I have hosted or participated in my fair share of business dinners and lunches during my 30 year career as a sales/marketing manager and entrepreneur. To be honest, I have probably participated in your share as well. Many people are uncomfortable attending business meals, whether it is a working lunch with co-workers, entertaining executives from the home office, or a client meet-and-greet over drinks and dinner. The primary cause of this discomfort is uncertainty about things such etiquette, what to order, price points, and who picks up the tab.
Over the years, I have developed my own guidelines for successfully taking business out of the conference room and into the dining room.
Rules for Successful Business Dinners
Be Aware of any Special Needs
When planning a business dinner ask invitees about any dietary restrictions or requirements, and make sure the restaurant can accommodate them. Better still, ask them if there is any type of food they particularly enjoy.
My Lesson: Early in my career I was given responsibility for arranging a dinner for a group of executives from Japan, including the CEO of our company, who were visiting Austin, Texas. Previous delegations from Japan had enthusiastically devoured steaks at a steakhouse with lots of local color. I assumed this group would be no different and made reservations. Fortunately, a member of the travelling delegation whispered to me that the CEO’s digestive system was not doing well with American-style food. Plans were quickly changed. Disaster was averted, we enjoyed a delicious meal at a local sushi restaurant, and I learned a valuable lesson.
Have a Meeting Agenda
Meetings in the office have an agenda. Meetings outside the office should have one as well. Know what you want to accomplish at the business meal and identify a few key points of discussion.
Some business dinners are little more than an opportunity to get to know one another and establish relationships. When entertaining prospective customers, sometimes the objective is to make the occasion “all about them”, and lay the foundation for future business relationships. The objective is to make an appointment to discuss business at another time.
The purpose of the business dinner I had with the executives from Japan was to brief them on the agendas for the next day’s meetings with our customer’s engineers and executives.
If you called a working lunch or dinner with co-workers or subordinates, hand out a printed meeting agenda to keep everyone on track. Be realistic with your meeting objectives. You still have to make time to eat.
Consider the Setting When Defining Objectives
Off-site business meetings can be productive, but even with an agenda they are typically more casual and less structured than meetings in the office. It is not realistic to expect to accomplish the same amount of work in a restaurant as in a conference room.
Adapt to the less formal setting and be conversational regardless if you are meeting with clients, your office team, or your boss. I find it is a good idea to keep the conversation light and wait until after you have ordered your meal before discussing business matters.
Go with what you know
Off-site meetings are not the time for surprises. Suppress the urge to indulge your passion for new food experiences. That new Ethiopian restaurant is not a good option. Choose a place where you know the menu, the quality of the food and the service.
Avoid the Mess
Sorry folks, ribs are off-limits at business dinners. So are pastas, saucy sandwiches, and just about anything that qualifies as finger foods. The rule of thumb is don’t order meals that result in you licking your fingers or dripping sauce on your chin, shirt, or necktie.
Pace yourself after the meal is served. Do not rush through your meal in order to dive into business talk. Also be aware of the pace of other meeting participants so no one feels their eating habits are putting them too far ahead or behind the group.
If you are a slow eater, you may have to sacrifice part of your meal if everyone finishes long before you.
Choose Moderately Priced Meals
As a guest, never order the most expensive thing on the menu, choose moderately priced items or ask the host for recommendations. This will give you an idea of the suggested price range you should work with. Guests will typically follow the host’s lead if she chooses a moderately priced option.
Who picks Up the Tab?
There are a few easy rules to simply what can be an awkward situation.
If you are a boss out with subordinates, the check is your responsibility unless other arrangements have been made ahead of time. If you are out with a group of co-workers, the bill will probably be split evenly, or paid individually. If you are meeting with persons from other organizations, the person or party that called the meeting is responsible for the check.
If I intend to pay the check, I avoid any uncertainty by giving my credit card to the waiter before the bill comes or by instructing him-out of earshot of my guests- to place the check next to me.