Nothing sets the tone for a quality conversation more than the place. That means when picking the venue for your next meeting over a meal you need to think carefully as it communicates something about the nature of the meeting as well as your judgment. Should you pick your local bar, where everyone knows your name and the buffalo wings are to die for? Or should you hit the 14-course tasting menu at Chez Fifi which will set you back several sacks of gold? It depends.
The first thing to consider is the nature of the meeting you are about to have. That means the objective, the need for important conversations and how much you have developed the relationship. Here are a few of the most typical scenarios to give you a guide.
The first rule on an introductory meeting is not to overspend. This is not the time to try the place with the massive wine list. A more moderate place with great food and decent drinks is fine for dinner. It can be even better if you know it reasonably well and want to show off a favorite place as you open a new relationship. The noise level should be moderate to low. This is a time for conversation, sharing about families, hobbies, the basics of your businesses and potentially areas to work together. Alcohol consumption should be moderate. There is a modification to this rule and that is an introductory meal with a whale, someone with a stratospheric position that could make your career by signing a big contract or agreeing to a monster merger. Sometimes, you need to go high and hard just to get someone like that to a dinner, like a table at an impossible-to-get-into restaurant or the latest 2 Michelin starred restaurant in town. The level of your guest is important and if you are earlier in your career, you might want advice from someone more senior to make sure you are hitting the mark.
An interview is close to the introductory meeting for the location, except many times it will be lunch. That means you will be headed to the company cafeteria. In some cases, that is the actual company cafeteria and in others it is a local restaurant that is quiet, reasonably priced and frequented by people from that firm. Clearly no alcohol at lunch is the rule if you are in America, although this varies outside the country. I like to pick the special to make things easy if it is not a messy dish. This steps up a notch when you are doing an interview over dinner, but this is reserved for executives and people that will be dining with clients. The same rules apply for the place, moderate, limited wine list and quiet enough for conversation. If you are being interviewed, they are looking at what you say and what you do as I speak about in other places.
When in doubt for a down-the-middle-place, a chain steak house is almost always a decent bet. When I suggest chain steak houses, I do not mean Outback, Sizzler or Ponderosa, I mean Fleming’s or Ruth’s Chris or the like. While I have probably eaten a few cows in these places over my career, they are uniformly decent and while steak is featured, there other items for people that do not prefer beef. The ambiance is uniform and predictable, and the service is acceptable. As a guest, it is not time to go for the full Monty; on the food and wine, keep it reasonable.
Once a relationship has been established and that delicate dance is over, you can get more creative and the options open for a business meeting.
Restaurants are still a great option and it is a chance to show your colors. If you know a great place next to a comedy club, great option. If you are a foodie and know a wonderful new place with a fun wine list, game on. If you are a Korean BBQ or Ethiopian food fan and know the best place in the state, then you should head there. I tend to think of this as an opportunity to do something fun with a friend who I happen to do business with. Casual, fancy or in between, it is a about the shared experience more than the conversation when building a relationship.
A ball game is a great option for relationship building, especially if your new friend has a favorite team. Realize that even with great seats and food, you’ll still get away cheaper than a fancy restaurant dinner, so it is a great way to have a shared experience and chat for a few hours, especially if your team wins in a buzzer beater. Sometimes you will get value in just offering the game, even if they cannot come. I have a business associate that I have done business with for years that loves the Montreal Canadiens (a hockey team for some of you) and I have invited him to see them a few times in some great seats, to no avail. He appreciates the offer every time.
This can be a time to show your style a bit more and open even further. One great option if you enjoy entertaining and your significant other is game is to invite people to your home. It is a great chance to show off some culinary skills and open your wine cellar or show off your signature cocktail. This level of intimacy can drive a business relationship to whole new levels. Do not do this casually as it should be reserved for people you genuinely enjoy and with whom you want a long-term friendship.
Deal making or final contract negotiation requires special care in selecting the venue because communication is at a premium. You want a place that is quiet as a first need. Now that does not mean a place that is so terrible that no one goes there. It means a moderate to expensive place with tables spaced well apart, tablecloths, fabric on the wall and carpets to absorb the sound. If it is a critical meeting, I will head over before I book a table for the meeting to walk the room to see if it is acceptable. I might even talk to the host to inquire about the best quiet tables for a conversation. If you book using one of the on-line booking services, you can request a specific table number or generally ask for quiet table and they will usually accommodate. If you want the ultimate location for a deal negotiation, reserve a private room in a good restaurant. You will be assured of confidentiality and quiet for your conversations. There is a private room at a steakhouse locally frequented by business leaders and I would guess a few billion dollars of deals have been made in that room over the years.
Celebrating with your business partners is when the fun comes in. This could be a closing dinner on a complex transaction, a merger, celebrating a revenue milestone or perhaps completion of a massive contract in your joint venture. When it comes time to mark an occasion, you can get fancy and spend a bit of money. It is time to get one of the nice restaurants in town, select the wines off the reserve list, be sure to have some champagne, get the seafood tower for the table and dig into some great desserts. Work is waiting for you, so have some fun, enjoy the company, and fracture the budget a bit. Once again, private rooms are perfect if you are going to have a larger group and may make a few toasts. When you see those fun business dinners in advertisements, I usually imagine it is celebrating a big win with the team.