Everyone knows formal meetings are only one facet of conducting business at major markets like Junior and MIPCOM. People in this industry are an amicable (if not gregarious) bunch, and many find themselves on the receiving end of a seemingly endless succession of invitations to social events during the month of October. However, much depends on drinks and dinner. For as fun and un-businesslike as cocktail parties and group dinners often seem, they play an integral part in building the relationships that might just help you seal your next big deal. Committing social gaffes of the ‘I can’t believe how rude that was’ variety may break a deal before it even gets anywhere near being on the table. You have to bring your A-game. So with that in mind, we’ve turned to a few etiquette experts and market veterans to divulge strategies for making it through cocktails and dinners with your dignity and business intact.
License to eat, revoked
The number-one purpose of cocktail parties is to provide a networking opportunity. So upon entering one, it’s no time to be Shrimpy McEats-A-Lot. You’re there to meet new people, not hang out at the hors d’ouevres table, scarfing back seafood, quaffing wine and gossiping with someone you already know. ‘Walk into the party tall,’ says Adeodata Czink. The president of Toronto, Canada’s 20-year-old etiquette firm, The Business of Manners, adds, ‘Keep what you want to get out of the party and who you are aiming to meet top of mind.’
Once in the door, gladly don the name tag that awaits you and then make your arrival known to the organizer. At this point, you can also ask the host to make some introductions for you, suggests Lew Bayer, partner at Winnipeg, Canada-based The Civility Group, which offers cross-country business etiquette courses with names like ‘How Not to be a Cocktail Weenie.’ Let him/her know the kinds of industry folk you’re looking to meet, which should help you ease into the practice of making cold introductions on your own.
Whatever you do, don’t get sidetracked by the free food and booze. While that deep-red cherry tomato appetizer may seem deliciously innocent, Czink says, ‘It’s a monster’ waiting to attack your clothes and leave an embarrassing stain in its wake. Sure, you can eat – after all, there’s all that food floating around on servers’ trays – but the etiquette expert says you should limit yourself to one-bite appies, more than that and you’ll be stuck with a gob full of food at an inopportune moment. Furthermore, avoid awkward snacks like meat on a stick; they’re more than a mouthful, and you’re usually left wandering aimlessly for what seems like hours wielding a naked, pointy stick that has now become a weapon in a crowded room. Phyllo-filled treats are also a no-go, as anyone who’s ever worked the room covered in flaky pastry shards will tell you.
On the drink side, Czink says it’s polite to take a glass of vino, but put a limit on consumption. She notes for women, in particular, there’s a double standard. ‘If a woman gets obviously drunk, she can never recover her reputation.’ And when you have the glass in hand, opt for stemware (it doesn’t tend to get your hands wet with condensation) and keep one hand free at all times for handshakes and business card presentation.
Come here often?
As for striking up conversation, it’s best to approach people who seem to be between meetings. Barging into a chatty clatch isn’t a good idea, and once you’ve made your move, leading with, ‘Do you come here often, big boy?’ is even worse. The simpler the opening line, the better. Czink says you need not utter anything more elaborate than ‘Hello, I don’t believe we’ve met. My name is…’ And at that point, she says, you immediately have several possible topics to carry the conversation, including your connection to the host, your purpose for being at the party, and the general ambience of the room. Additionally, says Bayer, you should be ready to state your name, title, company and give a short description of what it is you do.
During the chat, it’s important to focus on the other person and make eye contact. For you Crackberry addicts out there, it means putting your PDA and/or cell phone to sleep. Answering a call or eyeing incoming email at this juncture is ‘like blowing your nose in front of the person, extremely rude,’ says Bayer.
That initial 30- to 45-second intro should be enough to determine whether or not you’ve made a desired connection, and the conversation doesn’t have to be needlessly drawn out as it wastes everyone’s time. To extricate yourself (and this goes for any length of chat), don’t lie and say you have to go to the bathroom – just offer your hand to shake and say, ‘It was a pleasure to meet you.’ At this point, you can also give the person your card. Be sure to present it so the print is right-side up for the receiver. More often than not, you’ll get one in return, but if the gesture isn’t reciprocated, just carry on to the next person. And as the party winds down, be sure to scout out the host and thank him/her for inviting you.
