10 secrets to great service

10 secrets to great service

When you're hiring staff for events, never forget they are your brand ambassadors. They spend more time with your guests than you do so make sure you hire the best.

We've all been there. A fabulous venue, scrumptious catering, a glitteringly glamorous guest list and a front of house 'ambassador' who doesn't even know what day of the week it is, let alone what the event they're working at is all about. It's all too familiar but, like everything else in life, it happens for a reason. And the reason is simple. Not as much thought goes into your staff (front and back of house) as goes into your venue, your catering or even your decoration. And, for the record, that's crazy! Whichever way you spin it, life is all about people. You buy into people at every stage - whether it's business or pleasure, it all depends if you like being with someone. No matter what anyone says to the contrary, business is personal. Massively so.

Nowadays events are sophisticated sales and marketing initiatives. Even when they're not. Your office Christmas party, for example, is a crucial sales and marketing exercise - selling the attributes of your business to your own people - "Hey! This is a pretty cool place to work and these colleagues are actually pretty awesome!" So, next time you stage an event, think about who's representing your brand. The answer is your hired guns. The staff who are working the event. The prettier (male and female - I'm not being sexist), the more articulate and, above all else, well briefed they are, the better represented your brand will be (easy for Yoda to say!)


I've touched on this is a previous article about catering. So often, waiting staff don't know what they're serving which is not only annoying but also a terrible wasted opportunity. Life is sales and, to a certain extent, you always need to be selling. Selling your products, selling your brand, selling yourself and, at an event there's an added dimension - selling the experience. The more seamless, informative, interesting, unusual, fun, exciting and stimulating your event is, the more you'll get out of it. As the host or hostess, there's only so much you can do to spread the love, so your front of house staff - from the guest list guys to the cloakroom staff, the waiters and waitresses to the meeters and greeters (if you're one of the really switched on brands who understand the benefits of such specifically dedicated personnel) are everything to you. Everything.

If your people are well briefed, well spoken, well heeled and, well...articulate then your brand is being well represented. And anything less is simply not acceptable.

I would also go so far as to say that your cloakroom staff are considerably more important than you are. I have first hand experience of this too. When I was President of ISES we were staging an event in Knightsbridge where we were expecting more than two hundred guests. And the cloakroom staff didn't turn up. Simply because I had no choice (and a growing queue of increasingly impatient guests) I sprang into action and dutifully took my  position as cloakroom attendant. And it was a revelation. I was able to greet every single guest personally, have a brief chat with absolutely everybody (how often do you get a chance to do that?) and, what's more, I learnt the intricacies of running a busy cloakroom. And I'll never be impatient with cloakroom staff again. It was a nightmare - even down to ordering the coats on the rack to correspond with the raffle tickets (it's amazing how much of a pickle you can get in with that!). But it was also the best guest experience I've ever had. Because I spoke to absolutely everyone, and gave them the welcome I would have expected. It was the equivalent of the cloakroom attendant spreading the most perfect, on brand message you could hope for - almost as if the President himself had done it ;-) Actually, that's not a bad idea for standard practice, is it? Put your boss in the cloakroom at your next event and see what happens!

So, fuelled with these preconceived ideas, I went to see the event industry's leading authority on the art of service, Charles Smith, MD of At Your Service. Charlie has built a service empire and is widely respected as the market leader in quality personnel and ambassadorial solutions for brands within live environments.

Charlie is refreshingly outspoken too and remembers when the importance of service first struck him as a necessity, rather than a nice to have. He'd just started his agency and was attending a lavish wedding. With shit service.

Whilst chatting to a fellow guest, he tried to pierce a potato with his fork and, hitting the table, found that his plate had been surreptitiously removed! Upon politely beckoning the waitress back with his half eaten plate of food, fork in hand, he remembers her looking at him "as if he'd farted!" before dropping the plate like a 'bomb' from an unnecessary height. Point taken. And to really show him, he was completely left out of the pudding course! That'll teach him (to never recommend that caterer ever again). BIG mistake (of Pretty Woman proportions, as it happens!).

