What Event Planners Can Learn From Hospitality Pros

Incorporate hospitality best practices from high-end restaurant pros into your next event.

By Alesandra Dubin May 1, 2014, 7:45 AM EDT

Hospitality is about attention to detail. Joseph Ramaglia, general manager of Culina, Modern Italian restaurant at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, says, "The most simplistic details must not be overlooked. Corners cannot be cut."

Photo: Nadia Chaudhury/BizBash

Fine-dining restaurant professionals' jobs depend on treating guests with the ultimate care, attention, and discretion that makes patrons want to return—and leaves them buzzing about the experience among their networks. Here's what you can learn from the practices of high-end restaurants.

1. Anticipate special requests—and remember them
Just like restaurants, events see all types of guests and there's no one-size-fits-all solution to issues such as allergies and dietary restrictions. So take a page from fine-dining restaurants and anticipate individual needs so you can be prepared to meet them on event day.

“Service begins with the reservation,” says Patina general manager Kevin Welby. “We inquire about the nature of the occasion, making all the appropriate notes as we go. We also inquire if there are any special food requests or dietary restrictions and offer parking information and directions to the restaurant if needed. All of this is to be prepared for the guest and to also put the guest at ease demonstrating our willingness to handle any special requests or needs.”

And don’t let the prep work you’ve done for one event evaporate into the ether. Rather, keep your data duly filed for the next event, in the manner of fine-dining eateries. “We document guest preferences in a database in order to best serve them when they return next,” says Joseph Ramaglia, general manager of Culina, Modern Italian restaurant at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills.

2. Pay attention to minutia
When guests see that even their tiniest needs are met—in addition to the obvious ones, like hunger, thirst, and restrooms—they’ll feel truly cared for. “The most simplistic details must not be overlooked. Corners cannot be cut,” says Ramaglia.

SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills food and beverage director Andrew Adams says: “We recently heard a guest at the Bazaar by José Andrés state their craving for M&M's. Immediately we ran out, purchased M&M’s, and they were awaiting the guest in their hotel room when they returned from dinner with a note from the restaurant manager.”

“The greatest example of anticipating a guest’s needs I experienced was at Bouley in New York and I always share it with my staff during training,” says Faith & Flower restaurant director Tobias Peach. “When the amuse bouche came, our captain noticed that one guest reached for his glass with his left hand. From that moment on without saying a word, the captain began adjusting the table setting during the entire service for a left-handed person. Silverware, wine pairings, everything was switched for the most convenience for the guest. I tell my staff that is some Jedi action, but we should always be looking for opportunities like that to blow guests' minds.”

3. Build a great team—and then delegate
The success of a given event depends entirely on the strength of the team behind it. The key is first building a smart, strategic, dependable staff—and then truly trusting staffers enough to delegate without hesitation. “As much as I would like to talk with every single guest, it’s just not possible. So I have to communicate my vision for exemplary service to my staff day in and day out and surround myself with a team that understands their role in achieving that goal. Nothing is more important than having faith in your team,” says Petrossian general manager Christopher Klapp.

4. Personalize the experience
Whether at a fine-dining restaurant or at an event, treat guests as individuals rather than anonymous members of a crowd—they’re likely to remember the experience, share it among their networks, and remain loyal to the host or brand.

“Upon the guest arrival, I try to greet each guest at the door and often assist in seating while introducing myself,” says Welby. “When appropriate, along the way to the table or during their dinner, I engage in conversation about the occasion or the theater performance they may be attending. At the end of the evening, I am at the door to thank them for joining us and bid them a farewell. These practices are intended to create a sense of trust in our care of their dining experience as true hosts. All in all, we strive for the guest to feel fully embraced in the care of our steps of service.”

5. Exceed expectations
Like restaurant diners who expect to get what they pay for, event guests expect that their effort—with all the hassle of dressing, driving, scheduling, and logistics—should be worthwhile. But beyond just meeting basic expectations, aim to top them.

Spago Beverly Hills general manager Tracey Spillane says all of Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants aim to provide guests with “a larger experience than they ever imagined.” She says: “This can happen in even the smallest ways, like a special welcome when the guest walks in the door to elevate the level of hospitality rather than just going through the ropes. We want to direct our staff through the importance of elevating the event and understanding that this could be someone’s dream—whether it be a wedding or 50th birthday party or anniversary. We truly get everyone on our team invested in the event, from the prep cooks making sure the dice is just perfect to the bartender creating a specialty cocktail that’s perfectly balanced to a personal greeting when they walk in the door.”

Faith & Flower founder and partner David Bernahl adds: “Service needs to exceed a guest's anticipation of attention and care from the restaurant and facilitate the guest to travel into the land of whimsy and surprise. Magic falls within the details of service, like the aesthetics of table-side presentation, the tactile experience of hand-cut heavy crystal, or the sensory intrigue when a guest gets their check in a jewel box filled with dried seasonal flora, hand-selected by the chef. We always strive to take the mundane and make it magical. Therein lies an unforgettable experience.”

6. Never say no
It’s a basic rule of thumb that many planners live by: Instead of saying no, find a way to get to yes. This may mean making strategic adaptations, but ones that ultimately make all bosses, clients, and guests feel adequately heard and accommodated. “Say yes to just any guest request and figure it out later,” says Klapp. “They needn’t know how difficult the request truly is and will always be genuinely happy when they notice your effort.”

7. Accommodate the guest demographic
If the event calls for an all-ages crowd, make sure the kids have some excitement of their own—instead of just feeling like bored tagalongs to a program not made for them. In ordinary restaurants, this might mean crayons on the tables, but fine-dining establishments may take it a step further. “We strive to personalize with culinary experiences. I always enjoy bringing young kids into the kitchen to see the action and may even allow them to help me with the preparation,” says SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills executive chef Hussain Zouhbi.

8. Remember it’s all about relationships
Once you’ve dotted all the Is and crossed all the Ts, a great guest experience comes down to communicating your brand’s true essence or messaging in an authentic and accessible way. “Smile, and be yourself,” says Sushi Nakazawa owner Alessandro Borgognone. “It’s important to let your true personality shine through upon initial interaction with your guests. That way, they can feel like they are building a relationship with you, allowing them to trust in you that you will offer them the best experience possible.”

Ramaglia adds: “The success of any hospitality operation relies on repeat business. You must build relationships through creating value and establishing trust.”

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