Deciphering The Dining Out “Menu

Food & Beverage

When you’re planning a meeting, the default setting for dining is to stay at the hotel. But there’s a lot to be gained by going out to dinner—and we’re not talking calories here! However, if you’re not from a food-and-beverage background, that decision—and those that come after—may be daunting, so we’ve compiled a few tips to help you throughout the process. Interestingly, you’ll notice there’s a lot of overlap in the details between dining “in” and dining “out,” so just jump right in.

• Contract restrictions. You may have earned concessions for handling all your food and beverage needs on-site.

• The total number of people in the group, including those spouses or partners accompanying the attendees.

• A specific date. Tip: Mondays and Tuesdays are often the best nights for group-dining availability and buyouts.

• The budget. Tips: “I usually go in with, ‘this is my budget’ and give them the opportunity to respond,” says Cathy Clifton, CMP, CMM, president/owner of C2 & Company Meetings and Events in Scottsdale. “That gives them more flexibility. A lot of times they come back with just what I wanted, at the price I wanted.”

Says Lane Hoss, director of marketing for Anthony’s Restaurants, headquartered in Seattle, “You should have at least a range in mind. The restaurant wants to address your needs and may come in too high and lose the business”—which they don’t want to do.

• Any dietary restrictions. Tip: Give the group a registration form ahead of time that asks for special needs; otherwise, you may need to sit down later with the chef.

• Whether it’s to be a buffet or a sit-down, plated meal. A buffet isn’t always cheaper (see Smart Meetings’ “Planning an Affordable Menu,” June 2006).

• Any time restraints. Tip: Although this is more often a lunch consideration, are your members able to have a leisurely meal or, says Hoss, “do they have to be finished in 45 minutes to be back on the bus?”

• Choose the right restaurant. What’s the purpose of your dinner? Whether it’s a reward, an evening out or a presentation should drive your choice of restaurant. (See our sidebar on page 42 for some group dining suggestions throughout the West.)
Is the restaurant’s ambience (casual, elegant, sophisticated, youthful, etc.) a good mix with your group’s demographics?

Is the restaurant experienced in handling large groups and special requests?

Is the dining area private (four walls) or semi-private (three walls)? It may not be an issue unless there’s a presentation.

Is the room the right size? If there’s an A/V presentation and you’re maxing out the total count for the room, you could run into problems due to the space required for equipment.

• Choose the right menu. Can you order off the menu? Depending on the size of your group, you may be able to; however, the larger the group, the more restaurants like to limit the options.

• Determine your policy on alcohol. Will you offer your group an open bar? When do you close it—at the start of the meal, before the final presentation?

Will you serve wine? Tip: Some planners have the restaurant offer a glass of wine as you enter the dining room. After that: “My rule about wine is, uncork it as you need it. If you need more, see me first,” Clifton says.

• Determine the flow of the meal. Are there speeches, a video, an award presentation? Will you have speakers during or in between courses? Before dessert? At the end?