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To Understanding & Mutual Value

Posted on 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.


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