Be a Great Taker of Meeting Minutes

I have to admit, few things get me on edge the way that taking minutes get me on edge.  After all, if I’m sitting in on an important meeting, I want to make sure I capture every important thing that happens.  It’s my job to ensure that we have an accurate – and useful – record of what occurred in that room.

Big responsibility!

Taking good meeting minutes comes with practice, but there are some great rules of thumb you can keep close at hand to start off on the right foot:

Organize your notes using the meeting’s agenda – If you have an agenda (and you really, really should), you’re aware up front what topics will be covered.  Use that agenda as your outline and keep your notes organized accordingly.

Take down the logistical facts – I always note the date, name of the meeting and the attendees.

Know what to leave out of the notes – Conversations digress all the time, and while you may start out talking about last week’s sales, you may end up discussing the barbecue that your vice president of purchasing attended three weeks ago.  No need to include that in your notes.

There’s more you can leave out.  All the discussion points leading up to the decisions made during a meeting don’t need to be taken down.  The decision is what the rest of the company is interested in seeing.

Take minutes by hand or on your laptop, but make sure you circulate them quickly – Many Revolutionary Assistants would rather take notes by hand because typing while everyone is talking can be irritating.  That’s perfectly fine, but make sure you get them typed up and circulated quickly.  Not only are the notes fresh in your head and easier to interpret, but it helps the other attendees to have them quickly in hand, so they can get started on action items and to dos.

Make sure you highlight and follow up on action items – When I type up minutes from a meeting, I make sure that I highlight all action items in red.  Furthermore, when I email them out to the participants of the meeting, I make sure I include the action items in the body of the email and call out who is responsible for what tasks prior to the next meeting.

Are your meetings out of control and unproductive?  Try Robert’s Rules of Order – Most businesses run with informal meetings, and many of them are not as productive as they could be.  If your team isn’t getting enough done, check out Robert’s Rules of Order.  Robert’s Rules of Order typically structures a meeting in such a way that you have “calls to order” and “unfinished business” and other categories that make taking minutes a breeze.  It’s not easy to take minutes when discussions are all over the place, and this could help!

Minute taking doesn’t have to be a source of anxiety.  Revolutionary Assistants know how to take notes that further the group’s efforts and keep everyone on task!

Next Post:  Wednesday, February 12

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Job Interviews – They’re Not Just For Your Prospective Employer

Good positions are often hard for a Revolutionary Assistant to find.  After all, fewer executives have their own assistants nowadays, and those that do usually share them with at least one other executive.  Your administrative dream job isn’t always right there waiting for you.

Because of that, it’s easy to be overly enthused about an interview with a good company.  You get charged up, put on your best business clothes, and go out to knock ‘em dead.  Problem is, your enthusiasm might keep you from recognizing some of the warning signs that this isn’t such a good place for you to work!

Chester Elton, the apostle of appreciation and best-selling author of The Carrot Principle and All In, sat down with Melissa Francis of FOX Money to talk about some of the danger signs you might encounter on a job interview.

Remember, if you see any of these signs…

  • Interviewer badmouthing the person you’re replacing
  • Hiring manager hasn’t reviewed your resume before sitting down for the interview
  • The interviewer asks personal questions
  • The company has a high turnover or a toxic culture

…be on your guard!  Ask probing questions so you can determine if this is just a bad representative for the company you’re speaking with, or if it’s a company you just don’t want to work for.  If it turns out to be the latter, don’t be afraid to say “thanks but no thanks.”  Better to steer clear of a bad situation than be sorry later that you took the job!

Next Post:  Wednesday, February 5

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Start Your New Year Off Right – Reinventing Your Position

The start of the year is often a time to reexamine life – at home and at work – and decide what needs to change.  And maybe this is the year that you think your work life needs a little freshening up.

True, you can start looking for a new job, but in this market (and in our position) it can sometimes be easier just to make what is old new again.  Here are some ideas for revitalizing your work life without actually going out to find new employment:

Reevaluate your job description – Are you discouraged at work because you’re overworked with tasks that don’t energize you?  We all have a little bit of this in our lives, but if you’re feeling like all you do is the mundane and ordinary, look around for some tasks that could change that.  Perhaps you’d like to get more involved in employee recognition and culture [ADD LINK] or another area of your manager’s world that sounds interesting.  Take a look at your workload before you sit down with your manager, because you’ll want to discuss what you’d like to add as well as what you’d like to get rid of in order to accommodate the new task.

