Earlier this winter the Boston Globe published a piece on "gala fatigue," the weariness faced by members of the business community at having to attend night after night of fund-raising dinners that blur into similarity. Etiquetteer, who has both planned and attended his share of fund-raisers, read it with interest, and considered what might be done to Put the Fun Back in Fund-Raising. Most fund-raising organizations planning events operate on the mistaken notion that people attend them because they want to support and learn more about their cause. Etiquetteer, perhaps cynically, would suggest that people attend them because they want to get a tax deduction for having a good time with their friends and, incidentally, support something worthy. All the speeches - the endless, endless speeches - get in the way of that good time. The growing number of "set-piece" remarks has seen the podium colonize every aspect of a dinner, from dessert (where they belong) through every course of the meal, starting with the salad. This effectively eliminates any opportunity to converse with fellow diners, and more often than not leads guests to leave the table to seek refuge among the silent auction items. Not only does this make table talk difficult for those who remain, it also creates difficulties for the waiters, whose already difficult task of nimbly weaving among tables with heavy trays becomes more complicated when having to dodge oblivious guests standing in the way and chairs that have been left out as obstacles.
Another aspect is the "rubber chicken" problem, the assumptions that chicken is the most universally accepted entrée protein, and that hotel kitchens routinely produce bland, uninspired menus. Both are untrue. Etiquetteer will never forget attending a black-tie dinner for 1,000 people several years ago at which brisket was served as the main course. Brisket. Brisket! Savory in presentation and delightful in its novelty, Etiquetteer thinks more gala committees should look beyond chicken to the unexpected. And while hotel kitchens have a bland reputation for a reason, that's mostly history. Great strides are made at every event to get guests to realize they're facing something delicious.
Of course these days too many people are too fussy about their food. While Etiquetteer certainly appreciates modern medicine - even the late Diana Vreeland acknowledged the benefits of penicillin, as other writers have pointed out - it's allowed too many people to disguise mere preferences as "allergies." Etiquetteer wants to serve them all a heaping helping of Shut Up and Eat.
It's interesting to note how, in the moment, some sort of souvenir of the evening becomes meaningful. It's not always what it is, but how it's presented that makes it stand out. At one black-tie evening, Etiquetteer noticed a run on thematic charms that had been used to tie the napkins as part of the table setting. One lady commandeered those of her dinner companions to make a necklace. One another occasion, guests were each offered a small black velvet bag with a surprise inside on leaving the dining room. Etiquetteer will confess to not being a fan of the "swag bag" at formal events - especially when they turn out to be almost all promotional literature - but admits that that's a case of Personal Preference, not Perfect Propriety.
So, what does Etiquetteer recommend?
- In addition to a dollar goal, make creating positive memories for your guests a priority.
- Preserve time in the evening for guests to talk to each other.
- Halve the spoken program. Halve it. Create other ways to communicate your story. Be ruthless.
- Reconsider the menu and serve something other than chicken.
- Inject the unexpected. Whether it's a surprise guest, an unusual trinket, a special performance, or a big announcement for your organization, let Astonishment take a role in your evening.
Have fun, and best wishes for a successful event!
Etiquetteer's Spring Madness of Pet Peeves is still on! Voting for Round III ends this weekend, and the champion pet peeves in each division have yet to be named. Join the fun and vote here!