Event Planning and Management 101 for Restaurant Owners

The saying goes that "even the best-laid plans go astray," but that doesn't have to be the case for planning events at your restaurant. Whether you're hosting a promotional event for your own business in order to bring in hungry customers, or whether you're aiming to make your restaurant the latest hotspot venue for guests to book their crazy birthday bashes or classy bridal showers, it'll take more than crafting the perfect food and drink menu to arrange the perfect private event.

The way your concept can stand out and be memorable, ironically, is if your guests won't remember anything about planning their event at all. You want their entire process to be so smooth and stress-free, that all they'll remember is living in the moment and fully experiencing the joy and festivities with their loved ones — at your venue, of course — and not the details getting there.

And how can you accomplish this? Organization. You and your team will need to live, breathe, and bleed organization. A challenge, considering the restaurant industry is known to be fast-moving and chaotic, with hiccups here and there almost as expected as the rising sun. Here are some tips and tricks to make event planning and event management just a little bit more manageable as a restaurant owner. 

But First...Why Should Your Restaurant Host Events?

After a long day of filling tables, handling a private event on top of that may not sound ideal. Some managers may even worry that it'll be more problematic than profitable. Your space may be too cramped. Your concept lacks an area sectioned off for a private dining room or bar. Your team doesn't have enough manpower dedicated to event management. The reasons not to seem to mount higher than the reasons to pull the trigger.

But as Nicholas Miller, co-founder and CEO of event management software Gather (which works with plenty of national brands, hospitality groups, and independents that have been private-equity backed or James Beard Award-winning), wrote, "If you don't already have a private dining, events, or large group program in place, you are missing out on a growing revenue opportunity."

Events are another entry point for cash to flow in. When executed properly, they can become a predictable source of revenue with higher margins and higher spend. According to Gather, while the average party size for a full-service restaurant is 3.7 guests with an average spend of $100-500, a private event can bring in $2,500. That is 20 times more you can make than from a typical $100 ticket.

And with most large parties booking in advance at least 30 days out, your concept will have guaranteed revenue, especially as it is standard to collect a 10-50 percent deposit when the event is made. Your staff will also have enough notice to handle these large orders. What does this all result in? Higher margins. Gather's data shows that a standard party has margins of 3.5-8 percent, while large groups and events are at 15-25 percent. The gold is there. But why are so many restaurants afraid to start digging?

Common Event Planning Challenges Restaurants Face

"The three biggest challenges restaurants face when it comes to event planning are capturing leads, staying organized, and keeping everyone on the same page," Gather Co-founder and VP of Customer Experience Alex Lassiter said. "Too often, we see restaurant staff capturing lead info on post-it notes that may or may not — oftentimes not — make it to the events manager for a follow-up. And we've also learned that the faster you respond to a lead, the greater chance of winning that business."

With pen and paper, it's easy for those leads to slip through the cracks, he added. That is why more and more restaurants are turning to event management platforms. He recommends using software tools, as your business can still digitally obtain inquiries even when your restaurant is closed. When it comes to organization, Lassiter acknowledges it is a constant struggle. There are restaurants that still compile everything into a single binder — not the best option, when a slew of details start changing and get tossed in the air.

"Not only does this method keep events and managers chained to their desks, but it also causes a huge headache if the binder or anything in it gets lost or misplaced," Lassiter said.

And as details begin switching up and become more complicated as an event approaches, it can seem impossible to get the entire team up-to-date and completely on the same page. Clear communication in a timely manner is key. Software tools, much like Gather, make it possible to handle these multiple facets all in one place. In Gather's case, its platform has a shared calendar system that tracks past, present, and future bookings, is able to automatically update proposals and invoices, and sends daily reminders to the entire team regarding upcoming events. Above all, they are committed to providing top-notch customer service.

"We like to say that we’re not just offering software as a service, but software with service. While the platform was ultimately built to help restaurants realize more revenue from events, our support and success teams are the ones who make sure it happens," he said.

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Top Tips for Restaurant Event Planning Success

It's imperative to take care of the little details before they become big problems. This means simplifying your program as much as possible, setting a service standard, before allowing for customization. And how can you get this done? These are Lassiter's top three tips for restaurateurs:

1. Build basic events packages.

"Guests oftentimes get overwhelmed when they’re trying to book an event and hear, 'We can do whatever you want!' Far too many restaurants try to be all things to all people and that often leads to analysis paralysis," he said. "Build a basic package structure and give guests something to react to — and you can always customize from there."

2. Create experiences that are unique to your restaurant.

What makes your restaurant special? What do you offer that customers won't find anywhere else? What can spark a return visit? Is it the food? Your atmosphere? Or is it something else entirely?

"By hosting events, you’re exposing your restaurant to new guests who then have a higher chance of coming back, so showcase what makes you unique. Some of the best examples we’ve seen range from a signed cookbook from head chef for every guest to leaving guests with a take-home box of breakfast for the next morning. These restaurants were able to capitalize on what made them special and created a truly unique experience for guests," Lassiter said.  

3. Invest in the right tools.

Letting information and details fall through the cracks is the same as letting money fall through the cracks. Keep your information all in one place to keep your entire staff on the same page.

"There’s a huge difference between just doing events and doing them right. It takes attention to detail, flexibility, and clear communication between restaurant teams and the guest — all of which is made harder when you’re relying on pen-and-paper systems," he said. "Event management software takes on the burden of managing rote, managerial tasks, and frees you up to get back to doing what you love."

Gather's clients have already seen success after shifting over to digital. The McConnell Hospitality Group, for example, was able to reduce lead response time spent on event booking by 60 percent, giving them more time to focus on marketing — which led to an increase in leads by 75 percent. Rhinegeist Brewery, which hosts all sorts of charity events, community classes, and weddings in its 150,000 square-feet space, saw 10 times more efficient guest communication and was able to book events 75 percent faster.

But Lassiter also saw another kind of success story when it came to investing in the right tools, hitting where it mattered even more so than in numbers. One of Gather's customers, a woman with a husband and two children, was used to working through the holidays, particularly because of the high-volume of sales that demanded her time being a part of a prominent restaurant group in Atlanta.

Those in foodservice who understand that the holiday season is the busiest time of year to make profits also understand the life of working through the weekends and going through 70+hour workweeks. Because of event management software, she was able to support her clients remotely away from her office — and spend her the holiday season at home with her family for the first time in five years. Her husband sent Gather a letter in gratitude.

"Her husband said, 'I wanted to thank you for allowing my wife to both be successful in her career, as well as home during an important time for her family,'" Lassiter said. "The letter had a big impact on me. It reminded me of why we do this."

Still not planning on implementing a large party event program at your restaurant? Or have these tips led to "a turn of events"? An event program is by no means an easy task. As a restaurant owner, you will have to consider flexibility in regards to your team's bandwidth, how you may need to adjust your space, and other possible limitations your concept may face.

Still, with a proper strategy and perhaps defining your SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable Realistic, and Timely), you may find that event planning and management can lead to more opportunities for your business. 

"For many restaurant sectors, in-restaurant dining traffic is expected to stay flat and even decrease over the next couple years. Which means that for restaurants wanting to build their business, they’ll need to turn to other streams of revenue," Lassiter said. "Restaurants are starting to realize that private dining and events are a great secondary revenue stream."