Change your work schedule – If it seems like you do nothing but work in all your waking hours, think about talking to your manager about a flex schedule.  Perhaps 9:00 to 6:00 schedule makes it seem like you miss everything in your children’s lives, but a 7:30 to 4:30 would create a little more free time without demanding that you go to bed too much earlier.

Get involved (or get your department involved) in a charity – I work for a pet specialty business, and it’s an easy jump to get involved in charities benefiting animals, which is my passion.  Perhaps your company is already involved with a non-profit organization, or maybe it needs to look for a way to benefit its community.  You can help with that, and introduce your co-workers to a rewarding opportunity to bond and get more from their work lives, too.

Transfer to another department – It’s so much easier to interview internally for a position, especially if you really like the company you work for.  Take a look around and determine what else you might like to know about the business.  An assistant who knows about many aspects of her organization is often more valuable than one coming in from the outside.

Seek out new projects – Look for an opportunity to work on new projects, especially if cross-functional teams are being assembled to complete a task.  Participating on this team will allow you to meet new people and learn something new about what your company is trying to accomplish.

There are many more ways to add some spark to your workday, including reinventing your position entirely to include new challenges and opportunities.  I found a good article that digs deep into how you can examine your current responsibilities in hopes of making a change.  Really worth a read before you start sending out those resumes.  Good luck in freshening up your job for 2014!

Next Post:  Wednesday, January 29

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Start Your New Year Off Right! Recognizing Employees and Making Them Feel Great

As a Revolutionary Assistant, you’re involved in almost everything your manager does.  You make her bigger than she is, increase her reach and communication by interacting with other employees and keep her up to date on what’s going on around the company.

A great way to improve her managerial image and keep her in communication with her employees and other departments is to get more involved in employee recognition and motivation.  It’s an easy thing to do on your manager’s behalf and makes her look like a movie star.  Here are some things you can suggest the next time you sit down to have a status meeting:

Start an employee/department board – The board can keep others up to date on what your department is doing.  It can also shout out to others how great the team is doing!  In my office, our store development team has a board that tells all the other departments about who they are.  It shows new store opening dates, pictures of stores that have just opened, and, of course, employee recognition for jobs well done!

Create a central employee area around something fun – I need to share a cute story.  One of our departments here in my office covered an employee’s desk with aluminum foil for his birthday.  As he was undoing all the wrap, he made a huge foil ball.  And then he started inviting other employees to “bowl” with it.  We had to roll it down a hallway and not touch any walls, and the person who came closest to the cube wall at the end of the hall was the winner.  This game has gone on for over a month, and people from all departments are taking their turn.  Rules change daily as to how you can throw the ball.  One day, it was granny –style (between the legs), the next we had to wear a wig and a tulle skirt before we rolled.  We’re all deeply involved, even the Chief Operating Officer took a turn (on blindfold day, no less!).

This game grew organically from a funny prank, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start something on your own.   Find a common area or hallway that’s little used.  Then, add a little something.  A punching bag or a Toss-Across game you picked up at a garage sale would do the trick!  Be the source of something fun for your co-workers and watch them unite!

Be healthy with your co-workers – We already talked about how taking care of yourself and getting exercise can make you more productive, so why not do it as a group?  Here in our office, we’re doing a step challenge to start off the new year.  We have about 30 people participating in teams of five.  Pedometers were issued (donations of $7 to our favorite charity were required, and the company bought the pedometers), and we’re off and walking.  The team with the most steps at the end of the month wins! (We still don’t know what we win, but we’re excited!)

Reward a job well done with creative, low-cost awards – Some of the things you could do to recognize employees and make them feel great are:

  • Create a spot in your department meeting agenda to recognize good work
  • Let an employee take an extra long lunch as a thank you
  • Arrange for a team to report results of a project to upper management
  • Publicly recognize those employees participating in special programs, continuing education, or even bowling with a foil ball (to let everyone know that fun is important, too!)
  • Set aside a close parking spot in the building’s lot, and acknowledge a new person each month for a job well done by letting them use that spot exclusively

There are a lot of great, low-cost ways you can make employees feel good about working at your organization.  Why not step in and help your manager make your department or company a fun place to come each day?  Keeping people happy means helping them be more productive and energetic, and that’s what makes your department go!

