lack of adaptation to changing circumstances.
As a result of these experiences, I have composed this list of 10 things never to do at a business dinner.
10. Lack clear goals. Whether we’re organizing a 1-1 meal for the CEO and a key customer or a 56-person customer appreciation dinner, everyone on the team should understand the goals for the meal. Every member of the team should understand why they are there and what they are supposed to do.
9. Eat in a noisy restaurant. A universal purpose of a business dinner is for people to get know each other. That is not going to happen when it’s loud, especially if your guests are a bit older. Some restaurants are just incredibly noisy (e.g., Wolfgang’s on Park Avenue with a parabolic tile ceiling). Sometimes private rooms can be quite loud as well, especially if they are not really cut off from the main room. Avoid live music at all costs. Avoid low ceilings. Beware converted bank vaults and train stations. I’ve seen more business dinners die on this hill than any other. Fun or hip doesn’t matter if people can’t hear each other.
8. Have tables bigger than 8. If people are going to get acquainted, they need both a quiet environment and a table small enough so everyone can hear everyone else. One friend has a rule that if you want one conversation at a table, then you should limit table size to six. I think you can go up to 8, provided your team members know there is supposed to be one conversation. Avoid rectangular tables which greatly limit the number of people with whom one can speak.
7. Bring too many people. One advantage of clear goals is that they help in deciding the guest list. If the goal is to recognize the hard work of a 24-person team, great: go get 3 tables of 8. If the goal is for the CEO to build a relationship with another CEO, then either hold a 1-1 dinner or a 2-2, where each CEO brings a lieutenant. But don’t say you’re having a CEO relationship dinner and bring your sales VP, sales director, account manager, and CFL rep. It ends up like dating with an audience. Don’t invite people just because they are in town — you can easily unbalance a dinner by bringing 9 of us and 3 of them, turning it into a multi-conversation, intra-company event to which a few customers are invited. When in doubt, say no.
6. Mis-level the crowd. I think the most important part of networking dinners is that each participant feels like he/she gets value from meeting every other participant. So if you’re hosting a 16-person CMO dinner, make sure the invitations are non-transferable so you can say “no” when several CMOs want to send their advertising or PR directors at the last minute. While your PR director may enjoy having dinner with a bunch of CMOs, it’s unlikely to work in reverse. The worst case is when two CMOs show up and are surrounded by 14 PR directors: your intended target ends up feeling out-of-place. It is far better to have 6 CMOs when you were hoping for 16 than it is to have 6 CMOs and 10 PR directors. Burn that into your brain. Tattoo it to your wrist. Don’t not prioritize filling up seats at the cost of mis-levelling the dinner and destroying the event concept. You can build on a great 6-person CMO event in the future. You are dead when you host a mis-leveled event.
5. Leave seating to chance. Since we’re investing peoples’ valuable time (and probably $100 to $200 per head) in the event, we shouldn’t leave anything to chance. For larger events, use place cards. For smaller events, pre-brief the team on who to direct where. It’s a disaster, for example, when at a square table, you place the two people you want talking next to each other, instead of across. Make sure it doesn’t happen. (And if it does, change it per rule 2 below.)
4. Take more than 2 hours. Business dinners are business. If you want to add a social part, go the bar afterwards for drinks. It’s very awkward to leave a business dinner in progress and someone could end up missing their train and getting in trouble with a spouse, because they expected a business dinner and you ran a lingering social event that took 3.5 hours. In general, the more senior the invitee, the more likely the dinner is “just another calendar slot” as opposed to a social opportunity. So when having dinner for 4-6 people at a restaurant (and I’m not in Europe), I tell the waiter in advance that my goal is to be done in two hours and that we want to have two courses and possibly dessert — no shared calamari pre-appetizer, no extra-salad (i.e., salad plus appetizer) shoved in as they love to do at Morton’s. Just an appetizer per person, a main course, and when the time comes, a decision about dessert. If things start to go too slowly, have some pre-appointed to leave the table, speak to the waiter discretely and say “get it moving.” On dessert, if asked first, my answer is, “no thanks, just an espresso.” If the customer subsequently orders then I can always join in afterwards. Overall, by respecting your guest’s time, you increase the odds they will say yes the next time you invite them out.
3. Order very expensive wine. Here are a few things that can go wrong when you do:  the wine is bad and you end up distracted with the whole rejection and re-tasting process,  the attendee is subject to a company policy where he/she has to pay his part of the meal (e.g., government, journalists) so you backfire screw them on their expense report,  people love it and you drink three bottles, tripling an expensive proposition,  you look pretentious,  your company looks wasteful and poorly controlled,  your three employees drink it but the customer subsequently announces he doesn’t drink wine and you end up treating the crew and not your customer. When I lived in France, our classiest sales VP had a simple rule: order Sancerre. It’s neither too cheap, nor too expensive. It comes in dry, aromatic white (sauvignon blanc), mild-bodied red, and even rosé (both pinot noir based) so most people will like it. I’ll demo the Sancerre principle on the wine list from the tony Village Pub, one of the best restaurants in Silicon Valley, where a Corton-Charlemagne will set you back $400 and a Kistler single-vineyard chardonnay $250. The Sancerre weighs in about $130.
2. Not roll with the punches. Entertaining is always full of surprises and you need to roll with them. We once arrived at The Triomphe in NYC only to find ourselves literally surrounded by a loud, drunken, office Holiday Party. On arriving, we knew we were dead, so we dispatched a team member to find a quieter spot and did about 3 blocks away. If a snowstorm wipes out 30% of your attendees, you better eliminate some tables and redo your place settings. The key thing to remember in rolling with the punches is how to preserve the original goals of the meal. Twice, I’ve been in cases where 4-5 employees had gathered at a very expensive restaurant (e.g., Morimoto) waiting for a group from a customer who never showed up. In this case, rolling with the punches should mean eating somewhere else because the company shouldn’t be dropping Morimoto-style dollars on a basic mid-week traveling dinner.
1. Order the tasting menu. There are four problems with tasting menus: they are expensive, they take the whole table hostage because they are ordered on an all-or-nothing basis, they take a long time to serve, and they don’t fill you up. The thing I hate most about tasting menu is not the first check — the $900 check for 4 — it’s the second check, the one for $100 for sliders and wings at the sports bar afterwards. I am so opposed to tasting menus on business dinners that I actually try to avoid restaurants that offer them; I try to reduce the odds to zero that one person, typically a new employee, will provoke the chain reaction that results in the whole table ordering one. I’ll do a tasting menu at a business dinner only if we are a small group of known foodies who will order the wine pairings, take three and a half hours on the meal, greatly enjoy it, and not run to McDonald’s right after. Otherwise, stay away.
I could add as “rule 0″ don’t get drunk, but frankly I’ve not seen that rule broken terribly often at the business dinners I’ve attended. More often, I see it broken at company events — which is a whole different blog post.
I hope you find these rules, and the thinking behind them, helpful to you in optimizing all your business dinners.