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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


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.

Tips to a Successful Business “Open House”

July 6th, 2012 1 COMMENT

Been There. Done That.

Shooting from the Hip (trade show tips)

Shooting from the Hip by Reid Sherwood

Whether it’s sports, cards, business or anything that involves a winner and a loser, competitors are always looking for that “edge” that puts them over the top. I am not suggesting cheating. I am suggesting we follow Jack Nicklaus’ advice, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Well, there are a lot of things you can do, but I’d like to propose hosting an Open House for your customers and/or prospects.

I have seen dozens, if not a hundred, different Open House events at customer locations during my years as a manufacturer rep. Do Open Houses work? Absolutely, if done right. But, you can’t whip them together in a day. Successful Open Houses succeed because of planning and execution. In other words . . . “if you fail to plan, then plan to fail.” You don’t need all the tactics I am proposing, but let’s explore some ideas together and the risk/reward.

Pick Your Date Carefully. I was recently at a customer event on the East Coast. They promoted the Open House via email and direct mail. They followed up with phone calls. They did everything right. They had food and they had decent commitment. About 16 new leads were supposed to attend. However, it was the week going into the 4th of July and attendance fell off considerably. The upside was that one lead came with a six figure budget for a rental, another needed a new 10 x 20, and a third plans to buy 25 banner stands soon. So, all in all, it was very successful, but it could have been more successful had a different date been chosen.

Have a Gimmick. I was at a recent Open House where they hired the local baseball team mascot to appear and entertain the attendees. It was a nice twist that brought a few extra bodies in. Nothing life changing, but very memorable. I’ve seen Elvis impersonators, magicians, you name it! One of the more successful events was held in mid winter “up north” with a “Lets Go to the Islands” theme. They had speakers every hour talking about the pluses and minuses of islands over inlines. They had musician playing Jimmy Buffett songs on an acoustic guitar in between sessions. Everyone was engaged, entertained, and informed.

At another Open House, the timing was right for an Oscar theme. So we rolled out the red carpet and had show tunes playing throughout. They had paparazzi taking pictures of everything. Everyone dressed to the 9. There were no speakers, but there was enough “going on” to keep people focused and on track.

Feed Them. If you feed them, they will come. It’s just that simple. If you want more attendees, offer beer and wine. I’m not talking about a sit down meal, but depending the time of day, it should at least substitute for breakfast, lunch, or appetizers. Peanuts and chips may be OK for your football buddies, but not for your customers.

Have a Speaker with a Compelling Topic. Whether it’s the owner, the creative director, a manufacturer’s rep, or a social media expert, it needs to be somebody with a story. Content is key. They attendees are looking for solutions that will make their business or tradeshows better. You could even consider featuring several top customers who talk about their experiences with trade show marketing.

Be Repetitive. Do it the same time each year. Pick a direction and run with it. Maybe every year you talk about the latest and greatest in new exhibits. Maybe it’s all about design trends. Become the expert so they know who to call for “all things tradeshows” and remove the reason for them to shop around.

Use Your Vendors. As suppliers, we look at these as an opportunity to spend time with you and a chance to learn more about your market and customer needs. We also get to see other vendors and share experiences and insights. At the Open Houses I’ve participated over the past three to four years, I typically see Optima Graphics, Brumark, DS&L, various freight and labor companies, Eco-systems Sustainable, and ExpoDisplays. We bring in new products and review services, which always makes for a educational and entertaining event.

Again, there is no magic formula, but pick a direction and don’t give up on it. Be reasonable in setting your goals and a budget. The first year may not be as much about new business as much as touching base with your clients. But, those contacts matter. Always remember, it only takes ONE to make it a successful event.

Give me a call or send me an email. I am very happy to share additional details about the Open Houses I’ve attended over the years, small and large, elaborate and intimate. There’s no one formula, except solid planning, careful execution, and a little imagination.

Till the next time,

Reid Sherwood