After an hour with Charlie, we'd discussed, and largely concurred, the ins and outs of service at events and came up with a concise 'Top 10' tips to great service:

1. Choose the right people

Experience is no excuse. The wrong attitude is fatal. Recruit the attitude, train the skill.

2. Be nice to your staff

You do not pay them enough to shout at them. And, anyway, shouting doesn't encourage anyone, not even in the army, where people are shouted at for a living!

3. Treat your staff with respect

They are not lower beings and are often making ends meet whilst on the way to great things. All sorts of great people started their careers in service - and its a great place to start. I always find that the best event managers have done at least a stint as a waiter or waitress. Lots of celebrities started out at AYS and owe at least part of their success to what they learnt in service. Charlie Smith recalls employing a young and enthusiastic Ben Fogle and remembers being struck by his positive, selfless attitude and always thought he'd go far. And, as it happens, he did. All the way across the Atlantic far!

4. Don't scrimp on your staff budget

You're squeezing precisely the wrong area. It's possibly the most important aspect of your event and, in fact, the single most expensive ingredient. Brands spend huge amounts on their websites and brochures, even their business cards then cut the price of their staff by beating it down as far as possible as if they’re a commodity or stationery order! People are everything so don't resent the cost because it stands to reason. Some clients realise this and pay more, getting the most out of their event staff, with dramatic effect. What's more, the staff feel more valued and actually want to be there. They feel an affinity with your brand and will look after you. They have great power.

5. Treat your staffing agency as a partner, not a supplier

They are an extension of your sales and marketing teams. Really. As Charlie so vociferously states, "The future is not about client/supplier relationships.  It's about client/supplier partnerships where we can work together to improve quality and service".

6. “Do what you're paid to do” no longer works

Your staff have to want to do it. Like anything in life, inspiration, encouragement, praise and leading by example will always get the best results. It’s a simple concept but easier said than done. These days staff decide where and when they want to work. And those two places are:

  • The place where the client values and respects them most
  • Where they are paid the most

Some clients recognize this fact and choose to pay that little bit more than they have to. As a consequence, the results are dramatic because your staff actually want to be there. Charlie Smith says that AYS will always support this notion and will pass the entire added amount onto their staff. For this reason alone, it’s very important to choose an agency you trust and then stay loyal to them as your front of house partner.

7. Lead from the front

If something goes wrong, it's your fault! And your problem! If you have inspired and briefed your team, nothing will go wrong. Even when something does. It's just as much about improvising and thinking on your feet as it is about careful planning and meticulous briefing. There’s always a reason for things going awry and it tends to be staring you in the face in the form of Management. It’s so easy to ‘lose the dressing room’ á la David Moyes if you’re not respected as a leader. The best way to earn that respect is to get your hands dirty and not be afraid of failure...  

8.  DO NOT PANIC! Ever

Charlie has a great story about an event where everything went wrong. Everything. What’s more, the client was an impossible character. And Charlie’s disgruntled ex-girlfriend. As a relatively junior member of staff at the time, his troops were all the new guys, bursting with enthusiasm but with no real-time experience on the job. Oh, and then the hire company failed to show up. And the ice supplier. Thinking on his feet, Charlie got his team into a ‘pre-match’ huddle and they hatched a plan there and then. “It was us against the world”.  A plan which they were all involved in and a solution in which they were all an integral part of. The Champagne was stuffed outside in the snow to chill with one team member guarding it. When the hire van finally arrived (about the same time as the first guests) everyone knew their role. Two of them jumped into the van to retrieve the trays and Champagne glasses, two raced outside to retrieve the chilled Champagne, two of them started pouring and two of them trayed them up to serve, without a trace of what had just happened. Seamless. And the camaraderie that ensued made for a triumphant team of uber-achievers who had taken ownership of a very difficult situation. And they never looked back.      

