kelly_rush (Re)Visioning Planning: Perspectives from a Banquet Captain

Designing a Tablescape


November 23, 2007

By Kelly Rush

Let’s face it: sometimes it’s harder than you think to transform a relatively…bland meeting room into a space that looks like a vision.  Let me say that I am not Martha Stewart; I’m just a guy who wants the table to look pretty.  And by doing so, make the room look…well, not necessarily like a feeding trough.  I’ve tried to list below nine simple rules to remember when designing a tablescape.

Rule #1 – The ideal number of guests at a 60” banquet round is 8; a 72” round is 10.

Rule #2 – A 60” banquet round will hold 10 people maximum; a 72” round maxes at 12. 
That’s it, no more.  Please don’t even ask. 

Rule #3 – There is a finite amount of space on the tabletop, so don’t over do it. 
Keep in mind that a basic table setting for a 3 course meal with white and red wines includes 10 pieces of serviceware (7 pieces of flatware, 1 B&B plate, 2 wine glasses) along with leaving room for the plate itself.  At the capacities listed above, the place setting can be set out to 3 courses at according to Rule #1, 4 courses for Rule #2.. 

Rule #4 – Limit the amount of paper at the table.
At the most, include one menu per table setting and one program or agenda placed on the chair.  Anything more makes the tabletop look crowded and messy.  Besides, there’s really not much room for these items once the meal gets started, anyway.

Rule #5 – Don’t go overboard on the centerpiece
Maximum width should be no greater than six inches; maximum height should be ten inches—most would say 12, but I’m an advocate for the vertically challenged.  What many don’t realize is that there is a need for space between the centerpiece and the top of the place setting.   If you force us to minimize that space for a large centerpiece, we struggle to keep the table looking good while we set salt and pepper, butter plates, bread plates, table numbers, and votive candles.  And we don’t want those centerpieces to go up in flames because the candles were forced under the foliage, do we?

Rule #6 – Napkin folding takes time.
I mention this one because several times, we’ve had no indication of how the group contact would like to have the napkin folded, assign the task, fished the room for three hundred, then had the planner say, “I don’t like it, can you do something else?” half an hour before the function is scheduled to begin. 

Rule #7 – Always order extra linens..
Far too often, planners and conference services staff forget to order extra linens.  Cocktail rounds and buffet tables need love, too.

Rule #8 – Buffet tables should always have the following elements: elevation, texture and color.
Adding elevation alone makes the buffet display interesting.  Add the other two and you can’t really do wrong.

Rule #9 – Don’t be afraid and HAVE FUN!!!
Seriously, the final “rule” is that you really can’t go wrong if you have fun and keep in mind the “rules” above.

Food & Beverage Planning


November 21, 2007

By Kelly Rush

Over the last several years in the online meeting communities, I’ve found that planners are intimidated by food & beverage.  Luckily for me, I love food and have had a chance to see a lot of different presentations.  I’ve outlined below practical advice about food and beverage programming.

Hors d’oeuvres – I think that planning a cocktail reception is one of the most difficult tasks for new planners.  My advice is to limit the selection to three to five, with a maximum of six.  Be sure to specify the number of pieces, at least in percentage form, of each selection.  Choose two to three traditional crowd favorites, and several more “exotic” hors d’oeuvres for the slightly more adventurous.  Also include a vegetarian item.  The highest number of pieces should be concentrated on those items that the majority of the crowd will focus on, for example
Crowd Favorites:  Cocktail Franks in Puff Pastry with Mustard
   Mini Crab Cake with Spicy Remoulade
   Fresh Mozzarella, Heirloom Tomato and Micro Basil on Foccaccia    Crisp
Exotic:   Smoked Duck Breast on Wonton Crisp with Wasabi Aoili
   Gorgonzola and Walnut Encrusted White Grape Truffle
# of Pieces:   1000 total, 700 crowd favorites, 300 “exotic”
Lastly, make sure that the appetizers are bite-size pieces, preferably without a stick or anything else that would have to be held onto until the server collecting trash comes around (i.e. put the shrimp cocktail on a station!).
   
Vegetarian Entrees – I once had an attendee ask on the third night of her program if she could have something other than the baked, stuffed Vidalia onion she had seen twice before.  A vegetarian friend of mine told me this summer after going to a wedding: “If I get one more plate of grilled veggies and someone says, ‘That looks so good!’  I’m going to flip out.”  In other words, these poor folks tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to menu planning.  As Joan Eisenstodt would say: “We can do better!”  So, three suggestions:
1. Keep in mind that these entrees should still have the three basic part of a meal—protein, vegetable, and starch. 
2. While it may seem unusual, many vegetarians are used to untraditional meals.  So if you’re having a first course salad, perhaps the entrée could be a beautifully presented soup like a Butternut Squash Soup with Cinnamon and Nutmeg Aioli served in a bread bowl or, better yet, a small, carved pumpkin or other gourd. 
3. Never let an event order state “Chef’s Choice” because not all food functions are prepared by the same chefs and you’ll be in danger of serving the exact same entrée at all of them.  Instead, request a specific entrée for each meal function and,
4. Invest in Mollie’s Katzen’s cookbooks, at least one or two of them, for your bookshelf.  Recipes featured are from the Moosewood Diner in upstate New York and are either vegetarian or completely Vegan.  Personally, I’m taken with The Enchanted Broccoli Forest simply because of the title.

