Trade Show TalesBlog

Alcohol and Business Entertaining: When Is Enough Too Much?

October 16th, 2012 COMMENTS
Shooting from the Hip (trade show tips)

Shooting from the Hip by Reid Sherwood

This is going to be a bit of a rocky ride. Hold on to your hats my friends . . . I am going to address the age old issue of alcohol, corporate responsibility, and the pros and cons of both. I have a feeling this may cause some discord among the rank and file, along with some snickering.

First the disclaimer. I am not an attorney. I am not a cop. I am not a judge. I am the president of the local school board (but that’s another story). My advice is based on experience and common sense. I’ve been entertaining clients for a long, long time, and I’ve seen it all.

People like to have a drink, especially when a vendor comes around and asks “Do you want to go to happy hour?” Of course, you do. From the vendor’s point of view, it buys some extra time with the customer, puts them in a decent mood, and most of all, spreads some goodwill vs. another vendor who may not spend any additional energy or entertainment dollars on them.

The downside is obvious . . . it can be abused. Excessive bar tabs, drunk customers, and worst of all, someone getting behind the wheel who shouldn’t. The VERY LAST THING I WANT is for a customer to have an accident, hurt themselves (or someone else), or get arrested for DWI.

That said, I have certainly made my mistakes, but I’ve learned from those mistakes. Sometimes it took a few times, but eventually I learned my lesson.

Happy Hour

Happy HourYou’re meeting with a handful of customers from several different departments. It’s 4:30. Time for happy hour and appetizers. You don’t want to buy dinner for 8 or 9 people (that has happened to me, and I always cringe because it wasn’t my intent). Now you have the opportunity to talk about stuff NOT related to work and engage them on a more personal level. You find out that this guy happens to be a Deadhead or a Parrothead. Maybe you find out that they are fans of the same college team you follow. You learn about family and hobbies. Then there are those times you discover their hobby is collecting hats or mats or rats, and you realize it’s going to be a long and painful evening.

Everyone has a drink or two, there are plenty of appetizers to share, and the evening ends at 6:30 or 7. No harm is done. You pay the tab. Sometimes the distributor will pitch in too. Which is a bonus. Everyone had a good time, and you hope they remember your hospitality when they make a buying decision.

Dinner Invitations

Dinner invitations are typically for no more than 2-3 guests. Often, we’ll meet for a drink before dinner. Here’s my rule of thumb, if your meal is $125 for three or four guests, the bar tab is going to be about the same. You want them to enjoy themselves. It should be memorable, without spending the farm or allowing someone to overindulge.  Nothing has to get out of hand, but you have to be conscious of how much your guests are drinking. Too much and what was friendly and productive becomes hazy and detrimental. Dinners create lots of face time and good camaraderie.

From Good to Bad to “Oh Crap!”

Now let’s look at a couple situations where it can get bad or really ugly and how to prevent it in the first place. Again, I’ll be the first to admit that I have made these mistakes many times.

On occasion, the adrenalin gets flowing and before you know it, you realize, “Uh oh, we gotta reel this in quickly.” You start with a round of shots, along with your regular drink, and you quickly lose count. An hour in and you had two shots of something and two beers or drinks and you are on your way to trouble. You may not think you’re “drunk” — I know I wouldn’t – but in most states, the legal limit is .08. You are way over that and driving is not an option. Next thing you know, you have been there two hours and the shots are done, but you’ve consumed seven drinks which is way too many. You are in big trouble. You have to head home, and you really need a cab. It can happen very quickly. I have done it, and I have done it with good customers. It’s stupid. It’s expensive. And it’s really bad business.

Now here is my big disclaimer. My father always insisted that people have a drink. According to him, it lubricates the conversation and helps them have fun. SO, I come by it naturally. But the more dangerous it gets, the more expensive it can become. Many states now have “Superdrunk” laws. If you are over 17, it is an immediate felony and a $10K fine. You have to use GOOD judgment, and it’s my job as your host to use good judgment when you don’t. If you decide you are going to “tie one on” then by all means have your transportation prepared and don’t ever do it in a business situation. Your livelihood (and your life) is worth more than a few drinks, or if it isn’t, then look for a new career.

I hate to be the downer, but we also have to look at the cost. I can justify everything I have said and know that in the spirit (no pun intended) of business, this is normal and logical. The following are examples where the cost doesn’t add up to the risk or reward.

Be careful or at least cognizant of the potential worst places to buy cocktails for a customer. I am fortunate that my local “Cheers” is called the “Riverstop Saloon,” and it is a little gem. A shot of Bushmills on the rocks is $4.00 and a Ketel Martini is also $4.00. It’s cheap, but then again, I’m not entertaining customers in Newaygo, MI. The same drink at the Kent County Airport in Michigan (GRR) is $11 or $14 dollars respectively. The Eye Candy Lounge inside of Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas is just a touch higher at $13 for Bushmills and $19 for a martini. Believe me, it adds up quickly.

Sharing the Cost

When we gather together for EXHIBITOR 2013 by the time you purchase a couple of drinks and chat for awhile with customers, you are approaching $200 dollars with the tip. The part that gets dicey is, not so much the cost, but rather, whether or not you are even going to be remembered for buying them a couple of drinks. No one has their eye on the tab and often, no one knows who paid it.

I know as the vendor, it is often assumed that we buy the drinks (not that it is expected). But many customers will buy me a drink or two. I appreciate it a bunch. I really do. It shows we respect one another. But I have to be careful. If I buy a drink or two for six customers, then each of you reciprocate, I just had a dozen cocktails and that was NOT my intention. Yes, I know, on occasion that happens, but vendors have to be far more cautious than clients do. I also have to be smart. At a social event where there are three to four other industry suppliers, I’m willing to do my part. My part means sharing the expense. Everyone has to chip in. It’s no fun having to be the “adult at the party” and reminding the other suppliers to “unass their wallets.”

Like I said earlier, I am not a judge, a cop, or an attorney, so don’t even think of holding me responsible for the legality of this. I’m merely trying to offer a few tips, a few cautionary warnings, and enjoy the taste of some good Irish whiskey, without getting a taste of stupid with it.

Till the next time,

Reid Sherwood
reid@classicmodul.com

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Based in Portland, Oregon, Classic Exhibits Inc. designs and manufacturers portable, modular, and custom-hybrid exhibit solutions and engineered aluminum extrusions (ClassicMODUL). Classic Exhibits products are represented by an extensive distributor network in North America and in select International markets. For more information, contact us at 866-652-2100.

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