Dinner is served
Many of the same rules apply to business dinners, but as befits their more formal and longer-lasting nature, dress, behavior and conversation should get turned up a notch. Again, the meal is about building relationships and dealing with the business at hand; the setting and food served are secondary.
If you have any dietary issues, be sure to inform the host well in advance of the meal. Don’t, under any circumstances, complain of your ailments at the table, says Bayer. Additionally, don’t view the invite as an opportunity to gorge yourself on someone else’s tab.
Once seated, take cues from the host. Usually, Bayer says, the host will convey their spending limit in myriad subtle ways. For example, he/she may recommend a few dishes from the restaurant’s menu as excellent, and this should give you an idea of what he/she is prepared to spend on the meal. If the host says, ‘Everything is fantastic,’ you’re being given carte blanche, but Bayer recommends refraining from ordering the most expensive item on the menu; it just makes you look greedy.
Ordering food that you intend to save for a doggy bag also comes off badly. In fact, doggy bags/leftovers are to be avoided altogether. ‘I’ve known people to even ask for an extra portion to take home for their spouse/partner,’ says Bayer. ‘It’s rude to order food that you will not eat in the company of the host and to take advantage of someone else’s hospitality and pocketbook.’
Finally on the supping portion of supper, mind your manners, just as your mother told you. It’s not necessary to be schooled in the arcane arts of dining or the use of rare implements such as escargot tongs, but you have to make an effort. That means no taking calls during dinner and no slurping, burping, chewing loudly or with your mouth open and shoveling food into your cake hole at a velocity to rival the TGV on a trip from Paris to Lyons. Dining pace should be measured, and you should attempt to match that of your companions.
In good company
Certainly, socializing is the centerpiece of the evening. Neil Court, long-time MIPCOM attendee and partner at Toronto, Canada’s Decode Entertainment, likes to bring like-minded people from different companies together at the dinner table, especially program buyers.
‘They always want to meet people who buy similar shows, and it makes for a more interesting and relaxed evening,’ he says. Moreover, Court adds, the host must make an effort not to overwhelm guests with too many reps from their own company. ‘I was invited to a dinner once with seven people from the host’s company, and one from the client’s; it’s so intimidating,’ he says. ‘A ratio of two to one is a good rule of thumb, especially when you’re dealing with people new to the kids business.’
And you need to keep the business talk to a minimum as no one wants to be at the boring end of the table at a three-hour dinner. ‘Pitching an entire show during dinner is not advisable,’ says Robby London, EVP of creative affairs at Burbank, California-based DIC Entertainment. ‘I really enjoy getting to know the people I’m with, and want a good portion of the conversation to turn to non-business topics.’ Similarly, Court says, ‘Be prepared to talk about something other than shop.’ And if you’re dining with an international crowd, make an effort to come to the dinner knowing something about the other countries represented at the table. ‘It makes you a hell of a lot more interesting,’ he explains, ‘and it’s flattering to your guests.’
The experts agree. Both Bayer and Czink suggest boning up on current events so you’re able to start conversations and ask questions to keep them moving. It’s also wise to have a small repertoire of clean yet humorous anecdotes at the ready to fill any conversation gaps. Subjects to be avoided at all costs, especially with new business acquaintances, include your sex life, partisan politics and religion. And Czink cautions that too many references to extended family, the kids or grandchildren ‘can become quite tedious.’
So you’ve had a great evening and everyone’s happy, relaxed and full. The only thing left to deal with is that pink elephant in the room, the cheque. As a rule, the person who issues the invitations pays. Czink says the best thing to do is arrange pre-payment or at least make sure the bill never shows up at the table. If it’s a group dinner where people are picking up their own portion of the tab, be sure to pitch in your fair share, and that includes a healthy allowance for the tip/gratuity. Failure to do so means the last person at the table will be stuck covering the outstanding amount, and no one wants a reputation for being stingy.
Finally, to insure you leave the meal in good standing, be sure to thank the host and extend handshakes to the others at the table. Also, if you suggested setting up a meeting, passing on a name or sending some information during the course of the evening, make sure you deliver on your promises as promptly as you can.
Now go out and get those pre-market haircuts and manicures to complement the etiquette tune up, you’ve got parties to attend and new crowds to woo.