Every event you put on for others is an opportunity to create an indelible impression—a special moment—in the minds of others. Even tired and jaded businesspeople who attend a lot of business networking events enjoy social gatherings that feature a festive atmosphere, a few surprises, warm hospitality, good food, and the opportunity to enjoy company.
Entertaining is about making others feel special at business events you host. It's therefore important to dive into your hosting role with gusto, extending the welcome mat to people as they arrive, exuding warmth and hospitality, setting the tone for why people are together, and describing what the evening is all about. If you decide to have a"theme" for the evening—for example,"Select Wines of the New World/Old World"—share this with attendees and explain the fun way people will be introduced to different wines and foods over the course of their evening together. To prepare for your social responsibilities as a entertainer, consider taking a wine and food course to learn more about the culinary arts and the finer points of entertaining others.
A sommelier or wine merchant will be very knowledgeable about wine and will be able to help you design unique wine and food pairings to feature at your dinner or reception. You may also want to retain a caterer and engage your corporate support staff to coordinate event logistics, develop invitation lists, send invitations, and determine specific menus, timing, and other details.
At many corporate events the only alcoholic beverages people serve are cheap, garden-variety brands of Chardonnay, Cabernet, or Merlot. It's the same boring stuff you'd find in any hotel minibar or on any short-haul domestic airline flight! So why not be more imaginative? Instead of everyday Chardonnay and Merlot, offer people Sauvignon Blanc (Sancerre), Tempranillo (Rioja), Sangiovese (Chianti), and other wines that go well with specific foods.
Ever enjoyed a night of dining in a three-star restaurant in France? On arrival, the waiter or waitress typically brings you an extraordinarily scrumptious little morsel of something the French call an amuse-gueule, or palate tickler. People are so hungry when they first arrive that downing this tiny tidbit makes a hugely positive impression. The French, who are masters of entertaining and the culinary arts, know this. So they give diners what is arguably the best thing they'll have all night at the beginning of the evening. It then sets the tone for the entire meal to come.
You should do the same thing. Most people will arrive for your event coming from work, and perhaps after running around at the office all day. They're likely to be famished. So instead of offering them mixed nuts, pretzels, raw vegetables, and potato chips like everybody else does, serve them small sampler portions of foods like Scottish smoked salmon, foie gras, or, perhaps my favorite appetizer of all, jamón ibérico de bellota, a kind of Spanish ham that looks like prosciutto but is far more exotic.
Wine pairings can take many forms. You could, for example, do a side-by-side blind comparison of a good wine ($15 a bottle) and a very good wine ($35 a bottle) and see how people distinguish the flavor of one from the other. Or you could serve a Cabernet from France and one from California to illustrate how geography influences winemaking styles and taste. Or you could serve up the same wine from two different vintages to demonstrate the significance of vintage variation to a wine's flavor. Do two to four side-by-side comparisons of wines throughout an evening (followed by complementary food items and/or dinner courses), moving from reds to whites to dessert wines.
Serving two wines simultaneously melts the ice and helps people mingle. I've done these pairings hundreds of times with groups of different sizes, and it injects a whole new social dimension into an evening, as people ponder what they've tasted and chat about it with their fellow guests. Doing such comparisons is also a great way to broaden people's taste repertoires, and they will thank you for this at the end of the evening because you're giving them something tangible that they can take back and share with their own friends and colleagues!
Do a side-by-side tasting of a cheese at different ages. You could have people taste a young Parmesan cheese (6 months old) next to an old Parmesan (18 months) and a very old Parmesan (30 months). Do comparison tastings like this, and you'll be introducing people to the incredible evolution of flavors and textures that occurs in the cheese aging process.
Yes, I know this runs counter to most people's thinking, but you want to guard against overchilling your white wines and serving your red wines too warm. White wines are often served too cold, especially in the United States. However, a white wine's subtle aromatics (floral and fruity notes) are anesthetized at refrigerator temperatures. So take your white wines out of the refrigerator about 20 minutes before you want to serve them.
Conversely, red wines often are not served chilled enough. Their "finish" can thus be a bit harsh, even caustic to the taste, if served at room temperature. To remove this edge, chill your red wines for about 20 minutes before you want to serve them to guests. This will give them the proper balance and fruit intensity when served. To help you maintain the proper temperatures of your wines, you may want to invest in a digital wine thermometer. The proper temperature for whites is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit and for reds, about 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Too often I've been to business events where the designated "host" of the evening didn't do a very good job of mingling with others, introducing guests to one another, and making everyone in attendance feel special. This is more important than you can imagine. Many people dread the thought of going to business events that involve a social component. And many people get nervous when entering a room full of people they don't know or don't know well. Surprisingly, even very senior-level people may be ill at ease when around others in social situations. Be conscious of this make efforts when hosting events to help people mingle. If necessary, enlist colleagues to help you with this.
Entertaining can, in a very real sense, be an extension of your current marketing and business development efforts and give your clients and prospects a very positive "brand experience" of you, your firm, and your commitment to building and sustaining a strong business relationship with them.
Adapted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Power Entertaining: Secrets to Building Lasting Relationships, Hosting Unforgettable Events, and Closing Big Deals from America's 1st Master Sommelier by Eddie Osterland. Copyright (c) 2012 by Eddie Osterland. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.
Eddie Osterland is an expert in food and wine. Eddie holds a Diplôme Universitaire d'Aptitude à la Dégustation (DUAD) from the Université de Bordeaux in Bordeaux, France. He has given workshops on entertaining to clients like General Mills, GE, Ford, and American Express for more than 25 years.
[Image: Flickr user Longhorndave]