Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Host Pays the Bill

I’m afraid that the duties of a host have entered murky waters as a result of time constraints and an unfounded need to control situations that are not one’s responsibility. Questions arise with increased regularity about such gatherings as bridal showers, wedding receptions, birthday dinner parties at restaurants, and the like. There is always the protagonist, someone who has decided that they know what’s best for everyone. This “planner” makes elaborate plans for an event they want to “help out” with but without any consultation, and are taken by surprise when people balk at ponying up sums of money to pay for said event.

Let’s be clear. If you are hosting an event, the responsibility for paying the bill lies solely with you. If that is not how the equation works, then you are not the actual host. Perhaps there are several co-hosts, in which case, the planning should be shared, as are all of the responsibilities and certainly the costs associated with the event.

Problems arise when people usurp partial responsibility, usually the fun bits. Nothing is more fun for some people than to spend other people’s money or dictate how they might do so. To make assumptions of this sort is totally unacceptable and justifiably rebuffed. Sadly, money matters can be the source of a lot of ill will and bad feelings. This is not news to anyone, and therefore should be avoided.

Here are a few clear guidelines, which will help avoid awkward moments.

1) Determine who will host the event.

2) Keep the scope of the party within the financial ability of the host or hosts.

3) A gracious host does not ask their guests to pay for anything.

4) If bills are to be shared, this must be made crystal clear on the invitation, i.e. ticket price.

5) I discourage cash bars at private events, but if there must be one, be sure to indicate this on the invitation

6) As host, settle your accounts away from your guests.

Most brides today want their weddings to be as memorable as possible, and in a good way. Destination weddings and large formal weddings come with a hefty price tag for bridesmaids, not to mention the bride’s parents. It is safe to assume that the expenses of a dress, a shower gift, a bachelorette party, time away from work, and any travel expenses fall into the category of unbudgeted expenses. Brides need to be mindful of these expenses when inviting friends and family to participate. Although it is an honor for most bridesmaids, it can be an uncomfortable position in which to place people. Be sensitive to this potential issue and think it through before acting on impulse.

A bad business practice is if there is a business meeting planned for late in the day and the boss suggests that it would be fun to go out for dinner afterwards. If however, he isn’t paying the tab, he is imposing on his employees and has no right to extend this sort of invitation without offering to pay for the dinners of those involved with the meeting. This is a bullying technique employed at the office far too frequently and can be a real source of contention.

With a little imagination and some sensitivity, one can scale events down to fit any budget. People should not be burdened with surprise expenses over which they have little wiggle room. Over the course of a year, such surprises cause angst and mistrust. Give due consideration to all others involved when making plans. Granted, often one person is put in charge of the logistics for an event. This does not in any way make them the host, nor should they make final decisions without consulting the group before confirming arrangements.

After all, an event will likely not pivot on the venue as much as the person or occasion being noted. Think of what is going to be accomplished at a social or business gathering and how exactly a successful, enjoyable event will result from good hosting or organizing. Take everyone involved with planning and participating into consideration and make decisions based on what is practical and financially viable for all concerned.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Urban Deli – Italian by Night – A Review

Few experiences in life excite me more than trying out a new restaurant. Recently in Saint John, The Urban Deli took a leap of faith and expanded their hours of operation and opened for dinner three nights a week. What was most remarkable was the departure from their usual fare of hearty delicious “deli” food to authentic Italian cuisine. What a smart move they have made. Discovering that the Chef for this new menu is Michelle Hooten, former Deputy Mayor of the city, added to my anticipation.

Entering the restaurant through a heavy dark green velvet curtain momentarily transports one back to the days of speakeasies. Italian soloist Andrea Bocelli’s enchanting voice welcomed us into the familiar space and the friendly staff was quick to offer to hang our coats and seat us in a comfortable booth. One feels immediately relaxed and very welcome. The fact that the space is small and uncluttered added to the ambiance. A critical eye would also notice how immaculately clean everything is, including the washrooms.

The simplicity of the beautifully designed menu served only to enhance the enticing offerings. The three of us opted to ask the chef to decide what we would eat, which greatly reduced the impossible decision making process that could have ensued. We began with a traditional Antipasto di Verdure that tasted as fresh and delicious as any I have ever had, with everything made from the freshest ingredients. We shared a Primo course of Penne con Sugo di Salsiccie, wonderfully seasoned house-made veal and pork sausage on imported pasta. For a Secondo, we tied into the most delicious slow-roasted Oxtail one could imagine, completely fall-off-the-bone juicy and rich. We shared a delightfully light Cioccolato Crème Brulee for dessert, served in a demitasse cup and perfect.

