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Really good service isn’t a feature of an event like a three-course meal or after-dinner speaker; it’s the glue that holds the whole thing together. So why do so many organisers leave staffing to the last minute, or cut corners by, say, whistling up some junior staff to pour drinks? Professional staff will, for example, run a tight (and sober) bar operation rather than just distractedly sloshing wine around. They will have the health and safety training required by many venues, or the security checks a high-profile guest list demands. Even at small, low-key events, your first port of call, early in the planning process, should be an event staffing agency with a blue-chip client list, ready recommendations and a training programme in place.
Determining the number of staff you need at an event is not as simple as a straight head count of your guest list. When you’re sounding out your staffing agency, approach them with a clear set of objectives for your event: who you’re hosting (clients, staff, local dignitaries etc), what you’d like to serve, the level of formality and overall look you’re expecting and the duration of the event. At a conference for 500 people with a 45-minute window for lunch, quantity and efficiency are paramount, whereas high-level client entertaining will demand a smaller team who can engage with guests during service.
As a rule of thumb, one staff member will be able to look after a table of 10 guests for food or 30 guests for drinks. The bigger your budget, the more specialist staff you’ll be able to afford, so if you don’t have a bottomless fund, keep service simple: pre-mixed drinks or sparkling wine on arrival and plated food rather than a cocktail bar and silver service.
Guests should go home with a good overall picture of the event rather than key moments, but there are points at which service is exposed: arrival and departure in particular. If six coach-loads of party-goers will be stampeding through the doors at 7pm sharp, you need to have the resources to take coats and bags efficiently – that means no-one waiting longer than five minutes – and provide them with drinks as soon as they’re de-cloaked. Bear in mind that if it’s a Friday night, if it’s a black-tie dinner or if they’re coming straight from work, guests will have more bags with them – make sure your cloakroom has space. Likewise, nothing kills the mood like joining a mile-long queue to retrieve your coat when the party ends, so ensure that your venue and staffing supplier are clued up on cloakroom management before booking.
Thorough briefing makes a big difference to the confidence of waiting staff on the night. As well, of course, as the timings of service, a run-through of each dish on the menu – more thoroughly for higher-end dining – and the wines (where they come from, whether they’re dry or sweet, light or full-bodied, floral or flinty) should be delivered pre-event. Arm staff with answers for questions guests might ask them: the location of the loos, cloakroom and smoking area, for example. They’ll also need a safety briefing on the position of the fire exits and procedures in the event of an evacuation.
This article was first published in Square Meal Venues & Events Guide 2013.