Entertaining Business Guests

Planning business meals without strain

Entertaining business guests at a restaurant—whether it is for breakfast, lunch or dinner—can be a strain or a pleasure, depending on how you look at it; and on how proactive you have been.

Planning for such events is always a troublesome chore and many people consider it a waste of time. But those who do plan always manage to ensure a smooth operation and are exposed to very few surprises.

I will never forget a lunch at Gajalee Restaurant in Mumbai. My host had a special table set for 14 guests at noon on a Sunday. The guests were seated on the basis of common interests and their past association. (He offered wine and beer). The food was ordered to be served one dish after the other in sequence—not all together, as is common in restaurants serving Indian or Chinese food. The lunch party was a great hit. Everyone enjoyed and remembered the event for many months.

If you are entertaining at a restaurant, the choice of restaurant must take into account the status of your guest; the level of discussion; the convenience in terms of distance for him and for you; and the type and quality of the cuisine. This makes it a wide spectrum of requirements; and it may be a different set of requirements for interviewing a candidate, an exploratory meeting to work out a collaboration or a meeting with a prospective distributor.

The first requirement is that the meeting place should be appropriate. If it is too upmarket, the guest will wonder why you are inviting him there; if it is downmarket, he or she will feel offended. A teetotaller might take umbrage at being invited to a bar. The second requirement is that you should be familiar with the venue. It is worth the time and effort to ensure this; otherwise, you and your guest may be in for some unpleasant surprises. It is better to choose a restaurant that you’ve already been to or know about, especially if much is at stake. It’s even better if you’re acquainted with the owner or the staff—you can ensure excellent service. Other information that can help you make the event a success is the restaurant’s timings, choice of cuisines and availability of valet parking.

Meticulous planning and prior information can help you find a table that provides some degree of privacy. You should ensure that your table is not too close to the kitchen door or the toilet. Your guest should be given the ‘seat of honour’—perhaps with the best view and a subtle indication should propel the waiter to pull that chair out for the ‘chief guest’.

Whether as a guest or as the host, one should not spend too much time on the menu. This is a business meeting—not a gourmet outing. As the host, you may take the lead in suggesting the menu so that you don’t waste too much time on it (‘They make very nice steaks here. Would you like to try one?’).

There are, of course, the usual don’ts—slurping on the soup; eating with mouth open; making noises while eating, shovelling large portions into the mouth; speaking and eating at the same time; drinking with a mouthful of food; belching after the meal; playing with knives and forks distractedly; picking teeth with toothpicks or applying lipstick; coughing with mouth open. All these actions indicate a lack of consideration for others.

It is always good to communicate, right at the beginning, at what time the meal will be over (‘I have a meeting at 3pm, so we will have to leave at 2.30pm’) so that your guest does not feel ‘cheated’ (He was probably expecting to spend the entire afternoon with you—and going directly home after that!). This helps you conclude the business lunch on a confident note and build better business relationships. 
Walter Vieira is a senior marketing strategy consultant, author, visiting professor and business columnist. If you have any experience on business protocol that you would like to share with him, please write to:
[email protected]

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