Stations – Stations are one of my favorite concepts for, well, just about anything that is either casual or relates to networking.  They are easy to “theme,”: if needed, and encourage staying active and getting people talking.  A couple of notes:
1. Hors d’oeuvres– Try not to station hot hors d’oeuvres if you’re having a straight out cocktail reception.  Most of the time, there are issues involved with food quality: crispy items don’t stay crispy, for example, and it starts to look unattractive.  Good ideas for stationary items are Mediterranean items, cheese displays, antipasti stations, crudites, etc.  The other important recommendation for stationary hors d’oeuvres displays is this: don’t order for everyone; this is one of the rare times that it’s allowable to underguarantee since it’s not up everyone’s alley (and the accountants will appreciate the cost savings).. 
2. Décor  – Cut food costs, but put a little more money into décor for a more elegant feel.  You’d be surprised how much better the stations look for just the price of two dozen flowers and some greenery. 
3. Food Selection – The options really are limitless, but stations are exceptional when you want to showcase a variety of regional and ethnic foods. 

Reducing Food and Beverage Costs – With gas prices rising, fire, early frost, drought and all the rest, rising food and beverage pricing raises concerns for many planners, especially considering the F&B can comprise up to 60% of the cost of a meeting or event.  Several ideas to keep in mind when you have a lean budget, but still want to have an impress with your F&B program include:
1. First and foremost, be honest with your sales person, conference services manager, and culinary staff.  Once the contract is signed, they have a vested interest in making things happen.
2. Buy locally.  It connects your program with the community and is good for the environment.
3. If the filet is out of your price range, but you love the elegance of the presentation, ask if you can substitute a less expensive cut but keep the presentation. 
4. Choose a less expensive three-course meal and inquire about the cost of adding an intermezzo.  There’s always something elegant, refined, and impressive about adding a palate-cleanser.  Some options include sorbet (lavender and lemon sorbet is a nice choice), or a lovely, refined cheese. 
5. Ask the banquet staff to butler serve certain items: rolls, dressings and sauces can all be served once the food is placed and, again, adds a sense of refinement to the event, particularly for an awards banquet.  It may require extra staff, but the cost could be much cheaper than spending an extra $10++ per person. 

I hope that some of these suggestions help frame your thinking for your next event!

Alcohol Service from Front Line Experience


November 19, 2007

By Kelly Rush

In preparation for both my previous appearances on the MiGuru site, I asked many colleagues what food and beverage operations topics they’d like to hear about.  Both times I was asked to write about alcohol liability issues; both times I skipped the subject.  Because the request has come up again, I’ve decided to discuss alcohol service from a background of front line experience while avoiding a full-scale discussion of liquor liability law.  So, first off, two pieces of advice:

1.Every state has differing statutes about liquor liability training and involved legal questions should always be addressed with legal counsel and,
2.The observations that follow are based upon front line experience and in no way reflect the opinions or policies endorsed by employers (current or former) or the management of media in which they appear.   

Let’s start with the three most important rules to front line alcohol servers:
--It is illegal to serve anyone less than 21 years of age, whether a parent is “supervising” the minor or not.
--While varying exactly from state to state, the legal blood alcohol limit tends to be around .08
--In order to stay under this limit, the average person can drink no more than 1-1.5 drinks per hour.

The reality of the situation is this: front line workers make every possible effort to adhere to the first rule listed above.  It is often the application of the second two which cause the most difficulty.  Particularly at events like incentive trips and weddings, the idea of moderation of alcohol seems to go by the wayside (interestingly enough, when Harvard Medical School researching drinking habits in the college setting, they define “binge drinking” as having 4 or more drinks in one setting).  If we think about the fact that most meeting and hotel professionals will estimate 2.5 drinks per person for a food and beverage event, the conundrum becomes immediately clear: when was the last time you saw the majority of your attendees pace themselves in a manner that keeps them under these limits?  So, then, to be legal, we abdicate the responsibility to the front line server.  Yet, this also leaves them in a quandary. 

The December 18, 2006 issue of Meeting News reported that, of 463 meeting professionals surveyed, a whopping 66.5% stated that “quality of service provided by staff” was “extremely important” when selecting a meeting venue or property.  As I’ve discussed previously, the evaluation of service is almost entirely subjective in most cases.  But if wine glasses stay empty and service workers refuse to serve beverages in order to abide by alcohol restrictions, how do planners think attendees will evaluate the service they received?  I’m going to guess that the results won’t be positive.