Next Post:  Wednesday, January 22

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Start Your New Year Off Right! Things You Can Do To Conquer Stress

A Revolutionary Assistant’s day is full of stress.   Deadlines and time constraints, demanding managers, or even just meeting after meeting where you have to be on your game and talking to people can create anxiety that’s just downright unproductive.

The new year means taking an opportunity to change the things that chip away at your inner calm.  Here are some suggestions that can help you kick off 2014 the right way:

Adopt some shut-down time – Many of us assistants are on 24/7 call, never knowing when our managers will reach out and need a last-minute flight or a meeting scheduled.  I can be on email all the time looking out for that kind of thing, driving myself crazy.  I tell my manager that I’ll be on email during the work week until about 8PM, and then the rest of the evening is mine.  He also knows that if something happens over the weekend, he should pick up the phone and call me, because I won’t be checking email on Saturday and Sundays.  This doesn’t mean I’m not available for him, it just means that I won’t get myself riled up over the other 25 emails I’m receiving from his direct reports and field employees.  It works for us!

Don’t worry about what you can’t control – It’s true that a Revolutionary Assistant has to leverage relationships to get her work done, but it’s also true that you ultimately can’t control how other people feel or think.  So don’t worry about it!  Also don’t think too much about the economy or traffic or other things.  They don’t change because you spend time thinking about them.

Take little breaks – Even walking to the coffee machine can be enough to clear your head for a few minutes.  I often will abandon email in favor of walking over to talk to someone in the office, even if that person is on the other side of the office.  It goes a long way toward improving my relationships in the office, and it gets me away from my project long enough that I can return to it with a fresh outlook.

Get more sleep – Many of us are on the move so much that we don’t get to bed until after midnight and then we’re up and at the office at 7AM.  Make a concerted effort to get more sleep, and you’ll feel better and more wide awake to handle all those problems that come your way.

Hang around optimistic people – If you’re constantly around a Debbie Downer, you’ll start to feel that way, too.  Negative people will pull you down to their level.  Find some folks who always see the silver lining, and soak them in.

Take a walk – Not only does it have great health benefits, it helps you clear your head and gives you more energy to handle all those work challenges.  If you don’t have time in your schedule for a walk, see if a colleague will agree to a walking meeting.  You can get out and get some fresh air as well as accomplish work, with the extra added health benefit!

Eat right – Your trip past the vending machine to get a bag of Doritos for lunch isn’t a long term energy boost.  Take care of yourself by making time for a salad or some lean protein, and you’ll have more energy and think more clearly.

Add personal touches to your desk – Perhaps you’re worn out looking at that same old picture of the kids.  Clean up your desk, rearrange, and start things fresh.  Make your area into a place you enjoy looking at and really see what’s there!  Add a few plants, too – they’ve been known to have a calming, happy effect on the environment.

Just adopting a few of these things (some of which take very little effort), you can create an environment at work that eliminates some of that pesky stress and replaces it with happiness and contentment.  That’s a great thing for 2014’s Revolutionary Assistant!

Next Post:  Wednesday, January 15

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Happy Holidays from the Revolutionary Assistant!

As the end of the year draws to a close, Revolutionary Assistant is going on a little hiatus to enjoy the holidays with family and friends.  I hope you are, too!

I’d like to thank all the people that helped make Revolutionary Assistant go this year – Mitch Gillett, Jason Smith, Stacey Smith, Tabi Walters and Maryellen Blette to name just a few.  I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, and we’ll see you again on January 8, 2014!



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Choosing and Negotiating With Guest Presenters

I bet the guests of your event have heard your vice president speak about two gazillion times…

Yup, if you want to really change things up and pique people’s interest, a guest speaker can be the way to go.  Often, if you choose wisely, the guest speaker can be the highlight of the whole event, as they’re well trained in presenting and know how to engage an audience.

So how do you go about choosing a guest presenter?  Chances are likely you’re working with someone else who’s in charge of content, but here are some things the both of you can think about:

Consider your content – Usually your event has some sort of theme, whether it’s about engaging with your customers, rewarding and recognizing employees, or something else.  Consider that theme, and look for someone who’s got content expertise in that area.

