Along with all my travel, I go to a lot of group dinners; usually around 40 people. At these dinners, generally, there are quite a few social media folks and people in startups (no one person is going to pick up the bill, unlike a banking dinner). I love the thought of getting together with a large group for dinner, but really, the dinners are always a mess.
The restaurants are not used to big tables, this results in slow meals, quite a bit of waiting (while everyone is hungry). You only get to talk to the people around you (5 people, three across from you, one to your right and one to your left) and splitting the bill is painful. The dinner usually lasts over three hours, and people leave somewhat frustrated and tired from some of the stresses.
I put myself through college working in fine dining, and with all that time, I have developed quite a few theories on dining, and in turn, think I know how to do this table of 40.
So here is my modest proposal, if you are going to a group dinner, don’t, and this is a sincere please, don’t, ask for a table for 40. Instead, go ten four tops. Picture the night in three steps:
5:30-6: Gather the group. Get drinks in the bar area. If you go early in the night, one or two bartenders are working, and should be able to focus on the group without having too many tables to deal with. Pay for your drinks at the bar when your purchase them, tip the bartender.
6 -7:15: Migrate to the dining room in groups of four. This shouldn’t be done all at once, and should happen in a somewhat random way (ask the host or hostess to pick the groups naturally, seating them one group at a time until all the groups are seated). Because you are 10 groups, you will have the entire staff working on your party, instead of just the section your big table is. Ordering can be quick, for both drinks and food. Four is the average table size, so cooking your food and getting it to your table is quick. Talk to the three other people in your group, you have an hour to go into some topics. Share and learn. Enjoy the food and wine. When you are done, split the meal fairly. Splitting the bill 4 ways equally is what I usually try to do, and should not be a huge inconvenience to the server (whereas, splitting the bill 40 ways with one server is a monumental pain in the ass). Tip well, and say thank you to your server and the manager if you see them.
7:30: Gather in the bar again, make plans to go out for more drinks, an activity, or keep hanging out. Everyone will finish their meal at different times, so getting a drink at the bar will be quick and painless. Pay for your drink as you get it. Meet people that you have not met, and make introductions of people that you had the opprotunity to spend an hour with with people you already know. Dinner has taken two hours instead of three, everyone has had a much better experience, with time set aside for real conversation and general networking.
That is my idea for better conference dinners. Next time you are in that weird situation, you can suggest this method, and let me know how it works.
Remember to call a day or more ahead, saying you would like to reserve 8-12 tables for four, seated in different sections.