9. Choose an agency you trust and do not chastise them

Dealing with people is an art. And there are no simple solutions - shit sometimes happens. The best policy is undoubtedly to accept it and deal with it by working things through with your staffing agency partner. Working with a good agency can make a world of difference. One global hospitality provider has retained significantly more hospitality box debentures at major sporting venues as a direct result of using a top staff provider. The same has happened in a prominent London venue where catering and bar sales have risen a dramatic 30% in a single year due to engaged and enthusiastic bar staff. It really can make a huge difference because good service wins clients and good staff up-sell to your existing clients. There’s a direct and tangible benefit and the sooner we realize it, the sooner we’ll get the balance right. Your staff could be (and should be) your sales team!

10. Pay staff a decent wage

Don't be fooled into thinking you're paying the event staff more than you actually are. You're not! Did you know that, despite what you seem to be paying them, what they actually receive is normally equivalent to minimum wage. And they have to pay for their own travel to and from the event out of that. And tax. Of course the staffing agency need to make their cut (after all, they’ve trained them, managed them and delivered them) but you may not know that the caterer will often take a cut as will the event management company and, sometimes, the venue too! This isn’t really a problem with ‘artizans’ such as florists, ice sculptors, entertainers etc because they are seen as specialist, niche and therefore justifiably expensive. But it’s the same with them, all sorts of agents are taking their cut. It’s just never questioned in the same way as with ‘staff’. Indeed, some companies are now paying less for their staff than ten years ago and with ‘London Living Wage’ looming, staffing agencies are set to take yet another hit to their margins because of compulsory wage rises, the Pensions Bill, even compulsory holiday pay.    

11. It's all about fun!

Never lose sight of the fact that we're in the party business! And that's all about fun, joy, inspiration and creating an experience. Smile and your staff will smile with you...

In summary, Charlie points out that your staff have more contact with your guests than you do at an event. It’s a logistical fact and it’s therefore worth investing in. He states that “staff should be courteous, observant, not over familiar, attentive and, perhaps above all, should be reactive and able to improvise because events are not an exact science”.

There are so many more variables within an event than there are in, say, a restaurant or even a hotel. Your staff are working in new venues, alien environments and with different protocols so they have to be adaptable, versatile, flexible and on the ball. That’s impressive stuff when it’s done seamlessly.  

The Gold Service Scholarship

Despite all the intricacies, a bit like event photography, event service is often an afterthought and that’s a disaster, whichever way you look at it. In fact, service has become such a prominent issue that, for the first time, it’s being recognized and rewarded through the ‘Gold Service Scholarship’. 

Perhaps the most important factor here is that Service is a crucial and viable career path that one should be proud of. Historically, at least since the Downton days, service has been a sector where most people pass through whilst either deciding what to do, making ends meet or, occasionally, using it as a platform for an alternative career.

Nowadays, particularly with the resurgence of face-to-face contact, partly as an ironic by-product of digital marketing and social media, Service is increasingly prominent and very much a place to ‘stay’. It's a viable career opportunity and, as a result, more and more of us are looking at Service as a career to be proud of.

Take the great front of house Directors such as Silvano Giraldin of Le Gavroche fame, Willy Bauer, the formidable former General Manager of The Savoy (here’s a fascinating ‘day in the life’ excerpt from the 80’s in the New York Times) or Claridges’ Thomas Kochs who has recently starred in a major TV documentary. All have achieved a degree of celebrity status due to their brilliance and understanding of the ‘art of service’.  Indeed, an entire programme was dedicated to ‘Service’ last year too – aptly named ‘Service’ and starring Michel Roux, which itself indicates the new found prominence and universal recognition of the subject.  The Gold Service Scholarship is designed “to inspire young professionals to develop professional service skills; recognize and celebrate their achievements, whilst helping them aspire to achieve excellence as masters of their craft”.

Charlie Smith sums up AYS’ philosophy in a single sentence “The sign of a true gentleman is to be respectful of others. Oh, and be aware that some of those staff members will become your clients one day. What goes around comes around.” 

And to get the final word, I’d say this. Your staff are your biggest brand ambassadors and therefore your biggest asset. They are your biggest PR machines too – good or bad, because what happens at your event stays on Facebook. Remember that…

Will Broome CEO


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