As brilliant as the food was, the experience would not have been as memorable without the knowledgeable ebullient server and the dedicated owner whose love of food is unmistakable. But it was the chef herself who came to table to describe each course that made the evening ever so special. As she was describing the Oxtail, she alluded to a secret ingredient that made it so wonderful. The pure joy emanating from her rosy-cheeked face and her wide grin indicated she was in her element. I came to the conclusion that secret element could be none other than what is a hallmark of any great food – Love.

Although this does not pretend to be a fine dining establishment, I found the whole experience better than many I have had in more pretentious (and expensive) restaurants in major cities around the world. I was impressed and thrilled to find a world-class gem right in my own back yard!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Handling Unprofessional Professionals

People often stop me to explain some event in their lives that has really riled them. Lately I have listened to complaints about doctors, wait staff, bankers, shopkeepers and hotel managers, not to mention the myriad of call center telephone operators. Incompetence is part of the professional landscape these days. There are many people who hang out their shingle claiming to be authorities on something they have no business in so doing. Diplomas and certificates may cover their office walls, but this is mere window dressing and little to do with true professionalism.

We are often caught off guard when met with unprofessional behaviour from people who we hope are trusted authorities, not Peter Principle statistics. The question is, “How do we respond to these surprises in an appropriate way?” With practice and a levelheaded approach, we can navigate these unpleasant waters and move forward.

One friend recently described a visit to a gerontologist’s office trying to understand when early stages of dementia might be present with a loved one. He was justifiably puzzled when told, “unless the person could no longer make French toast or control their bodily functions, there is nothing to worry about.” When trying to glean information of a very important and personal nature, diligence is so necessary. Even though unprofessional answers are often insensitive and confusing, we still need to carry on. Pleading the case that family members know when behaviors change in a loved one more accurately than a physician who has never met them, common sense does not always prevail. If this happens, I recommend thanking them for their time and going back to the referring doctor for another suggestion.

Nothing is more frustrating than interacting with uncaring professionals in professions calling for sensitive human contact. Take for example, a waiter who has little or no knowledge of how food on the menu is prepared, or what some suggestions for wine might be. Taking into account that not all waiters are trained properly, and that customer service is not always a strong suit in many restaurants, I still see no reason for unprofessionalism. Many waiters have no idea how to even address a customer, let alone an entire table. One of my pet peeves, which may be generational and on the rise but nonetheless annoying, is addressing a mixed group of men and women as ‘you guys’, or even worse, ‘yous’. This may well be due to a case of nerves, especially with newer employees. My experience has shown that if I maintain a pleasant demeanor, resisting showing a look of horror on my face, waiters will lose their nervousness and do much better.

Shopkeepers who may no attention to you when you enter their store are also a source of irritation. I fully understand if they are busy with other customers; however, chatting on a cell phone, texting, or perhaps even reading a book or filing their nails, is totally unacceptable. In such instances, if I really need to buy something, I find it and pay for it, leaving the store with few if any words other than thank you. Otherwise, I just walk out, likely unnoticed. Learning to greet customers in a civil way is not a new concept, but it seems to have been lost in today’s time-precious world.

Banks can be equally frustrating. We all know that banks are a wonderful place to stash cash, or even borrow some, especially if you have plenty. In today’s stressful economic environment, banks can be a great, added source of frustration. One must be ever vigilant for newly created or increased fees charged for the privilege of using said bank. The number of people, who are astonished by a 30-day hold on foreign checks, in this age of electronics, is staggering. When queried, the answer from the bank employee may well be that this is new policy and their hands are tied.

In all of these cases, the common sense bottom line is that responsibility for one’s health, enjoyment, and state of mind rests solely in one’s own lap. How we choose to react to surprises, whether they manifest as unprofessionalism or otherwise, dictates how grounded, centered, and civil we will be. In every case, there is always a solution, which does not require raising one’s voice, stomping about like a small child, or bullying someone out of frustration. Taking a moment, and following Granny’s advice of counting to ten, can and does work wonders. Throw in a smile for good measure.