From company parties to friends and family soirees, the holidays are the busiest time of the year for private events and banquets. We talked to the teams at two very different concepts that consistently pull off standout private events: Stephen Lee, the Private Dining Manager at San Francisco’s Perbacco, and Chef Thomas Bellec at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. Here are their top tips for executing memorable holiday events that keep guests coming back.
1. Cater to the business crowd
Throughout the year restaurants host a mix of corporate and personal private events. But during the holidays, Stephen says, most of the events are booked by companies and businesses. In fact, he estimates 90% of his event business is corporate parties this time of year.
Since the restaurant is located downtown in San Francisco’s financial district, Perbacco has the advantage of convenience. Stephen is constantly engaging with regular guests who come into the restaurant, letting them know about private dining options, and making personal visits with management teams to stay on their radars.
2. Communicate constantly with guests
Maintaining communication with customers from start to finish is critical to pulling off a successful event. For Stephen, that begins with a prompt response — he’s diligent about following up on inquiries as quickly as possible because he knows guests can be anxious about booking locations.
“Securing a space is the most important part for them,” he says. “If I don’t get them, somebody else is going to get them.”
Thomas meets with customers for personalized tastings to nail down the menu. His key to success, he says, is to “be a good listener.” By asking questions and taking the time to understand exactly what the guest is looking for, you’ll set yourself up for success. For example, if they ask for seabass, be sure to clarify whether they want striped bass or Chilean seabass so they aren’t disappointed on the big day. Be as specific as possible so you can deliver a great experience.
3. Plan and prepare
At the Beverly Wilshire, Thomas has a dedicated catering department that books events, works with him on the food, and delivers a banquet event order that sums up the event flow, setup and menu. Thomas and his team handle the ordering, staffing and scheduling. He works closely with his banquet chef to talk through the menu, taking pictures of each dish to distribute to the kitchen team so they know exactly what to expect.
“In catering, 75 percent of your success is in the planning,” he says. “It’s all about organization, planning and ordering — if all of that is flawless, the execution of your event will be flawless as well.”
At Perbacco, Stephen handles all private event inquiries himself, as well as ongoing communication with customers. He works with guests to plan the menus, creates the order sheets, and communicates details to the kitchen.
4. Create a menu you feel confident in
Perbacco offers seasonal, prix fixe, plated menus as part of their event packages, so customers can select from a few different options. Generally, menus are three or four courses with a choice of entree and a white, red and sparkling wine — and most guests are more than happy to use the suggested format.
Of the 60 parties that are booked for December, Stephen says 20% want him to set up the menu, select the wines, and simply send everything along for approval. Having a predictable menu that the team knows how to execute makes it easy to delight guests.
At the Beverly Wilshire, Thomas creates more customized menus for guests, which often involves a good bit of homework when he’s unfamiliar with a dish or other request. During tastings, he asks questions to make sure the menu is up to their expectations. A successful menu, he says, is one he feels confident he and his team can deliver 150 percent.
5. Guide customers in their decisions
To delight guests, it’s equally important to offer your expertise as it is to listen to them. Thomas says some guests come in knowing exactly what they want their menu and event to be, but it’s immediately clear to him when the wish lists don’t match up. If a guest only has an hour and a half but asks for a four-course menu for 500 people, alarm bells start to ring.
In those scenarios, he says, don’t be afraid to share your knowledge and experiences to guide guests to their best possible experience. Tell them what you’ve seen in the past and the lessons you’ve learned along the way. Make your expert recommendations for the best courses of action. “This is my responsibility,” says Thomas.
6. Build a team you can trust
Executing private events is infinitely easier when you are working with a team of people you can trust. Thomas has only been working with his team for a year and a half, and now they’re starting to think alike; the banquet chef and kitchen team know what he’s looking for, and they are all learning and moving forward together.
“I know I can trust them and everything will be done perfectly to the T,” he says. “We have the same view and we know the expectations.”
Thomas has dedicated banquet staff strictly for private events, but when it comes down to crunch time, everyone pitches in. Staff members come in from the restaurants to help plate and serve — all hands on deck, in the front and back of the house.
At Perbacco, the same service staff from the restaurant dining room also executes private events, so everyone is cross-trained to do both.
“I don’t believe in having one person being designated to work in one department only,” says Stephen. “I really think that if you work in a restaurant you should know the whole restaurant, rather than one little corner.”
7. Nurture relationships with customers
Although the Beverly Wilshire promotes their restaurants heavily, most of the marketing on the catering side is word of mouth. Guests attend events and are impressed with the food and experience, which makes them want to host their own functions there.
At both the Beverly Wilshire and Perbacco, many of the private events are repeat events, which people book every year. Stephen makes a point to visit customers personally or send out emails to maintain contact. He also reads the restaurant’s reservation books every day, and when he sees a familiar name he’ll swing by the table to say hello. By building relationships and following up with guests, he sets the team up for a busy, successful holiday events season year after year.