The 20-something's guide to arranging and executing a successful business dinner | Katie Proctor


I spent the last six days in New Orleans supporting a long-time client at a food technology convention. Busy schedules and broken bones among our team meant that this particular convention would be staffed by me and another junior level person. We never doubted our ability to take on IFT, but were eager to prove that our supervisors’ trust was deserved.

 Our biggest curve ball might surprise you. It wasn’t coordinating shipments and logistics for the event, scheduling media interviews with our client or even the four hours it took to assemble a modular booth. It was, in fact, arranging and hosting a group dinner last Sunday. These details are generally taken care of by those who have been in “the real world” for quite some time, and leading the way would be a first for both of us. So listen up, young professionals, this is how it’s done!

Where to dine

As a group focused on food and nutrition, we pride ourselves on arranging the ultimate dining experience for our team, clients and other guests.

 A few tips on finding the hidden gems:

  • Start early. Especially when large conventions roll into town, the best places fill up fast. The larger group you have, the more challenging it will be to secure a reservation.
  • Be in tune to client preferences. The convention ends at 5 – would everyone prefer a little free time before a late dinner or is 9pm past their bedtime? Trust me, that’s often the only time slot left for large groups.
  • Remember that others have likely traveled more than you. This probably isn’t your group’s first time to (insert popular city) so consider alternatives to the “obvious” hot spots.
  • Contact a local for recommendations. One of the perks of working for a global agency is the large network we can rely on for those who have been there, done that. We also tend to start with recent and previous James Beard award winners.
  • Keep your budget in mind (duh). That’s a good question for more senior people on your team.
  • Will the restaurant require hailing a cab or is it within walking distance? That will also factor into your budget and your group’s comfort level. New Orleans was hot and humid during our stay!

 In case you’re curious, we ended up at Domenica, a Chef John Besh restaurant tucked inside the elegant Roosevelt hotel. Rumor has it The Color Purple cast enjoyed dining there on occasion!

 What to order

Your office may have a set per diem for business travel or (like mine) lists an acceptable range for meals in cities of varying size. Be sure you are familiar with any set guidelines. On these trips, I take my cue from others and prefer to be the last to order. I don’t want to take my chances ordering a first and second course if the majority sticks to a main entrée. We generally order a few appetizers to pass around the table (one for every 3-4 people) and a few bottles of wine. Be sure to let the waitress know, preferably before being seated, who the “host” will be, and allow them to choose the wine. Our favorites at Italian-inspired Domenica included the pork belly pizza, squid ink pasta and creamy ricotta dip. As a dietitian’s rule of thumb for dining at fabulous restaurants – try everything put in front of you. But remember, it’s just a sampling, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to eat every bite of every course. And I definitely don’t recommend trying everything at “average” restaurants!

 Who pays

Uh oh. Do not, I repeat do not, be caught off guard with this. Speak with your supervisor before even heading to the airport – they understand the nuances of individual clients. More than likely, there is a “protocol” in place. If you forget to do that, here are a few tips:

  • Particularly if you made the dinner reservations, err on the side of taking the bill. And no need for the bill to ever reach the table – step aside at some point during the meal and pay for it discretely up front.
  •  If you decide not to pay discretely, at least let the server know to whom he/she can deliver the check. There’s nothing worse than the awkward moment when it is presented at the table and no one knows who’s paying. If the check is placed on the table and there are no signs of anyone stepping up to the plate after about five minutes, go ahead and grab it.
  • Before leaving a tip, check to see if gratuity is already included, especially for larger parties. You don’t want to realize later that you overpaid and have to call the restaurant to explain your oversight. If not included, 20% is standard.

 I had no idea something seemingly simple would actually be this complex. From the pressure of choosing an “it” restaurant to entertaining the parties in attendance, business dinners are no easy task. And that’s without even touching traditional dining etiquette!

Any key learnings from recent business meals? Even if you disagree with my tips, would love to hear your perspective.