Look for entertainment quality – I love to hear a big audience laugh and applaud.  You all know what it’s like to go to a concert where the performers are dry and boring.  Those folks are so much less interesting than the ones who have a real performance quality about them.  Maybe they’re particularly funny, or they have a Liberace-like flamboyance, or a personal story so engaging and heartwarming that you can’t help but lose yourself when they speak.  That’s the kind of guest presenter you want.

Look for the emotion! – Just like in Seth Godin’s article, we learn when something affects us emotionally, rather than being hit with facts.  A guest speaker with good performance quality can be an excellent place to ramp up that emotion.

Think outside the box when choosing your speaker – I once planned an event where we wanted to convey an idea to our guests that they should navigate obstacles and try that much harder to reach our company’s goal.  We could have had someone who talks about making sales quotas, but instead we hired the first North American woman to ever ascend Mt. Everest.  Her story was compelling, and she was able to link it back both to our business goals and to our own personal challenges.  I’ll never forget her talk!

Choose someone who can reach everyone in your diverse audience – If you’ve got a bunch of retail store managers in the room, it’s probably not a wise idea to have an economist jump into some very detailed charts and start talking about economic theory.  Make sure your speaker resonates with your constituency, or you’ll be wasting your money.

Choose someone who’s in your budget – If you have a limited budget, you might not want to go with a speaker agency, as you can end up being charged a lot of money.  Frequently, you can find authors and other speakers who aren’t represented.  Without the agency taking a cut, they usually come a little cheaper.

Sign a contract and secure your dates – Don’t just shake hands and consider your guest speaker a done deal.  Draw up a contract with him or her, and ensure that your date is secure.  Make sure it addresses travel and lodging (are you paying for it, or is the cost her responsibility?).  Are you video-taping your event?  Make sure that’s okay with your guest speaker and, if necessary, put those arrangements in writing.

Prep your speaker with information about your organization – Your speaker should know all your company’s lingo and the ins and outs of what you do.  At our company, we call our customers “neighbors” and we made sure our last guest presenter used that term, too!

A guest presenter can really make your event special!  Choose your speaker wisely and make sure he blends with the common themes of your event, but, more importantly, make sure that he engages the audience well.  Your own executive staff is probably not trained to really grab and entertain an audience, so this is your chance to really make an emotional connection!

Next post:  Wednesday, December 18

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Let the Good Times Roll! Planning Fun Activities and Offsite Travels at Your Event

If your event is a long one, chances are likely you’ll want to let your attendees have a little fun.  Two or three days of attending sessions is plenty enough to earn a party, don’t you think?

Logistics and creativity must be put into gear if you’re going to pull off a fun activity.  It’s not always easy though!  Your audience, aside from having one thing in common that brings them to this event, is a very diverse group.  Planning something that people of all ages and all walks of life can enjoy can be an intimidating prospect!

Here are a couple of hints that might get you going in the right direction:

Take your group demographics into consideration – Understand who your audience is.  If you have a 75% male audience attending a plumbers’ convention, you’re probably not going to propose a day at the spa as your activity, or anything else that’s decidedly “girly.”  If your audience is entirely under the age of 30, an 80s party might not be the thing to do, because they’ve probably never seen leg warmers and shaker knit sweaters, let alone know who Thomas Dolby is.  (So sad…)

Consider your geography and the spirit of the people you’re visiting – If your attendees have travelled to reach the meeting destination, they’re likely going to be curious about the surrounding area and what it has to offer.  This is the opportunity to show them!  If your conference is down south, you could try throwing a down-home barbecue.  If you’re out west, a hoedown might be in order!  This allows you to satisfy the interests of your audience and gives you the opportunity to sample some of what the area does best.  That will make you look good!

Remember how co-workers behave with one another – This isn’t a wedding, filled with people who know each other personally and intimately.  So the chances are likely that these people aren’t going to want to slow dance together.  This doesn’t mean that dancing is out – but a good square dance lesson or the Electric Slide might be more what’s called for.  Something like a casino night might work out well, where people can gamble with play money and learn some new casino games.