What, then, is a planner or property to do?  Act with due diligence, really, and hope for the best.  Understanding that reality and the letter of the law are sometimes very far apart, here are some recommendations:

1.Try to curb the amount of programming that highlights alcohol and new, fun ways to drink (e.g. ice luges and other stunts); if you must, then please remember to include interesting, non-alcoholic variations for those who don’t, or can’t, drink.

2.Remember to encourage personal responsibility in your organization, review company policy on alcohol consumption and professional behavior; include this information as a reminder in program correspondence.  If needed, provide beverage tickets per person, which has the side benefit of controlling costs. 

3.Evaluate the logistics of your program along with venue managers.  I worked at one summer resort where we would evaluate how many guests in the group were staying on property.  From a conference services perspective, if the majority of attendees were off-property, I would suggest a shuttle service for food and beverage events.  From a banquet staff perspective, we would apply the rules more stringently when the majority of wedding guests were not staying at the hotel or the property located next door. 

4.Evaluate the training of servers, bartenders, and operations managers to ensure compliance with the statues of the state.  Many states and properties require their service employees to take some kind of training course, whether a state mandated program such as Responsible Vendor training in Florida and Rhode Island or voluntary programs such as TIPS on Premise Certification.  Research which states require this kind of training, and ask the property to provide information regarding their compliance with state law.  If the state does not require training, ask property managers whether or not they voluntarily provide this training and ask for proof of training; many liability insurers require a certain percentage of hotel staff be trained on alcohol service and intervention with the reward of a discount on liability insurance for fulfilling certain benchmarks.

5.Look into the cost of such training for yourself and your event staff, so the burden doesn’t rest solely upon the venue’s staff; there’s nothing more difficult for a service worker to know that the person causing problems is the person that has the power to rebook the program.

Archeological evidence is firm that humans have been drinking since the advent of society.  The revels of the Bacchanalia have been documented; during an alumni event at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, one of my college professors discussed his research into brewing beer in pre-dynastic Egypt; the Miracle of Cana involves Jesus’ conversion of water into wine for wedding guests.  We often joke that the events industry is one of the oldest professions in the world, and we’re not addressing anything new in terms of concerns regarding alcohol.  There’s nothing groundbreaking in the above, but these are the guidelines that I follow, and hope they offer you some perspective and assurance that, in the end, we do the best that we can.

Tomorrow: Practical Tips on Food & Beverage Planning for the Non-Foodie

The Devil’s in the Details


July 10, 2007

By Kelly Rush

From Dictionary.com Unabridged (v1.1)
service
The performance of duties or the duties performed as or by a waiter or servant; occupation or employment as a waiter or servant

From American Heritage Dictionary
The serving of food or the manner in which it is served.

As I reread my last post, I realized that, perhaps, it may be unclear as to why I’d like to focus on service this week.  Primarily, it’s because in a variety of industry publications—Successful Meetings, MeetingNews, M&C, etc.—over the last two years I’ve seen many surveys about why planners choose the properties that they do; many of the responses place service at the property as one of the top three deciding factors.  Yet the concept of “good service” versus “bad service” seems to be entirely subjective.  Think about restaurant reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor and you’ll see that, in most cases, the reviews vary widely.  Now, I’m sure part of this is circumstance—differences in servers, whether the restaurant was fully staffed or not, as well as the expectations of the guests themselves about what constitutes good service.

Patty Shock and John Stefanelli write in their text Hotel Catering: A Handbook for Sales and Operations that with a site visit the catering manager “can control the presentation [of the property] and eliminate the interruptions.  While there [the client] can be treated to lunch….” (68)  I encourage each of you to take back control.  If service is so important it is one of the top three factors determining your choice of facility, make your feelings known: express your need to eat banquet fare, not restaurant, and experience banquet service.

That being said, it becomes very difficult to separate “service” in the technical sense from the cumulative experience that we tend to generally call “service.”  Today is about explaining service from a technical point of view and how we, as operations professionals, evaluate the skills and performance of our staff.  In order to do so, I’ve compiled a short, composite list of banquet server duties from banquet position descriptions for the Taj Hotel in Boston to The Red Lion Hotel Yakima Center, Washington; DoubleTree Coconut Grove, Miami; and the Atlanta Marriott Northwest in Atlanta.  In the interests of creating a checklist for evaluation, let’s take these one by one and list hard, concrete questions to ask during your next site visit:

• Must at all times present a favorable image of the hotel to the public.
o Is there a staff member meeting guests at the door?
o Does staff make eye contact and smile within 10 feet of the guest?
o Does staff offer a warm “Welcome” when the guest is within 5 feet?
o Is the staff member neatly groomed?
o Are staff uniforms crisp and clean, with a visible nametag?
o Is wait staff posture straight?

