Feature—Business Dining: Your Key Networking Tool
by Deborah Goldstein
Editor's Note: These valuable tips can apply to business dining and to company holiday parties as well.
Event marketing careers are filled with client-facing activities and opportunities. But in a world where everything is becoming more automated, the up-close-and-personal treatment this industry offers isn’t just a business advantage. It’s a reward!
As event and exhibit manager, you may be called upon regularly to attend business dinners. Whether to court clients, maintain relationships or support allies, the business meal is a powerful tool if used correctly. But Strategic DiningSM is very different from the eating we engage in daily. It’s maximizing the opportunities a business meal presents.
There are many moving parts to a business meal, and different parties are responsible for different roles in this very human endeavor. The restaurant business itself relies heavily on such mere mortals, and that implies human error. The keys to successful business dining are to anticipate the errors, mitigate your own seconding-guessing, and respond (not react) when things go wrong. Let’s have a closer look at how this is accomplished.
Preparation is Key.
Before you even show up for a business meal, take a few things into account. First is the purpose of the meal and your role at the table. Are you there for moral support? Are you hosting a group of clients? Suppliers? Is this a celebratory meal to mark the end of a successful show, a breakfast meeting, or a quick bite to eat in the middle of a busy work day?
Next, consider the crowd. Before you book the reservation, ask yourself if the folks involved with the meal are locals or coming in from out of town. Consider the temperament of your guests. Should you choose a quieter venue or a celebratory atmosphere? What are the dietary restrictions of each guest? Entertaining such questions can save you the embarrassment of bringing a group of vegetarians to a steak house.
Finally, once reservations are made, take a moment to distribute information about the meeting. Besides the restaurant name, include the address and phone number of the restaurant, the name the reservation has been made under, and valuable information like outdoor dining space or, in fewer and fewer cases, jacket requirements.
Think About Your Agenda.
By being thoughtful about your role at the table, you can determine how to ‘show up’ for the meal. Supporting sales people trying to impress clients warrants a different table presence than hosting a meal. Forethought determines how much you speak and what you interject. Understanding different parties’ agendas at the table will greatly guide what topics of conversation you bring up. If you are there as a support, speak to your ally beforehand to determine their goals for the meal.
Since you’re often amongst out-of-towners, be prepared to add value to their visit to the convention city with ideas of what they can do when in town. For New York City, I always suggest Madison Square Park art exhibits, a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge for a Jacques Torres hot chocolate in DUMBO, a walk around the MoMA sculpture garden, which is now open to the public, and a visit to the Union Square Farmer’s Market. Find experiences that aren’t the typical tourist activities and it will leave a lasting impression.
Once you have thought about your role as well as the goals of the others at the table, take a moment to study the restaurant’s menu online. Your time spent on the restaurant’s website results in the ability to be more present and focused at the meal, as you have already chosen a couple of dishes you could order. Since the purpose of the business meal is to develop rapport, the more you are able to focus on the conversation, the better! If you are unfamiliar with a preparation or an ingredient on a menu, a one-minute investigation will provide the answer for you, and may very well put you in a trusted advisor role if a table mate voices the same question. Besides the menu, glancing at the restaurant’s backstory will likely provide some small-talk tidbits, as restaurant dining has become a nationwide sport.
Finally, prepare for the business meal by dressing strategically. Restaurant formality should be considered in this attire equation, as should the formality of the other diners, and the fit of your clothing (remember, as we eat, clothes become tighter). One additional dressing detail can be vital for a successful dining experience. When dining out, no matter what the occasion, forego the cologne. Ninety percent of taste relies on sense of smell. Those in the room who dine out for sport want to smell the aromas of their food, not your aftershave.
We should all know which bread plate and water glass is ours. But, what happens in instances where the lines between ‘yours' and ‘hers' become smudged? There are many upscale family-style restaurants that are worth visiting, and this type of shareable spread increases the interactive experience, thus building a different type of business rapport. If you're a little rusty, think BMW: Your Bread plate is to your left, the Main dish is in front of you, and your Wine/Water glasses live on the right side of your place setting.
The etiquette of sharing can become daunting amongst new acquaintances. Cutting to the meat of the matter, there are two cardinal sins of sharing.
First is using your own flatware to help yourself to a communal plate. Once a utensil has gone into your mouth, it has no business reconnecting with a shared plate. Community dishes should all come with serving utensils, so be mindful of returning these neutral pieces to their collective plates. If you accidently keep a serving piece, don’t panic; this is a frequent occurrence. Just ask your server for a clean utensil.
The second faux pas is taking too large a helping from a family platter. I’ve seen it happen a hundred times: there are eight people at a table and when the potatoes come to the 7th person, there’s one potato left. As the host or the guest, be mindful of how many people are at the table before you serve yourself. As the host, try to arrange it so you are the last person served. In your mind’s eye, divide the dish into that many servings, and take less than your share. The emphasis of a business meal should be on the business, not the meal. If you’re hungry after the meeting, stop somewhere for a snack.
Respond Graciously When Things Go Wrong.
The restaurant business is full of human flaws. Understanding what could go wrong and having a game plan for these scenarios will allow you to look your best in moments of crisis.
When someone does something awkwardly or incorrectly at the table, do not draw attention to their mistake. It’s easy to ignore when a dining companion uses their dessert fork to eat their pasta dish. But what happens when an unsuspecting diner uses your water glass instead of her own? Your first instinct may be to ask the server for another glass of water. Instead, make a savvy move and ask your server for a club soda. You’ll save the offender from embarrassment, while your thoughtfulness will impress the others at the table who are onto your move.
Did you know that more than three-quarters of us have ordered a dish that, in hindsight, has been difficult to eat deftly at the table? A simple solution: The one-handed dish. Choose something you can eat with a single utensil. Fish fillet, meatloaf, omelets, quiche, ravioli, and penne pasta are all examples of ideal Strategic Dining℠ choices.
Maximize Your Table Presence.
When we’re part of a group, how we listen is even more important than our verbal contribution to the conversation. How do you present yourself? Are you sitting up straight, looking interested in the conversation, asking questions for clarification? Or are you slouching and slurping your soup? Of course, you’re doing the first! But let me offer three ways to maximize your already impressive table presence, inspired by Olivia Fox Cabane’s amazing book The Charisma Myth. First, reduce how quickly and how often you nod your head when listening. A couple of shakes can make a powerful impression. Bobbing up and down makes you look like an eager school kid. Next, lower the intonation of your voice at the end of your sentences. In other words, quit the uptalk. And third, pause for a full two seconds before you reply. This will demonstrate that you were listening, and not just waiting to speak.
I encourage you to enjoy the opportunities unique to the business meal. In no other venue do you have the chance to get to know people so quickly, both personally and professionally. Breaking bread is an intimate experience, and when managed smartly, you’ll walk away having made an indelible impression of your best self.
About Deborah Goldstein
Deborah Goldstein is the founder of Goldie’s Table Matters (GTM) and the Women’s Advancement Compact (WAC). GTM enables professionals to maximize networking opportunities and business development in a setting conducive to building rapport. Through Deborah’s work with GTM, she saw a great need for leadership development from a female perspective and, in 2013, founded WAC, a community composed to serve NYC professionals sharing the common goal of career advancement, while integrating family life and personal development.