Think about the logistics if taking the group off site – If you decide to travel, that’s going to up your budget and require some serious logistical planning.  Negotiate a contract with a local transportation company.  Try to ensure that there’s a rotation of buses going between the hotel and the destination, so people can come and go as they please.

Consider the ramifications if your attendees can’t depart from the activity at will – I attended an event once that I didn’t plan, and a portion of that event was a boat trip around the harbor in Chicago.  It was definitely a party boat, with good music and good food, but I was not the only attendee that hesitated, because once I stepped on the boat, there was no getting back home until it came to dock.  You’re likely to lose some of your attendees if that’s the case.  I ended up not going and took myself out for a burger later that night.

Fun activities can be the highlight of your event, so plan carefully, but be generous and make sure all your guests can have a good time!

Next post:  Thursday, December 19

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The Content of Your Event: Be Involved!

If you’re planning an event, chances are likely there’s content to be dealt with.  After all, you’re not bringing these people all together for nothing, right?  There will be information dispensed to your guests.  There could be keynotes and general sessions, and maybe even breakout sessions.  All of these gems, yours to manage.

A lot of times an event planner just waits for the content to be submitted.  A Revolutionary Assistant gets into the middle of all the content development, making sure that her logistics match the learning and information needs of the event, and ensuring a dynamic and unforgettable presentation of the agenda that’s going to make her company more successful.

So how is your event’s information going to be talked about?  Take some of these suggestions and put them into action!

Keep the sessions short and sweet – If you’re holding people captive for more than an hour at a time without allowing them to get up and move around, you’re going to get yourself in trouble.  This is not to say that you can’t have a two-hour keynote.  Just remember that if you do, you should plan a break or…

Encourage movement and audience participation – Shift gears at some point, and your audience will reengage.  If you have a speaker up on stage for a while, pepper that with an interesting table activity.  Or maybe even get the audience going by building a symbolic house of cards, putting together an easy piece of machinery (some groups do team bike building), or engaging in a challenge against other people in the audience.  The more movement and participation you have, the more your information will stick.

Spread it out – If you have a large event, make sure your large, general sessions and your breakout sessions are dispersed throughout.  Throw in some meals, some breaks with fruit and caffeinated beverages.  Make sure people rotate from sedentary presentations to ones that are full of activity.  It’s all about variety if you’re going to keep your audience engaged.

Don’t pack too much into a day – If you have your audience moving from 7AM until 10PM, you’re bound to see some folks fading.  Tired people miss information.  Interspersing sedentary presentations with ones that are full of activity can help you stretch a day a little bit, but be careful about keeping your attendees on the run for too long.

Draw out common threads in your content – If you’re doing 10 breakout sessions over three days, your breakout format should begin to look familiar to folks very quickly.  For the last event I ran, I worked with our training department to prepare Powerpoint slides that helped shape the presentation – each of them had an intro that covered a certain number of points, and then allowed them to dive deeper into each point.  After that, an activity that helped the audience learn, and questions…followed by the all-important “Five Key Takeaways.”  No matter what session attendees were in, that format stayed the same, and it helped them remember.

Ensure there are action items with your information – That “five key takeaways” slide was the most important slide of the bunch! An event is successful when behaviors change post-event.  The takeaways slide was an imperative because it got right into the audience’s face with the requested behavior changes.  Encourage the use of a format that will ensure your audience understands what’s expected of them once they go home.

Rehearse your speakers – Two important things happen when speakers rehearse, both before the event and at the event.  The first thing is that they learn to stay within their time limit.  Always stress that a speaker needs to finish in the time allotted – nothing kills energy like a speaker that runs longer than expected.  The second thing is that they learn to coordinate with technology.  They learn to understand the clicker for their slides; the videos and sound get cued correctly.  Always, always rehearse.

Make sure content is available to your audience after the event concludes – Work with each of the speakers to redact event presentation slides, removing sensitive information, so that the basics of their session can be available as reference.

When coordinating an event, you can have a huge effect on content without actually creating it.  Definitely be involved.  A successful event is all about the content you’re presenting, and if you don’t have a handle on what that is, you can neither frame it in the correct light nor ensure that it’s presented in a way that’s memorable.  I encourage you to do the Revolutionary thing and be a buttinski!

