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At Your [Meal] Service...

Posted on 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.

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!


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K. Harper

Great read sir, you are one of the best!

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