• Maintain the cleanliness of function areas
o Is the reception area filled with empty glasses, cocktail napkins and old hors d’oeuvres plates?
o Are bathrooms clean and free of odor?
o Are back hallways clean?
o Are kitchen surfaces clean?
o If using tray stands, are dishes neatly stacked? 
o Is there an unsightly pile of food on clearing trays, or have the staff covered trash with a napkin to obscure?

• Knowledge of appropriate table settings and service ware
o Are linens crisp and flat, or wrinkled?
o Do bottom linens reach to the floor?
o Do top linens have their primary crease facing the main entrance?
o Are linens clean and free of stains, ragged edges, or stray threads?
o Are chairs mirrored (for tables with even number of guests) with the chairs across or evenly spaced {for tables with an odd number of guests)?
o Are table settings appropriate for menu?
o Is flatware mirrored with the place setting across the table?
o Is flatware placed 1” from the edge of the place setting (for round tables) or from the edge of the table {for square or rectangular tables}?
o Are napkins clean and crisp?

• Serve meals to patrons according to established ruled of etiquette
o Are guests being served courses from the left, with the left hand?
o Are guest being served clockwise around the table?
o Are females being served first, according to age, then the men?
o When carrying food items, is the staff carrying three entrees at a time, on level with no fingers in the dish?
o Are beverages being served from the right, with the right hand?
o Are dishes being cleared from the right with the right hand?
o Are water glasses empty?  (They should never get below half-full.)
o Does the server use a cocktail tray to clear beverages from the right?
o Is appropriate flatware removed prior to serving the next course?
o When (re)placing flatware, does the server use a “marking plate” to bring silver to the table, or do they carry by hand? (The latter is incorrect.)
o When opening a bottle of wine table-side, is the label facing the guest at all times? 
o Is salt & pepper replaced with sweetener and cream prior to coffee service?

• Observe Guests to fulfill any additional requests
o In down time during the function, are wait staff at post along the wall observing tables?
o In down time during the function, are wait staff chatting with each other, paying no attention to the event floor?
o Are servers knowledgeable about group’s meeting schedule and locations for activities?
o Is the server knowledgeable about other departments, locations of restrooms, etc?
o Do servers escort guests when directions are asked?

• Must be knowledgeable of event menu items and their contents, and the correct preparation and garnishing methods
o Does the server have a firm, concise grasp of the menu, or do they answer menu questions with “beef or chicken entrees tonight”?
o Is the first course hold or cold?  How beef roasted, grilled, braised?
o What temperature is it served at?
o When offering wine, does the server ask by varietal or color (e.g., “Fume Blanc” vs. “White”)?
o Can the server cite vintage?

Dedication to proper, technical service shows professional dedication, and the answers to these questions can help you evaluate that dedication.  In my experience, if these technical questions are answered in the affirmative, you can be assured that the experience of service will be outstanding…think of it as the serving equivalent of the CMP or CSEP!

(Re)Defining “Service”


July 09, 2007

By Kelly Rush

From Dictionary.com Unabridged (v1.1)
service
noun
1.  an act of helpful activity; help; aid
6.  the performance of duties or the duties performed as or by a waiter or servant; occupation or employment as a waiter or servant
13. Often, services. the performance of any duties or work for another; helpful or professional activity
From American Heritage Dictionary
1f. An act or a variety of work done for others, especially for pay
1k. The serving of food or the manner in which it is served.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I cringe when I hear my fellow meeting industry professionals mention instances of bad service, partially because the term “service” holds different meanings for each individual and, thus, tend to leave us appraising service from a purely subjective point of view.  The excerpts above seem to be the most relevant definitions to our industry, but they maintain an air ambiguity, particularly as they relate to what a meeting planner requires as “service.”

While doing research, I tried to find documentation on how to evaluate a property’s service during the site visit, oftentimes the planner’s first, tangible introduction to a property’s staff (outside of the sales team) and service capabilities.  To my surprise, no source—from Corbin Ball’s website to common event and hospitality management texts—includes any guidelines on establishing metrics for service.  The ultimate goal of this week, then, will be two-fold: 1) to (re)define and refine the term “service” and 2) to establish more objective framework(s) for planners to better compare “apples to apples” when it comes to hotel service.

To start the week let’s (re)define and refine the terms we’ll be using this week.

