Business meals: The art of hosting - and being a guest

From invitations to farewells: How to master business lunches with style and success.

Catherine Tenger
Tempo di lettura
5 minuto
 Baz Luhrman's "The Great Gatsby" movie scene: Gatsby leads his guests through the party hall
Business dinners may not be lavish house parties, but still: Jay Gatsby is probably one of the best known hosts in the history of literature - and cinema. Baz Luhrman's "The Great Gatsby" starring Leonardo di Caprio and Carey Mulligan. © Warner Bros. Pictures/ KEYSTONE/Everett Collection

Business lunches and dinners are more than just meals. They are an opportunity for two people to communicate, a bridge between a formal encounter and a social one, and a kind of social glue. It’s during these kinds of meals that people connect, build trust and can have informal conversations. And they often mark the beginning of a successful business relationship. 

If you would like to create an ideal atmosphere for your next business meal, one that is both professional and personal, factors such as the choice of restaurant, seating arrangements, etiquette and conversation are all key. Read on to find out how to make sure your meal will be a success.

The art of being a host: Preparation is everything

Here are some tips on how to be an excellent host at your next business meal – whether you dine at an elegant gourmet restaurant or a laid-back eatery.

  1. The reason for the invitation
    Be transparent from the outset and let your guest know why you are inviting them. Clear communication is the first step to ensuring the experience is a relaxed one. So whether you have extended the invitation as a thank you, or because you would like to discuss something business related, let the other person know. As the host, you should take the lead. This also means that if the conversation needs to shift from friendly small talk to work-related matters, you should be the one to do so.
  2. No experiments
    When choosing a restaurant, stick to places you know well. This is important because if you are familiar with the restaurant, you will know what the acoustics are like and what the specialties are. Having this information will enable you to take the lead. 

    Movie scene from The Great Gatsby: A lunch date for four
    To invite or to be invited: Gatsby may be a better host than guest. Scene from Baz Luhrman's "The Great Gatsby". © Warner Bros. Pictures/ KEYSTONE/Everett Collection
  3. Arrive early
    Go to the restaurant a bit ahead of schedule to see where your table is and say a friendly hello to the wait staff. This small gesture will be well received and, in most cases, will result in even better service. You can also use this time to take care of a few organisational details, such as how you would like to pay for the meal, whether you will require assistance when selecting the wine or if you or your guest have any time constraints. By making these arrangements ahead of time, you will be able to give your guest your full attention during the meal.
  4. Decide where you would like to be seated
    When you look at the table, think about where you want your guest to sit. You should be strategic when choosing your own spot, and ensure you will be able to make eye contact with the wait staff at all times. Apart from that, your guest should have the best spot; the one that has the best view, is easiest to access or is the most comfortable.
  5. Order with confidence
    Help your guest choose their meal by giving them a few recommendations and letting them know what you will be having. This will provide them with helpful cues in terms of the budget and the number of courses. As the host, you should also order and taste the wine – unless your guest is a wine connoisseur. However, please bear in mind that if your guest orders the wine, you should not have a limited budget. 

The art of being a guest: Be empathetic and let your personality shine through 

How to be the perfect host or hostess is a frequently discussed topic – guests, however, often have just as many questions. Here are some tips.

What to avoid:

  1. Arriving too early
    It is important to be punctual, but it’s best not to arrive too early. Plan it so that you do not arrive at the restaurant before the agreed time. This will give the host the opportunity to make any final preparations.
  2. Acting on your own initiative
    Let the host take the lead at the restaurant, just like you would if you were invited to a dinner at their home. Do not order any additional dishes or wine, and do not call the wait staff over to the table.
  3. Hijacking the invitation
    Resist the urge to take control, even if you are more senior than your host. Let them take charge and generously accept their invitation.
Viriginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway welcoming her guests
For Viriginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, striving to be a perfect hostess is both a blessing and a curse. © KEYSTONE/United Archives/TopFoto

How to be an exemplary guest:

  1. Be polite but be yourself
    Experienced hosts often make the best guests, because they understand the dynamics. A good guest is polite and respectful while at the same time being genuine. They enhance the experience without being overpowering.
  2. Don’t be fussy
    Be decisive, especially when choosing dishes. If possible, look at the menu online before going to the restaurant so you can decide more quickly. If you are not sure what to pick but are flexible, you can order the same thing as the host.
  3. Express your appreciation
    After the meal, thank the host in a way that is personal and specific. Praise their choice of restaurant, mention some interesting topics that you discussed and let them know you enjoyed the time you spent with them. Personal and specific feedback is something a host will remember.

Business lunches and dinners are not just about food

Sharing a meal is an opportunity to learn more about the other person, about their values, their company, their culture and their interests. In many cultures, it is customary and sensible to talk about business only after the main course has been completed. Until that time, some good small talk is called for – because as the American actor Walter Matthau once observed, “For a good table conversation, it’s not so important what’s on the table, but what’s on the chairs.”

About the author

Catherine Tenger provides training and gives seminars on presentation skills and communication. She is the author of Format, a book about the qualities that make people charismatic and engaging, and how these can be developed.

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