Business dinners invariably have a host. He or she might not be called The Host, but there is always someone “in charge”.
It might not be the boss, it might be the boss’s administrative assistant. It might not be the boss’s administrative assistant, it might be the head of HR. It might not be the head of HR, it might be the “party planner”. It might not be any of them; it might be the “on-site contact”.
In any event, it’s always helpful to find the person with the power. The power might actually be shared by more than one person. One person might have the power of the purse while deferring to the “wine geek of the company”. Or The Boss might be the center of power but is merely the person that everyone is deferring to (read “sucking up to”), while someone else is making all of the critical decisions (bottled water vs. tap, drinks by the glass or wine by the bottle, cheap wine vs. expensive wine, etc.).
If you work off of some sort of written contract, and there’s a person designated as on-site contact, it’s important to find them as soon as possible. As people arrive, I usually ask the first people if they will tell me who it is when they arrive. Sometimes it’s the first person to arrive but it isn’t always the case.
I try to find out a couple of things.
First, is this a formal business meeting or is it just colleagues just getting together socially? If it’s a formal business dinner, is there going to be a presentation, lecture, Q&A, or any sort of structured timetable? If there is a presentation, should service cease until it’s over or does the service staff serve through it? If it’s the former, I always like to find out if that means no presentation of food but continuation of refilling glasses, taking drink orders etc. Sometimes they’ll even ask the service staff to not reënter the room until the presentation is over. You don’t want to teach the person all of the nuances of service, but you should try to find out as much information as you can without making the contact’s head spin.
Next, you’ll want to ask if they want to offer bottled water to their guests. If so, do yourself a favor and just offer flat water. Try not to say “sparkling or still or both”. Make it easy. If someone prefers sparkling as you pour around, just get them sparkling water. You don’t want yourself or your server assistants to have to keep track of who’s having what.
If you have no “on-site contact” name, don’t be shy about asking who’s in charge as soon as people start arriving. Identify the person in charge and go through the previous sequence.
The next thing you’ll want to find out is whether they want to choose wine for the group (if it isn’t already known). Sometimes they’ll defer to someone else. Before you talk to anyone around wine, have a couple of “go-to” red and white wines in the budget, mid-priced and expensive category. You don’t want to fumble around if they ask you on the spot what you’d recommend. My strategy is to lead with wines in the $50 – 70 range unless it looks like they’ll want something expensive (this is a matter of feel – sometimes you can just sense that this is an important function where they’ll want to impress their attendees). But I generally don’t offer suggestions immediately. I like to hand them the opened wine list and point out the various categories. By doing that, I can sometimes tell what price range they are focusing on by following their eyes and their fingers. If they are only looking at budget wines, that tells me that I need to avoid talking about more expensive wines because I don’t want them thinking that I’m trying to gouge them.
Next, I want to find out if I can provide appetizer assortments for the group. I try to imply that sharing some appetizers can make it a smoother dinner since there’s one less decision that each attendee has to make.
While the “power person” in the room might not be paying or even making any decisions about food and drink, they are still the Alpha of the group. You always want to be cognizant of their mood. However, you never want to give them extra attention. The same goes for the person who ordered the wine or the person who’s paying. You don’t want them to think that you’re grassing for the tip or avoiding their guests to concentrate on them. Just always be aware of them throughout the meal.
These are just some general guidelines for working with the host of the party. Feel free to flesh out the subject by commenting.