A client appreciation dinner is a beautiful thing. There’s food and wine and balloons and maybe a small token of appreciation. Somebody makes a speech that mentions “paradigm shift” 31 times and everyone falls asleep. Sometime between the main course and the cheesecake, the phones come out.
Then, one by one, the whole room checks out … and you think to yourself, maybe there’s a better way.
There is. Client appreciation dinners have a plan built right into the title: Show some appreciation. Dinner is nice. A private room in a super fancy restaurant is even nicer, but you can still level up.
Take Some Tips from Pop-ups
Pop-ups are impromptu restaurants designed to showcase the talents of their progenitor. Whether it’s a local chef showing off some skills or a mixologist throwing down with the spirits, they have one goal in common: to entertain the guests so well they really, really want to come back.
The same tricks that make a great pop-up great will make your event a spectacular success.
In full disclosure, this author has managed nearly two dozen pop-ups in Chicago. (“Eating Vincent Price” was a luxurious dinner party developed from the rare cookbook authored by the famous actor. “The Oxford English Dictionary” was an irregular cocktail party featuring emerging Chicago novelists.)
Location, Location, Location
A swanky restaurant is definitely a good idea, but you can level up by moving it to that restaurant’s private party room. More than likely, they’ll have a package deal that comes with a bartender and servers so your dinner morphs into a party immediately.
A stand-alone room is an even better choice. Look for creative spaces with kitchens and the ability to serve booze (although if they can’t, a caterer or a private chef often travels with a temporary license for one-time events). Such spaces pull the dinner out of the same old, presenting something unique — and by default, assigning the same descriptor to your business.
- Where to find them. Private event spaces are multiuse. The same charm and decor of a great wedding reception room make a great pop-up.
- Budget tips. Startup galleries and creative spaces are always ready for a booking. Google “creative space,” “rent gallery” or “artist loft.” And don’t discount Airbnb’s usefulness. Many of those properties offer party decks, balcony dinner spaces and truly unique locations.
Client Dinner Private Chef Bonanza
Hire a private chef for your client dinner. It sounds extravagant — and it probably will be. But if your chef nails it, your clients will be forever wowed.
Chicago’s Aram Reed has cooked for the Chicago Bulls, Chelsea Handler and Anthony Bourdain. His advice for finding a chef is perfunctory but spot on: Check out their website, click through to their social media streams. See how they’ve been working so far for other clients. More importantly, says Reed: “Has this chef been professionally trained? This isn’t Uber, not everyone that owns an apron can now be a chef.”
- Where to find them. Search for personal or private chefs in your metro area. Ask your favorite chef. If she doesn’t have a side hustle as a personal chef, she’ll recommend someone who does.
- What to look for. Glowing reviews. Pictures of well-plated food. Emblems and certificates from culinary schools.
- Budget tips. When you ask your favorite chef for a recommendation, be clear about your budget. She probably knows chefs who work at various price points, including a new guy who’s just trying to make a name for himself.
Mix It Up with a Mixologist
A mixologist is not a bartender, though most mixologists tend bar. A mixologist is to making drinks what Guy Fieri is to making sandwiches. A good mixologist will interview you about your client and event, talk to you about your budget, be clear about costs, and let you know what staff they’ll bring. They’ll send you a list of drinks to choose from or maybe create custom cocktails that you can name to add fun to your dinner.
If your client doesn’t drink or has staff who don’t consume alcohol, a mixologist can create sodas, punches or juices that are just as awesome as their boozy drinks.
- Where to find them. You can Google “mixologists” in your area. However, Lauren Parton says there’s a better way. “Just ask your favorite barkeep, or if you just know a good bar where the drinks are cool, buy a drink and ask.” Your bartender might run a side business as a personal mixologist, or will know someone who’s a perfect fit.
- What to look for. If you’re sitting at their bar, ask for a killer drink. A great mixologist will ask you a few questions to develop a taste profile, then whip together something amazing.
