Keep your dinner on track!
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Cocktail Crash Course

Before an event program begins, there is always a period for networking and mingling.

Cocktail hour, Meet 'n' Greet, Schmooze Time, Smorgasbord...whatever you want to call it, it still needs to happen.

Here are some tips for planning your next event's cocktail hour.

Step & Repeat

While you may not have a literal Step-and-Repeat (that backdrop with logos or branding that people stand in front of to have their picture taken), the process of arriving is one to take seriously. Nothing makes people feel as glamorous as photographers clamoring to take their picture when they arrive. Don't let this cocktail hour go by without having photos taken of your guests and honorees.


Keep your eye out for anyone standing alone. You want all the guests to feel like they matter. If you see someone hugging the walls, go over and make an introduction. Before you even start the event, see if you can think of people who haven't met who might want to speak to each other. Folks from different industries or different regions might value the opportunity to connect outside their usual network.

Meet & Greet

The event is for fundraising, so don't forget to do just that. Make sure your honorees or key board members get introduced to donors and prospects. The mingling and chatting atmosphere of a cocktail hour puts people at ease - they're just part of the crowd, no spotlights - and people expect to have introductions made. It avoids the formality (even awkwardness) of a one-on-one meeting in the office.

Hold My Calls

Take this time to schedule an actual meeting. Do you have a major prospective donor who is attending? Set aside a more quiet space for them to meet with a director or board member. Make sure your board members and executive leadership are "at work" for this event - this event and the attendees should be the focus for your leaders. Treat it like a meeting. A really fun meeting with food and drink, but still a meeting.

Hands Free

Will there be wine? Will there be passed hors d'oeuvres? Will there be appetizer stations involving little plates? Will there be toothpicks clutched in scrunched-up cocktail napkins? Keep in mind that networking involves shaking hands and lots of talking. If you're planning on having a lot of food during this first period, make sure you have enough high-top tables around for folks to set down their drinks and plates, freeing hands for greetings (or check signing!).
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PDA can dish on how to make a great event!

Eat, drink & be practical

You've decided to have a dinner event. Great. Whether it's a house party or a Grand Reception, keep your food - and fundraising - on this four-course track.


Appetizer: Schmooze 'n' Smorg

Not every dinner even starts with a smorgasbord - the Scandinavian word we use in English to mean a variety, or a big spread. Some events have hors d'oeuvres passed around, others an antipasti station. The majority start with just a cocktail hour with light snacks. Go for quality over quantity - you won't look stingy if there's top-shelf liquor and a varied selection of really good finger-foods. No matter what the selection is, an appetizer should do just that: whet the appetite.

One of the main reasons why people come to dinner events is for the networking opportunities. You'll have the whole of the dinner to talk about your organization - make sure you give your guests a chance to talk about themselves, mingle with people in other industries, unwind from the day, maybe even meet a celebrity.

We've seen events where the "smorg" is practically a whole dinner. That's a stylistic issue, but if you're planning on raising money with a dinner, don't spend a fortune on feeding guests dinner twice in an evening. Be practical. If people eat their fill before your event begins, it's likely a number of people will leave before the speeches even begin. Keep them a little hungry for dinner and they'll stay.

Main Course: Captive Audience

Another reason not to go too heavy on the appetizer is getting folks to sit down to dinner. (Have you ever tried to pry people away from a sushi station? Not easy.) Once you have them seated, though, they're seated.

Make the main course of the evening - both the food and the show - worth the price of the ticket they paid. If you kept your appetizers on-budget, you'll have a good wine selection and a main course worth eating. Be sure you negotiate clearly with your caterer about having a choice of main dishes. They'll always have a vegetarian option, but if you're asking for a beef and a chicken option, make sure you know how those will be priced out.

Knowing your caterer and their staff speed are essential to a seamless evening. You never want serving or clearing to go on during a speech or presentation. Refilling water or wine are appropriate tasks, but anything that clinks or clatters should be avoided while something is happening on stage. That means factoring your food service into the run-of-show. Know how long the staff will need to bring out and place the entrees. Know how long they need to clear each course. Opening remarks for the evening should happen as people sit down: use the opener as a means of quieting the audience and getting them officially to their seats.

Dessert: Sweet Victory

Keeping your attendees rapt and attentive during the dinner program is hard enough. But how about keeping them beyond the dinner?

Dessert is the way to go: keep the sweets interesting, and folks will linger for coffee and cake, and more opportunities to network.

The best way to do this is at a gala is the Viennese Dessert - an array of sweets laid out prettily, much the way an appetizer smorgasbord would be.

Use that cup of coffee/tea and plate of cookies as a timer for a last-minute meeting. Was there someone you meant to speak with before the program, or someone you wanted to follow up with? Have (or finish) a conversation with that key attendee during dessert - and keep it short as a cup of coffee. That way you'll both leave reasonably soon, but still have taken the time.

Don't forget that, when ending the evening on a sweet note, a to-go cup for coffee and encouragement to take a cookie for the road will put that smile on your guests' faces as they leave. That last moment will help them remember the evening fondly.

Gift Bags, Goodie Bags and Grab Bags

Some events give gifts - items curated to say "thank you" - often placed with table settings before the meal. Other events have goodies (often in bags) that are handed out as guests leave, usually with samples or promotions given as "in-kind" or material donations by sponsors of an event. Grab bags - the bags left in rows by the door - usually just contain literature and event collateral, which get ignored when the first wave of people peek in and don't see anything worth grabbing.

Not every event needs a "goodbye gift". But if your event does, make sure it's worth guests' while to take one, and also make sure it's worth yours. Don't forget to include plenty of reminders of where to donate, including a mail-in donation card.

Did you have a professional photographer at the event? (You should.) Arrange with the photographer beforehand to have a designated web portal for photos: a Facebook album, a page in your organization's website, even the photographers own website. Print that pre-arranged URL on your thank-you materials so that your guests know where to find pictures of themselves looking their finest. Then, on that web destination, include links back to where they can donate or get involved in other ways. Likewise, that URL can (and should) be sent in advance to a newspaper's society pages, or to an events blog that covers your network.

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New York, NY 10036

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