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Alcohol Service from Front Line Experience

Posted on 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


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Joan Eisenstodt

YEA! for you for writing this. I am horrified at the amount of alcohol served at events - and wonder why everyone (meeting sponsors, planners, facilities, servers) is not worried. Found the stat on binge drinking interesting - it means there is too much of that at meetings, including industry events.

Those serving alcohol might also want to ensure that the laws in the jurisdiction in which a meeting is held allow anyone under 21 IN the venue when alcohol is served. In some cases, say on a trade show floor, it may not be permitted.
Good stuff, Kelly!

alcohol rehab

This is somehow ideal but this is far from what is happening right now. Teenagers can buy alcohol easily anywhere.Though there are law prohibiting minors from buying and drinking alcohols still someone is doing it. The main problem is not on the front liners itself but rather the law and its implementation. If bigger penalties are given to it. It would surely deter them form selling it to minors.

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