1. Technical Service – Taking the definitions above, let’s block definitions 6 from Dictionary.com and 1K from the American Heritage Dictionary under this heading for the week.  Meeting professionals use the CMP and CSEP designations to indicate a dedication to learning the meetings industry—to learning the core competencies of the industry; in much the same way, tomorrow you will acquire a checklist to be implemented during your site visit to evaluate the dedication of banquet management and their staff.
2. Service – Again, taking the definitions above, let’s block definitions 1 & 13 from Dictionary.com, as well as 1F from the American Heritage Dictionary, under this heading.  Understanding that this is a broader, more abstract concept to begin with, we’ll develop a checklist which will assist in evaluating the potential for satisfactory service from hotel operations (banquet and culinary staff), and the conference services manager. 

This week, I’ll be asking you to don the hat of a hotel operations professional in order to more accurately predict the end experience for your attendees.  Since many planners rate hotel service as one of their top three priorities when evaluating properties, my hope is that by understanding how we evaluate service from an operations standpoint, you will be empowered to create a more successful end product for your stakeholders.

At Your [Meal] Service...


February 02, 2007

As far as customers are concerned you are the company. This is not a burden, but the core of your job. You hold in your hands the power to keep customers coming back – perhaps even to make or break the company.
Unknown

Every time I see an email come from MIForum about a negative service experience, I cringe a bit.  As a worker focused on servicing the guest (I intensely dislike the word “customer” in the hospitality industry—it implies a purely retail transaction to me), I’m pretty sure I cringe because I realized quickly as a restaurant server that everyone has a different conception of what “good service” is. Some people like their server to talk to them and chat them up a bit.  Others just want to be left alone.  A good server can identify this distinction within three minutes of talking with a table.  An excellent server observes body language and knows what approach to take before they even get to the table.   

With banquets, the issue becomes much more complex: rather than serving just one table at a time, the server is faced with anywhere from two to six tables at once, a tighter, more controlled timeline, and not only has to satisfy the guests they see but (to borrow a term from meeting planning) a stakeholder they don’t even know (whoever chose the property for the event).  In theory, that’s why the banquet captain position (or floor manager, or maitre d’hotel, or whatever term you choose to use) exists—to keep in mind the big picture and the overall stakeholder.  Below are some tools and observations that are intended to illuminate the process of service planning and give food for thought to those who have had problems in the past talk to banquet managers about service.

Basic Service Ratios
All of the below ratios assume American style service, as opposed to French or Russian style service (more on service styles in the final post)

  • Breakfast, Buffet – A service ratio of 1:25 (1 server to every 25 guests) or 1:30 is ideal, although because most breakfasts include staggered arrival of guests, this ratio is often expanded to 1:35 or 1:40.
  • Breakfast, Plated – Rare these days to find a plated breakfast, but a 1:25 ratio is normally sufficient.
  • Lunch, Buffet – Again, a service ratio of 1:25 or 1:30 should be sufficient for most buffet lunches.  If beverage service is not included as part of the buffet set-up, be ready to ask for a lower ratio of 1:20.
  • Lunch, Plated – Because most plated lunches require a higher speed of service, the recommendation for this service ratio is 1:20.  For plated lunches with a very tight agenda or program, consider pre-setting either the entrée (if possible) or a beverage such as lemonade or ice tea. 
  • Dinner, Buffet – The 1:20 or 1:25 ratio is very comfortable, although if you’re going to be offering wine service, you’ll be happier with the 1:20 ratio. 
  • Dinner, Plated – This is where it gets a bit tricky, since the meal gets a bit more complex since there tend to be more service points involved with dinner.  Most properties will provide you with the 1:20 or 1:25 ratio for dinner, regardless of the agenda.  If you’re offering wine at dinner, I’d suggest a 1:15 or 1:16 ratio.  One note of interest: if you’re a planner who uses a private dining room in a restaurant (as many pharma planners do), you’ll find that most will tend towards the 1:25 ratio: try an encourage them to go to the bit lower 1:20 ratio unless they’re also going to provide a busperson to assist the server.

Timing Hints
We’ve all waited, and waited…and waited for the next course to be served at least once.  Badly timed meals are one of the most easily diagnosed symptoms of what attendees will deem “bad service”; while running “behind schedule” is one of the biggest complaints from group contacts regarding service.  The badly timed meal most often indicates kitchen or operational issues, as can running behind schedule.  That being said, when it comes to running behind schedule, it may also be indicative of a poorly written agenda.  Here are some general guidelines that will help you make sure it’s not your agenda:

  • Moving the Crowd – Let’s face it, they don’t want to move—particularly if the bar is free.  Dim the lights or indicate in some manner that the crowd needs to start moving fifteen to 20 minutes before the end of the cocktail hour.  With a group of 75 or more, schedule in an extra fifteen minutes between the end of the reception and the serving of the first course, this will help you get the stragglers in their seats
  • Salad/Soup (or both!) – Allow your guests 20 to 30 minutes to enjoy their first course.  If you’re offering four courses instead of three, you’re pretty safe with an allowance of 20-30 minutes per course.
  • Entrée – As the feature of the meal, this is where most guests slow down.  They’ve already started to fill the belly and curb the hunger pains from a long day in meetings and are more likely to be engaged in conversation with the others around them.  Your safest bet is to allow half an hour to fifty minutes from serving to clearing.
  • Dessert/Coffee – Normally this is one of the fastest courses, so from serving to clearing, allow 20-25 minutes.  Although my grandmother would consider it a crime, not everyone finishes their dessert!

