Thursday, March 27, 2008

Behaving Ourselves

Have you ever found yourself elegantly attired, among polite company in an exquisite setting, trying to cope with a wad of something disgusting in your mouth while everyone at your table shouts "Don't chew! Don't chew!!"

One of the best parts of being a corporate meeting planner, as I've said before, was the wining-and-dining that comes as part of being wooed by CVBs, hotels, restaurants, and other prospective suppliers. The hospitality industry is, not surprisingly, a gracious one. It's staffed almost entirely by people who are very good at behaving pleasantly.

Coming back to the hospitality industry as part of the government sector is weird, because - aside from my division - the people who staff my agency are not, generally speaking, hired based on charm. In fact the official interview process is specifically designed to disallow the interviewer's personal impressions about a candidate.

When it comes to travel and hospitality industry schmoozing? We're like an elephant at afternoon tea.

Not on a personal level, mind you. Employees of my division are fairly politic, and know how to smile and say agreeable things. I would say we all know which fork to use, but frankly I've never understood how that's a challenge for anyone. You start with the one furthest from your plate and work your way in. How hard is that? The little bitty ones up top are for dessert. And it doesn't matter if you mess up anyway, because a proper waiter will simply whisk away the evidence of your ineptitude and bring a clean replacement while you're busy chatting with your tablemates over champagne.

Ay, there's the rub. A travel industry meet-and-greet is a work function. We are required to go as one of our duties - a pleasant one, of course - but if we drink alcohol, we're automatically off the clock. We're salaried, but not salaried as I used to know it - we earn comp time for hours worked over 40 per week, and can use that comp time to work fewer than 40 hours.

So going to a required function after normal working hours earns you comp time, you see, unless you drink alcohol, in which case you still have to be there, but you don't get paid.

I don't know. I'm sure it makes sense to someone.

Anyway, much worse than that is that travel and hospitality industry standards dictate the giving and receiving of gifts. Tokens, normally, but they can get pricey. And gifts for clients are part of any vendor company's normal operating budget. The planners who purchase these gifts put a lot of thought into any associated events, and work hard to select something that ties in with an event's theme, or reflects positively, and uniquely, on their destination or their company.

It's ungracious to refuse. It's unprofessional, even. Declining to enter a drawing at an event is one thing - you can refrain from dropping in your business card, or quietly refuse a ticket - but when you're taking your leave, all smiles, and one of the hostesses attempts to press a beautifully packaged gift bag on you, it's just boorish to say no.

But you do say no, of course, not particularly wanting to lose your job; and being pleasant and polite, your hostess does understand. Of course you decline as graciously as possible, with explanations, apologies and regrets. But it's just not right.

Oysters on the half-shell just aren't right, either. I don't think I'll be trying that again. Spitting mussels into your napkin at an elegant cocktail mixer is worse than trying to eat your salad with the butter knife. Honestly. I can't take you anywhere!

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