Next post:  Tuesday, December 10

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Feeding Your Attendees

Ah, food and beverage.  Rare is the event, large or small, that doesn’t have some component of food and beverage in it.  People need to eat, and if you’re careful about how you plan out the meal, it can be the thing that keeps the productivity of your meeting going.  If you’re not careful, things can go bust in a hurry.

I see food and beverage planning in two separate components – one being the negotiation of the food and beverage service by the caterer or hotel, and the other being how you serve your people in order to make the most of the situation.

Negotiation of the services

Minimums – There will be a food and beverage minimum if you’re working with a hotel, and it’s imperative that you hit that minimum, or you’ll be charged that amount anyway.  Guess as accurately as you can, but try to err on the side of a lower number when you sign the contract.  Same as dealing with minimum room nights, you don’t want to be paying for more than you need.

Discount on food and beverage – When working with a hotel, they’ll sometimes throw in a discount on your food and beverage as a perk of signing the contract.  That’s a good deal, because food and beverage will always be your highest cost.  In fact, if you’re dealing more than a year out in planning the event, angle to get a discounted rate on the current year’s menu.  It’s likely that food and beverage will go up in price the following year, and you’ll be cemented in with a discount on last year’s rates.  You can negotiate discounts with a caterer as well, but more likely than not you’re dealing with a sole proprietor, and he probably doesn’t have the room in his margin to give you better prices unless you’re giving him a very large event.  Of course, if you have a party with liquor involved, you have more bargaining room than one without, because the markup on liquor is huge.

Cancellations – If you can, negotiate a lost profit clause versus a lost revenue clause in your contract with the caterer, or even a per-person cost.  It will likely cost you less money!

References, references – Certainly when working with a hotel, but ESPECIALLY when you’re working with a private caterer, ask for references and check them.  Equally important, be willing to provide a reference when the event is done.

Gratuities – Pay attention to whether they’re included in the contract, and make sure your budget includes room for gratuities that aren’t specified on the paperwork.


How and What You Serve Your Attendees

Consider your audience – It may sound obvious, but if you’re throwing a party for the congregation of Temple Israel, don’t serve bacon.  Consider the tastes and sophistication of your audience – are they a beer-drinking crowd or a wine-tasting crowd?  One will eat cheese burgers and the other will prefer salmon and chicken.

Consider the conditions – If you’re planning to have them on the move all night, with no real area to sit and eat, then you’re not going to want to serve them food that needs to be eaten with a fork and knife.  If you have an all-day meeting planned where the guests rarely get to leave their seats, don’t serve them a heavy lunch or they’ll be napping in their chairs.

Err on the side of healthy – Attendees rarely thank you for contributing to their hardening arteries.  Furthermore, greasy foods tend not to serve well to crowds…you know what French fries taste like when they’ve been sitting under a heat lamp in a huge chafing dish.  Soggy.  That’s what they taste like.

Let the Chef do what he does best – If the chef claims he makes the best pasta primavera the world has ever experienced, then by all means, let him do that.  My mother always told me, “Don’t go to an Italian restaurant and order a pierogi.”  In other words, keep your diners happy by not forcing the chef to do something that’s not his forte.

Confirm the caterer’s/hotel’s policy on overset – Hotels and caterers will sometimes have an overset policy where they will prepare 3-5 more meals than what are needed, to be ready for any surprises.  Don’t count on that, though.  Always verify that this practice is in place with your vendor, so you don’t have issues with surprise hungry guests who have to drive down to McDonald’s.

Be careful about alcohol – Alcohol, like other beverages, is usually charged by consumption rather than by the head, and for good reason: when you serve free alcohol, people will take advantage of it.  If you’re going to serve alcohol, you can put some controls on it by passing out drink tickets or having an open bar for just a short period of time, followed by a cash bar.  Providing wine and beer is usually cheaper than providing the hard stuff, if you’re being cost conscious.  If you bring your own wine to an event, check the hotel for corkage fees so you aren’t surprised by the bill at the end of the night!  (And I don’t have to tell you not to let any inebriated guests drive, right?)

I could probably go on for another couple of pages about the little innuendos of food and beverage, but these are the big things to watch out for.  At the end of the day, I can tell you this: serve them good food, and your guests will be talking about your event for weeks to come!

Next post:  Thursday, December 5

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