Escape from the rock (by taking your group out to dinner)

Food & Beverage

If you're planning a group meeting and thinking about doing all evening events in one hotel, the same place where everyone will not only be staying, but where you're also holding all the group's meetings and where they eat all their meals, think again. That place could start to feel more like the Chateau d'if than the Chateau Marmont in no time. To avoid falling into this "one-stop shop" mentality, take your group out for a night on the town, or at the very least, to savor a meal beyond the venue.

ou can even go for the day; fortunately, many restaurants are cashing in on the business of providing meeting spaces as well as the meals. Specifically with the corporate world in mind, they're creating meeting rooms enhanced with A/V equipment, Internet access, phone hookups and plasma TVs.

The major players

Major players were once small local and well-managed establishments that hit upon a successful formula that enabled them to expand into nationwide chains that now can cater to large parties. While able to provide great space for events, the best of these companies make sure their restaurants maintain the ambience and charm of a local restaurant, one that conveys a sense of the community they serve.

The scale of these operations—and their commitment to developing group business—means that meeting professionals will be working closely with a full-time catering manager or sales manager, much as they would if they were planning an event at a hotel or banquet hall. This level of professionalism can help to ensure that the event will run smoothly and that all parties are satisfied.

Here are some to consider.

Smith & Wollensky
The original Smith & Wollensky opened in New York in 1977 and in less than 30 years the company has grown to operate Smith & Wollenskys in Miami Beach, Chicago, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Columbus, New York City, Dallas, Houston and Boston. The dining facilities at every location epitomize the feel of a New York steakhouse while incorporating a sense of each city's distinct locale.

McCormick & Schmick's
Since opening in 1979, McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurants has expanded to include more than 50 restaurants across the country, with each location boasting its own personality. Several locations are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including Spenger's Fish Grotto in Berkeley, which has been around since the early 1900s.

With history like that, it's no wonder McCormick & Schmick's doesn't want to pigeonhole any locations into a set companywide "look."

Tori Harms, public relations manager for McCormick & Schmick's, explained that because each space is so unique to its location, it is almost impossible to provide general information for coordinating a meeting at each site. But this is no cause for concern, because with private and semi-private dining areas as well as A/V equipment and Internet access across the brand, every restaurant is well equipped for meetings.

Jillian's
Jillian's tagline is: Eat. Drink. Play. It sums up Jillian's perfectly. With locations across the nation, Jillian's is a less formal option for casual corporate meetings, social gatherings and team-building events. Each location is touted as being a "Modern, hi-tech, and fun billiard club." With the air filled with the sounds of virtual bowling, billiards and laughter, it's not difficult to see why Jillian's lends itself so well to social gatherings.

Most Jillian's locations can accommodate anywhere from 20 to 2,000 people in private and semi-private rooms, all equipped with state-of-the-art technology to meet all your event presentation needs.

Gordon Biersch
Gordon Biersch is a contemporary brewery with casual sophistication that is not to be confused with the ambience of a local pub, according to Reggi Sweat, the special events manager for Gordon Biersch in Pasadena. Opened in Palo Alto, California in 1988, Gordon Biersch has grown into a 17-restaurant company located in 13 states and Washington, D.C. Each restaurant is unique in design and yet familiar, with an open-air feeling. All locations have private rooms available for business and social gatherings. With their commitment to quality ingredients, the beers brewed on-site and their commitment to service, the restaurant could make an excellent choice.

King's Seafood Company
Based in Southern California, King's Seafood has the formula for a successful food-related business down pat: superior quality and freshness. The company's commitment to quality is underscored by the fact that they operate King's Seafood Distribution as a pipeline to their growing number of restaurants, providing only the best seafood to the region. Each distinctive location among their 13 restaurants in Southern California is able to accommodate any type and almost any size of function from corporate events to weddings.

The "average Joe" local favorites
These guys are by no means average, but their size doesn't accommodate large corporate gatherings. Perfect for smaller business outings, these restaurants are local hotspots with enough space to accommodate your small to medium-size event. Many restaurants are realizing that neighboring businesses need space for these corporate events, and as a consequence, are reorganizing their establishments to cater to them. While these restaurants are often more intimate than their larger counterparts, the cuisine can be topnotch.

Max's restaurants, with 10 full-service locations in  the San Francisco Bay Area, have a fun vibe as well as a broad menu that includes "everything you always wanted to eat," from hamburgers to corned beef sandwiches and roasted chicken. Depending on the location, your groups will be serenaded by singing waiters at Max's Opera Cafes and "golden oldies" on the jukebox at Max's

Diners.
Anthony's HomePort is a Washington-based group of 22 restaurants in the Northwest with waterfront locations, five of which are in the greater Seattle area (Des Moines, Edmonds, Everett, Kirkland and Shilshole Bay). Seafood's the star here, and their banquet rooms can accommodate groups of 20 to 150.

Restaurants of this ilk are local hangouts, and local CVBs or DMCs can suggest some to explore. Also, starting with this issue, Smart Meetings' destination stories will feature the top five group dining venues in a special sidebar for every locale.
Plans of attack

Planning a dinner meeting at a restaurant is similar to booking a conference hall and hiring a caterer. The only difference is, of course, that at a restaurant you get both in one. Larger establishments will have a person on staff with which planners will work closely; smaller establishments may not be used to handling large parties with presentations and equipment, so let whomever you are dealing with know all the details of the event early on. "We need realistic information about the size of the group, the budget for the event as a whole, or food and beverage expenditures, as well as the A/V and space requirements," says Becky Dielschneider, director of catering at McCormick & Schmick's in Seattle, Washington.

Communication is always going to be vital; any venue will need to understand the overall goal
of the meeting or event in order to plan for seating as well as space and equipment requirements. This is especially true for smaller restaurants, which may not have as much square footage for private dining areas available.

Plan the menu based on the demographics of your group. "Menu content should be tailored to the guests," suggests Dielschneider. "For example, a safety meeting for construction workers might mean that the guests will need larger portion sizes and perhaps more of a hearty entrée and starches, whereas a sales meeting for a cosmetics company may call for a lighter, more healthy menu."

Tipping your hat
Tips equal rent. When holding an event at a restaurant, keep in mind the staff is working for tips. Even if a gratuity or service fee of 18 percent is charged automatically on the bill, that money must be split among more than just the folks who serve dinner. At some venues, such as banquet halls, that 18 percent service charge not only goes to pay staff wages, but also toward expenditures for linens, cleaning and taxes, often with none of it going for tips. Discreetly find out whether the staff is paid hourly, and if so, personally slip the staff a little extra at the end of the night. This will endear you to the staff and ensure that you and your group will be welcomed back for more excellent service the next time you let them escape from Alcatraz.