Although many will suggest that a three course meal will take about an hour and fifteen minutes, I’ve found over the last couple of years that an hour and a half is closer to the mark.    Try to keep the entire meal portion of the function between this and two hours (particularly for 4 courses).  Keep in mind that wine service or cocktail service to tables will extend the service period for dinner and you’ll hit closer to the hour and a half mark. 

As industry research has shown in the past, food and beverage service can make or break your guests’ perception of your meeting.  Use these tools to help plan and refine your negotiations on service and timing!

To Understanding & Mutual Value


February 01, 2007

Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.
--Rollo May

I recently worked (as a server, not a captain) a silver anniversary party for a rather large biomedical company.  On the agenda was a three course plated meal, awards, and anniversary celebration for 160.  As a room, the final product was beautiful, shimmering, elegant--a dramatic vision. 

Then the glitches in our day began. 

The meeting ran two hours late.  When the banquet staff walked into the room to strike it and reset, half the ballroom was taken up with stage and yards of black pipe and drape.  The obstacle course created by the video and projection equipment made the service doors unusable.  The agenda created by the event producer was tight, the meal split, and had unrealistic service times (five minutes to clear 160 entrees plates, and all the accoutrements of dinner and reset the tabletop for dessert—not likely).  What made it work was the constant communication between the event company’s on-site contact and the group’s banquet captain.  The vision didn’t quite work out the way it read in the proposal, I’m sure.  But the group never noticed.

The banquet workday is all about reacting to small alterations in the way that our work is executed.  Getting all hands (catering, conference services, set-up, and third party staff) on deck and into the room to strike the equipment allowed us to set up the room on time.  By adding about 300 feet (okay, 800 feet for servers on the other side of the room) to utilize our outdoor walkway solved the issue of the service entrance, although not the issue of the extra time.  Rearranging some of the service points on the agenda allowed us to hit all the high points in the program. 

But it could have been better.  How?  By involving those on the operational team in the planning process.  That’s where a lot of the small issues in executing programs come from.  Had the event design company worked with the operational team by sharing both the agenda (which we received the day before the event) and the room design plans, we could have pointed out the weaknesses in both and, with the proper planning, those weaknesses could have been managed more effectively.  Had the conference services manager been more proactive in getting both of these from the client, the banquet staff would have been better prepared to consult with the vendor’s on site staff as well. 

We all talk about planning being a collaborative process, but are we collaborating as much as we should?  Below are observations of opportunities to communicate and engage with operational staff to improve the execution of your events:

  • The Site Visit--I know, I know--who gets to do these anymore?  With budgets being watched for every expense, the site visit can be a hard sell to higher ups, but we all know that if we had our druthers, we'd rather do a site visit than not.  So, for those of you who do get a chance, there are several recommendations: 1) try to schedule a site visit when the property has a group in-house, 2) observe the banquet staff at work, both in the back of the house and observing service on the event floor, if possible, 3) if you already have a pretty clear idea of what you want to do with the space if you sign the contract, talk to the banquet manager and see if they offer any suggestions that may be helpful; particularly at regional resorts that are heavily seasonal, the banquet managers know every square inch of their event space, down to the little bump in the floor of a historic hotel. 
  • The Pre-conference Meeting—You’ll inevitably have time with the banquet team to review the BEOs for your group; share your vision of the group’s meeting with the team.  Use this time as an opportunity to explain the rhythm and vision for your events; we will probably have suggestions to clarify that vision and (hopefully) help you exceed it.  Besides, getting these folks enthused about what you’re doing means they’ll be enthused, which means that they can get your servers excited…which means that they’ll bend over backwards for your guests. 
  • The Banquet Event Order—I’ve found over the last two years that the banquet team operates almost exclusively off of the BEO.  Far too often, it becomes evident that group contacts may read the BEO, but they don’t review it.  Here’s a tip: read once for what’s included, then read it again with an eye for what’s not included.  To a captain, the BEO represents the broad outline of what the client is looking for, so the more details you include on your event, the more their vision will resemble yours; anything left unstated is open to interpretation.  If you’d like wine passed during the cocktail hour and it’s not stated, make your CSM revise it.  If you’re using a third party design firm, pass it along to them to review as well.  If they have a vision of a napkin folded a particular way, include it…you’d be surprised at how long it can take to fold 160 napkins, and no one wants to do it over again.
  • Pre-Event Room Check--Most planners I have worked with come down about an hour before the event is supposed to begin to complete the final check of the room.  The fact of the matter is that the general layout of the room is almost always set about 4 hours prior to the event in order for the service staff to be able to start setting tables as soon as they arrive.  I suggest exploring the possibility of coming early, and here's why: if there hasn't been a thorough review of the BEO, you may have a last minute scramble to reset--and that's hard to do in an hour.  Last year I had a group who was using a third party planner on site to double-check all their food and beverage functions.  The scheduled function was a heavy hors d'oeuvres reception; the strange item on the BEO for this kind of function, to me, was that rather than mixing table sizes, the BEO indicated that it was to be all 72" rounds (10 tops).  I sat in on the pre-con meeting and no one said anything...being a new hat, I kept quiet--last time I'll ever do that, I can assure you.  The F&B contact came out an hour before the function started and was startled to see dinner tables and asked us to change out all the tables for high-top cocktail tables and 36" rounds.  Within the time frame a complete switchout wasn't possible as we were at a poolside and between the delivery of food, switching tables, and acquiring the proper linens the function wouldn't have started on schedule.  We solved the issue by switching out some of the 72" with high-tops and one or two of the smaller rounds, rather than replacing all 15 tables.  Fast solution, but one that could have been avoided by a combination of each of the three above suggestions. 