- Budget tips. Just pay for two custom drinks and maybe one non-alcoholic beverage. Then pad the bar with beer and wine.
Take Pictures or It Didn’t Happen
Instead of an inexpensive table gift, how about incredible pictures of the evening sent right to your client’s inbox? Hiring a photographer is a simple, affordable way to commemorate the event — and take away priceless marketing collateral for yourself.
A wedding photographer might be a good bet here since candid shots in somewhat random situations are their bread and butter. But they aren’t framing for publication or for use in a brochure. So, you are better off with a commercial event photographer. They shoot concerts, conferences and everything else.
Lorenzo Tassone shoots in Chicago. He emphasizes the importance of pictures for marketing a business and building relationships: “I can’t even begin to explain how important photography is to biz these days. From simple headshots to social media to client outreach. Photos tell a story that oftentimes gets lost in words. That is why event photography is so important, and why having social media tie-ins (like designated hashtags) is critical.”
Your photographer is not there to take a group picture for the newsletter — and that’s not what you’re paying him for. You’re paying for their vision — the weird gift a skilled photographer has for being able to recognize and capture a priceless moment.
- Where to find them. Instagram. Try searching #explorechicago or #explorenyc. Google “event photographer” with your city or ZIP code. If you see work you love from other events you’ve attended, find out whose work it is.
- What to look for. Awesome pictures. They should really knock you out. You should know instantly if you like their style. Look for someone whose work speaks to your client, to your client’s business, and to the vibe you’re looking for at the dinner.
- Budget tip. A fun way to loop social media sharing into the party is to have a social photo booth. You can rent a real one, but it’s just as easy and budget-friendly to use an existing blackboard or whiteboard as a background for selfies. Guests can grab a piece of chalk or a dry-erase marker and have a blast with speech bubbles and hashtags. Get the story started in the right direction by including your preferred hashtag before guests arrive.
The Point? Bringing It All Together
Once you have the event plan and people in place, don’t leave your client contact out of the loop. Bring them in early. Let them know what you’re planning. Put them on a call with you and the private chef and let them talk about a menu. Same with the mixologist. This builds excitement for the event, but it also makes your client more vested in the process and deepens the relationship.
Besides, whether a dinner or sporting event, you don’t want to risk planning something that could make the client uncomfortable.
Some hard-earned lessons in pop-uppery have been obtained through the tried-and-true method of failingly spectacularly. A few closing reminders:
- Have a checklist for every step of the event, especially for the day of. (I’ll never forget running out to get napkins for 165 guests while the kitchen was plating the amuse bouche. My heart’s still racing.) Include the manufactured moments you think are worthy.
- Treat your VIP guests like they matter. Introduce the VIPs to your chef and your mixologist. Introduce your photographer, too, and say, “I want to see a lot of pictures of these folks.” It doesn’t hurt to have a few publicity shots lined up. Remember, if your client is OK with it, you can use some of the photos on your website and printed marketing materials.
- Always remember you’re the host. Just like the owner of an exclusive restaurant, you’re the face of the event. Keep your eye on the room. Don’t let yourself morph into a guest and lose focus. Get out into the room and shake hands. Introduce people. If you see someone hanging by themselves, go talk to them and make introductions. Don’t leave anyone hanging.
- Not every fire is yours to put out. Something will go wrong (see napkins, above), but that doesn’t mean you have to solve every problem. If there’s an issue with the food, that’s the chef’s job. You’re not just paying for the food, you’re paying for their years of experience in the weeds.
The most important benefit of better client dinners is the intangibles. Your client and their employees will talk about this dinner for weeks after. Every time they do, they’ll mention your name and they’ll sing your praises.
More Tips for Mastering Social Situations
- Avoiding Dining Table Faux Pas by Teddy Snyder
- How to Work the Room at Networking Events by Sally Schmidt
- How to Not Talk Politics and Survive by Bull Garlington
- Have We Met? Mastering the Meet-and-Greet by Mike O’Horo
- Big Ideas for Small Talk
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