The Art of the Business Dinner
As any boss lady knows, sometimes the REAL meeting is the night before or the evening after—NOT in the boardroom. Often, your best deals and greatest progress happen in a setting where everyone can feel more relaxed. Don’t let an evening of small talk and wine throw you off your game. It might be a dinner, but you need to be all about your business. Here is how to show up and stand out!
IF YOU ARE A GUEST
Some of us are fortunate enough that we are on the receiving end of a dinner invitation. Congratulations...I’ve had some wonderful experiences and unforgettable meals as a client. But don’t be fooled, you’re still on the clock and how you behave goes a long way towards how you will be viewed in the future.
Your work starts as soon as the invitation arrives. Be sure to RSVP before the deadline to give your host the most notice possible. If the invite comes in a casual form without a deadline, such as an email, respond right away to acknowledge the invitation and let the host know when you’ll give them an answer. Don’t be shy about making your host aware of any serious allergies or dietary restrictions; having anaphylactic shock in the middle of the main course would not be a good look! Otherwise, let your host handle the rest of the details.
Then honor your commitment. If you say yes, be sure you’ve cleared your calendar and block the time right away even if an electronic invite will come later. If you can’t make the date, suggest other times that might work. If it’s a large dinner, the date may be firm, but it may not hurt to offer.
Next, if you’ll be dining at a restaurant, do your homework. Luckily, nearly every establishment publishes their menu online. Check it out ahead of time so you can quickly decide what to order. If you’re unsure of an ingredient, call ahead. There is nothing worse than appearing indecisive over a meal. What might that say about you in a true high pressure moment?
Be considerate of your host: arrive a few minutes early (especially if you have to hunt for parking), dress appropriately and be patient! Outside the office, no one can totally control the environment. Your graciousness will help put everyone else at ease.
When it comes to beverages, follow the lead of your host. If it’s a large party, they may choose to order a bottle of wine. If not, a single glass of wine is totally acceptable, but keep it to one. This is not the time to throw back a Long Island iced tea. Save the cocktails for when you’re hanging with your girls!
If you choose not to drink, there is no need to explain; order a soft drink/club soda/water...whatever works for you. If someone else tries to make you feel uncomfortable about not drinking, just smile and say, no thank you. If they persist, change the subject. (It never ceases to amaze me how some folks still want to pressure others so they don’t drink alone.)
Don’t dilly dally over the menu. Inquire if there is a special item; otherwise, choose something familiar and easy to eat. And, please, avoid the most expensive choice. Do not go hog-wild on surf and turf, no matter how deep the pockets of your host.
Not the best at small talk? Read a few news websites and find topics you can discuss easily. However, by all means, avoid politics and religion (so hard these days, I know!) Don’t know your host well? LinkedIn is your friend. Look for similar or common experiences...have you and your host lived in the same city or country in the past? Similar schools? Volunteer organizations?
Meeting others for the first time? My favorite question is “What keeps you busy these days?” I’ve received some very surprising answers from “My twins!” to a crisis at work to the challenges of aging parents. Open ended questions, which cannot be answered with a yes or no, are the best for keeping a conversation going. On the receiving end of a query and not sure what to say or need more time to gather your thoughts? Respond with “Say more about that.” It keeps the other person talking and helps you understand more about what they want to know.
And if there is a question that may be inappropriate...as happens all too often...keep your cool. Answer with a question: “Why do you ask?” I remember being asked if I was the research assistant on a project for which I was actually the Senior Director. When I said, “Why do you think I’m the research assistant?,” the person said because I was leading the discussion on next steps. I calmly explained my title and role and pointed them to the research assistant who was in the room. They got the message.
Lastly, after the dinner, please follow up with a thank you. I still believe in the power of a hand written note, but if you must email, then send it right away...no later than two days after. Even if it was a large group dinner, acknowledge that someone put time and energy into planning the evening. Very, very few people take the time to send a thank you and doing so will absolutely set you apart.
IF YOU ARE THE HOST
Sometimes, you need to invite others out to dinner or may choose to host them in your home. Again, getting away from the formal environment of the office can create a real breakthrough. If you’re leading a team, a dinner is a great way to celebrate a key accomplishment and thank them for a job well done. Remember, the most important word in “business dinner” is BUSINESS, so be certain that’s your purpose.
First things first: know your company’s policy on hosting dinners. If business is tough and there is a tight rein on expenses, maybe ordering coffee and breakfast treats for the office is the better way to go. If you feel an exception is warranted, do your homework; have a plan and budget and present that to your boss for approval before moving forward.
If hosting one or two others, then be sure you understand your company’s expense policy. Do not lose your job and salary over $100. As a mentor once told me, "You can sit in your office for a year and do nothing, but if you cheat on your expense report for a $1, you’ll be fired the next day!"
Give your guests plenty of notice. If a large group, reach out at least 3 weeks in advance. Try to avoid Monday and Friday evenings; early in the week is usually busy for everyone and Fridays are for the weekend! Not sure of location? Often, your company’s travel and event group has a list of restaurants/catering halls that work well for groups. They may even help you negotiate the best price.
If you often host lunches and dinners, you should have a “go to” restaurant that knows you well. When I was a young executive in New York City, I deliberately patronized a restaurant close to the office quite often so they got to know me. I made sure to recommended them to others and asked them to mention I had sent them. As a result, I could always get a table—even at the last minute—and I received incredible service during every visit.
Be sure you know if your guest has an allergy or dietary restriction. Not comfortable asking? Ask their assistant. Or ask in the invite.
Plan ahead to make the evening run smoothly. If your group is larger than 8 people, arrange for a limited menu with the restaurant that can be printed ahead. This makes it quicker for everyone to order. Arrange to have a few appetizers brought to the table right after your group is seated. Hangry people are no fun! Choose a reasonable selection of wines or, if budget allows, let everyone order their preferred beverage. If you see a guest who might be imbibing too much, quietly ask your server to cut them off. Restaurants know how to handle this and it prevents you from looking like the liquor police.
It’s a nice touch to offer a toast once beverages are served. It need not be long; just an acknowledgement of the occasion or the guests is enough.
When it’s time to end the evening, thank everyone for coming. Acknowledge any staff members who helped plan the evening. If appropriate, talk about next steps/agenda for the following day or any take always from the discussion.
Business dinners can be a wonderful way to build team and loyalty, reward great performance and deepen relationships. I’ve gotten to know many co-workers on a level that has paid off in our working relationship. Done well, it’s a great opportunity to move forward and move on up. Master it and make moves!