The important thing to keep in mind is that, as the department executing your event, the brunt of client dissatisfaction falls on banquets so we have a vested interest in understanding and valuing your program just as much as you do.  Engage us in your dialogue and we'll respond as best we can to help you realize your goals and objectives.

Know Thy Team


January 31, 2007

By Kelly Rush

"Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success."

-Henry Ford

Recently on the MIForum, I posted an answer to questions about writing a service clause into a hotel contract and referenced speaking with the banquet management team to answer questions and concerns regarding service.  I discovered through the course of this conversation that not everyone realizes, or maybe understands, the planning process from a facility perspective, perhaps because, as a client, groups tend to communicate with the facility sales team or the catering/convention services team.  To better meet our goals and objectives of the week, I thought it might be helpful to offer a quick primer to the "who" of making your event happen.  Please keep in mind that job functions vary by property, so the following is a general illustration of how the process flows from the facility side. 

Sign on the Dotted Line
First contact is normally made by someone from the sales team, whether that is a catering sales manager or representative or, for groups, a convention sales manager.  The responsibility of this individual is to solicit new accounts and maintain current relationships to sign repeat business.  It is their job to develop a proposal and food and beverage minimums, room rates, and, at smaller properties, block space for your group.  In short, this is the person who develops, and gets you to sign, a contract. 

Let the Planning Begin!
Once a contract is signed, at most properties, the catering manager (or catering sales manager) retains responsibility for the service and detailing of the entire contract for social business. By detailing the contract, I refer to the process of reviewing the contract details, menu planning, room sets, audio-visual needs and reviewing the status of the rooming block.  For group business, most properties will turn the detailing and service of contracts over to a convention services or conference services manager (the difference in terminology is really semantic, most often reflecting the size of the property, with convention services being used by larger properties) or CSM.  Once the CSM has begun detailing the various group functions, they begin to communicate with the cross-functional teams--banquets, culinary, and set-up--via the Banquet Event Order, or BEO (more about them later this week!).  About one month out, this manager is responsible for distribution of your group resume to all of the hotel departments.  The resume will outline the myriad of details for your group in a broad way and include room pick up and arrival patterns, accounting details such as authorized signature and payment methods, special housekeeping requests, activities (particularly if the property has its own personnel coordinating recreational activities), spa appointments, transportation needs, amenity deliveries, and the outline of meeting schedules and catering functions--including location and number of attendees.  When the group contact arrives, the CSM is responsible for coordinating a pre-con (pre-conference, or -convention) meeting on-site with representatives from each department, usually a day or two prior to the start of your event.  During your conference or convention, the CSM is responsible for checking in daily (sometimes more than once) with the group as well as reviewing billing with the group contact.  Finally (!), the CSM is responsible for conducting a post-con with the group contact to review and evaluate the property and, if all went well, attempt to resign your piece of business (or other, new pieces of your business) for the facility. 

Making It Work
When the Banquet Event Orders are created and distributed, the actual execution of your events are taken over by the banquet management team.  The composition of this team is highly dependent on the size of the facility; some properties may be small enough that only one person--the banquet manager--coordinates the set-up and service of your event from room set to supervising the function itself.  The banquet manager schedules and supervises captains and servers, maintains inventory, and processes billing charges for your events.  At a larger property, the several of the responsibilities outlined above may be delegated to another department--a set-up department, for example, that is responsible for setting up rooms with tables, risers, hardware, or audio-visual equipment.  In short, however, the essential function of the banquet team is to implement the group functions, as opposed to the catering or convention services team who primarily handle the selling and planning chores. 

