Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Disaster Planning

Working in the banquet department of a hotel can be like booking passage on the Titanic, knowing full well before you sail that the ship is going to sink. You even know why it's going to sink.

In banquets, you're provided with an outline of the menu, program, seating arrangements, number of guests ... all the details any reasonable person (sales and catering staff are obviously excluded from this description) would need to predict impending doom. The banquet department is where the sales staff gets to realize their creativity without actually having to do any of the work. If they dreamed of pink fluffy clouds, leprechauns and seating for 400 in a broom closet, it was up to the banquet staff to "take care of the details."

I remember one ongoing fiasco - a collaborative effort of the entire sales and catering staff, most of whom barely spoke to one another - of which I was the primary "detail" person. For an entire Summer, I acted as the poolside bartender for a complimentary cocktail and hors-d'oeuvre party the hotel hosted to drum up new business. These events were co-sponsored by liquor distributors and often featured gimmicky new cocktails such as the "Lynchburg Lemonade." Sometimes, we couldn't even get people to drink the stuff for free. A series of colorful flavored rum schnapps was still sitting on the shelf of the lobby bar 5 years after their debut at a Pool Party. Every once in a while, someone would ask, "What's that?" but nobody wanted to drink them.

There were a couple of things right off the bat that really sucked about these parties. One was the weather. The pool was an outdoor one, located on the 6th floor of a downtown hotel and open to the air. Standing rules were that the party was to proceed, regardless of rain, hail, lightening ... the hotel had invited people and we had an "obligation" to come through. Even if it wasn't particularly stormy, the winds can really kick up in Denver from time to time, so trying to run a buffet and serve drinks often meant dealing with billowing table cloths and skirting, napkins and promotional materials blown into the pool, Sterno flames blowing from underneath chafing dishes like flame throwers. One afternoon, I was nearly knocked unconscious by a 10 foot hard plastic Spuds McKenzie (Bud Light's bulldog mascot of the 80s) the distributors had attached to the railing surrounding the pool deck. The wind knocked the sign loose and Spuds' foot landed on my head, knocking me to the ground. I remember the catering director being especially concerned about the dog. "It didn't break, did it?"

Another problem with the parties was knowing how many people were actually going to show up. The rule was we had to keep the food going for two hours and, in theory, each person was supplied with two free drink tickets with their "invitation." The invitations were passed out randomly on the mall downtown; just a flier that entitled the bearer to two free drinks and free hors-d'oeuvre at the hotel on Wednesday, starting at 5:00p.m. The event was supposed to end at 7:00, but the sales staff was so eager to please that these parties frequently went on for several hours. The kitchen would estimate how many people were going to attend, based on how much free food the Chef was willing to give away. That usually meant we had half of what we needed just to get through the scheduled part, and anything more required the patience of Job and finagling that would have been daunting to an Enron executive. The sales staff demanded, the kitchen refused, and I was stuck between them, facing a patio full of people who had been promised something that was not being delivered.

One afternoon, I had the party set to go, was dressed in whatever promotional t-shirt I was required to wear for the day (shivering in the wind because it was not the kind of day anyone would choose to wear shorts and a t-shirt unless they were doing it to keep their job) when people started showing up with blank pieces of pink paper. No details about the party ... no "2 free drinks" mentioned, and nothing about how long the event was supposed to last. One of the sales execs had taken it upon himself to pass out the "flyers" on the mall that afternoon without bothering look at them first. Instead of grabbing the stack that the printers had delivered, he just handed out these blank sheets of paper and told people to show up on the 6th floor of our hotel at 5 o'clock for free food and drinks. And they did! It's hard enough to limit people to two drinks at a host event anyway, but when they don't know about any limitations, it's pandemonium. As usual, it was my job to land on my feet as best I could and balance the demands of the guests with the resistance of the kitchen and the spinelessness of the sales staff to create a "party."

From my Summer of bartending on Wednesdays at the pool, I accumulated almost no money. I wasn't allowed to have a tip jar and the grat was only based on the food that was supposed to be served, not what actually went out; my bartender fee was split with the sales department and my wages were negligible. About the only perk to the event was the free t-shirt I got each shift as my uniform, and most of those were stained by the time the shift was over. I look back on that time and so many like it and I wonder why I stayed. It must have been something like Stockholm Syndrome. Or maybe I was just waiting to get even with Spuds.

No comments:

Post a Comment