The last position that I'd like to mention as part of the banquet team, as it's very near and dear to my heart, is the banquet captain.  In a very general sense, the banquet captain is a room manager in charge of the service at a meal function.  The captain typically oversees all activity in the entire function room, or a portion of it, during a meal (Hotel Catering: A Handbook for Sales and Operations, Patti J. Shock and John M Stefanelli, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1992, p. 18).  At smaller properties, the captain may be a lead server who takes over the functions of the banquet manager in dealing with the group contact when the banquet manager is not available.  At larger facilities, a banquet captain is responsible for the execution and supervision of specific events, as opposed to the banquet manager who oversees all events on property.  It sounds semantic, but let me give you an example.  In my current captain's position, I requisition all the flatware, china, glassware, skirting, linens, etc for the set up of an event, as outlined on the Banquet Event Order from our storehouse.  I supervise the assigned banquet staff in the set up of the room or location and coordinate with cross-functional teams such as conference set-up and the beverage departments.  On larger events where we are using outside vendors, I am responsible for ensuring that they are set up on time, in the right location, confer on agenda, etc.  During the event, I control the flow of the agenda, communicate with the kitchen, observe the banquet and bar staff, and check in with guests on their experience.  After, I am responsible for the break down of the function room, making sure that all the equipment we used is cleaned and returned, that all cross functional teams have been notified that the event is over, review service notes with staff, solicit feedback from guests and staff, and submit a report detailing any issues or guest comments at the end of the night.   

I'm guessing that some of this information is old hat to some, but know that it’s new for others.  Understanding how many people are involved in the facility event team, and what their roles are, prepares us, I think, for the discussions that remain.  Tomorrow, I'd like to take this information and start to illustrate why, when an event isn't a success or doesn't achieve quite the vision we hoped, it almost always points to a breakdown in the communication between the various teams, particularly between planning and operations; and suggest some ways around that breakdown. 

Nothing Accidental


January 29, 2007

By Kelly Rush

"Nothing in good writing is ever accidental."  --Dr. Bernie Baker, PhD.

What does this have to do with working in banquets, or the event & meeting planning industry?  Everything!  As a writing and rhetoric major in college, one of the requirements for my senior seminar was to assist incoming college students develop their writing portfolios.  Over and over again the big questions were: "Why do we have to study grammar and spelling?  Does it really matter?"  According to Dr. Bernie Baker, absolutely.  Let me explain—what he meant by "nothing in good writing being accidental" is that when writers break the rules, it’s for effect.  If you don’t know the rules, you can’t break them effectively. 

Our industry is about creating an experience for our attendees and guests.  Like writers of novels, short stories, or poems who create experiences for the reader, we make decisions day in and day out which effect an experience for those who attend events.  Over the next week, I’ll clarify/highlight/illuminate/examine how what we do (or don’t do) during the planning process impacts the outcome for attendees’ experience through an operational lens.  As Patti Shock, professor and chair of the Tourism and Convention Administration Department at the Harrah College of Hotel Administration at UNLV,  pointed out several years ago in an email to the MIMlist [the forerunner of the MiForum List], fewer and fewer catering managers come into their positions from a culinary background.  As this trend increases, catering and conference services managers are selling without a true understanding of what it actually takes to execute their menus.  Similarly, as the meeting industry matures, fewer and fewer planners come to the table with knowledge of facility operations.  Consequently, planners develop assumptions—some correct, some false—about what it takes to execute their requests. 

Some may take this statement as "fightin' words", but the concept of this week, (Re)Visioning Planning, is intended to educate us all by widening our view of the process that allows us to create that moment for each attendee where time and space stand still and leave our events, whatever they may be, with an epiphany—whether that be the thrill of learning a new concept or whether they look at the world around them in a new light. 

Five years ago as the assistant to the event coordinator at the a philanthropic organization in Boston, I began to begin to frame (to paraphrase T.H. White) the big picture of my meeting industry career.  Throughout the numerous discussions and conversations with professionals in the industry, the conversations kept returning to the concept of "knowing the rules.".  Having left my assistant position to return to the restaurant industry that was my home, I decided to move to Chicago to become a conference services manager—that way, I'd learn the "rules" of how hotels do business and what’s negotiable, making me a more effective meeting professional.  In order to do so, I decided that I could take my event experiences and my background as a server in the restaurant biz, and work for the season as a banquet captain—valuable experience for the transition into conference services.  I got stuck. 

I got stuck because I realized that in order to be an effective conference services manager, there was so much more to learn about operational execution—because in order to be truly effective, I had to not only understand my client’s needs, but balance them against the constraints of the operational environment.    I needed to be able to negotiate expectations with knowledge from working on both sides of the industry.

I realized that as a banquet captain, and as an aspiring meeting planner, I can be the bridge in the planning process.  This week, I’ll share what I’ve learned and I hope that we will (re)write some rules together.

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