Rob’s Rules: R.S.V.P.

September 1, 2010


Featuring Rob Schaefer

It seems as though one of the biggest concerns of event planners today is getting people to R.S.V.P. for events. Unfortunately, there is nothing more unprofessional, disrespectful – or more common – than not responding to an invitation. With everyone’s eye on the dollar, accurate head counts are critical to stay within budget and prevent unnecessary waste and labor. The number one cause of waste at an event is an inaccurate count. Are you guilty of being less than R.S.V.P. perfect?

I know it is hard to believe but I think one of the biggest problems is that people today have no idea what R.S.V.P. means. R.S.V.P. is derived from the French phrase “répondez s’il vous plaît,” which translates “respond if you please.” Blame it on the lack of etiquette, a more laid back society or just fear of commitment, but the lack of response today seems like guests are holding out for a better offer. Most events are planned around accurate counts. The venue, valet parking, food and beverage, chairs and tables, printed materials, favors, flowers, etc., are all based on the final count.

According to early 20th century tradition, guests were expected to respond to an invitation within a week. This was partially due to the amount of time it would take for the response to travel back to the host or hostess. Now, almost all invitations include a deadline for response and mail can travel around the word in a matter of days. As a rule, wedding and large social event invitations with response cards should be sent out 8 to 10 weeks before the actual event assuming an R.S.V.P. date two weeks prior to the event. Save-the-date cards are generally sent 6 months out or as soon as the actual date is determined.

When you receive a printed invitation, the individuals to whom it is addressed are the only ones invited to the event. Many, many times over the years have I seen people receive an invitation that says “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and they write in “AND Billy, Tina and little Maggie.” WRONG! Unless your children’s names or ‘and family’ are written out on the invitation, you may not bring them. PERIOD! Never assume that children are welcome, especially to an evening function with bar. Also never assume that there will be some type of play area or babysitting service. If there is going to be, it will be on the invitation.

Children are not the only concern. If your name is not followed by the words “and Guest” on your printed invitation, you are not permitted to bring a date or spouse. PERIOD! This is simply saying that the pleasure of your company is desired but the budget is not permitting you to bring an additional person (or they really can’t stand your significant other). Inviting spouses or dates to events doubles the cost and many companies and families today simply cannot afford it. Be respectful and be low maintenance. It will serve you well later!

Sadly, another trend that I have noticed is that if the event is casual or outdoors, such as a company picnic, guests have started to bring their pets! NO! NO! NO! With safety, liability, and health issues, not to mention the comfort of those who do not like animals, Fido should stay home or with a babysitter. And just because your dog is as good as gold does not mean the random dog running through the park is. Avoid the wrecking ball and keep it a people party.

When the invitation is accompanied by a pre-addressed, stamped envelope with a due date, you must mail it back by that due date. The host has PAID for you to mail it back. Make a note of your attendance on your calendar immediately. If you have special dietary needs or allergies, that is the time to voice them – not the night of the event. If culinary choices are given, what you select on the response card is what you will eat. Do not ruin the numbers by changing your mind. And remember, most planners have a master list of who selected what, so if there is a shortage, you may get called on it. Avoid the embarrassment and stick to your initial choice. If for some reason you MUST have the other option, kindly ask the waiter if it would be possible to trade AFTER all guests have been served and there is an extra entrée. Either it will work out or it won’t, but you will have handled it in a professional and discreet manner.

If you have indicated that you are coming to an event and suddenly cannot go, call the host immediately and express your regrets with a plausible explanation. It isn’t the ideal situation, but at least they can remove a place setting or invite a fill in guest. Always call after the event and extend your apologies again, especially at a work related function. It says a lot.

When you arrive at an event with escort cards, go to your table and sit where you are told to sit. Please note, escort cards indicate the table at which you are seated and place cards indicate which seat. We have all been to events where a social butterfly attempts to turn a table of ten into a table of 14 so his buddies can sit with him. This is more than poor etiquette, it is rude. Not only is he sacrificing the comfort of those assigned to the table, but this can also disrupt the dinner service. Also keep in mind that dinner only runs about an hour. There will be time to socialize with friends after your meal. So less talking and more chewing!

Occasionally there can be mistakes on a seating chart and there are only a few exceptions to not sticking to the assigned spaces. If you are alone and can move to another table so a couple can sit together, please do so. If a wheelchair guest needs additional room or an attendant to assist him or her, show some class and move to the next available chair. If you are a couple and the table you were assigned to is full, do not stress out, simply wait until all guests are seated and then take the first available pair of chairs. If this does not work out, then have ONE person approach the host calmly and ask for an additional place setting. More than likely, a guest went rogue and sat wherever he wanted, thus throwing off the entire layout. Always help your host save face and be accommodating.

With everyone in the office and at home on the Internet, the latest craze is electronic invitations, or e-vites. I readily admit that they are fast, effective and offer reminders that nudge people into responding, not to mention remembering to attend the event! Also, e-vites typically include valuable map links and directions to ensure your guests know exactly
where to go. Most online invitations can show complete guest lists as well as who’s attending. Seeing who’s going to be there often acts as peer pressure and helps put a fire under those who normally would not participate.

While there is generally a small charge for these services, electronic invitations can reach more people for less. You can save money on the design, printing, labeling and mailing of the invitation, as well as the administrative time that goes into database management, mailing and tracking. It is also worth mentioning how environmentally friendly online invitations are, eliminating all need for paper, ink and glue.

I still believe that for formal and religious events such as weddings, galas and holidays, a beautiful hand delivered or mailed invitation, printed on recycled paper, is the route to take. It makes a dramatic impression and acts as the first taste of the event to come.

1) As soon as you receive an invitation, check your calendar, consult your significant other and decide if you can commit… then commit!
2) Regardless of yes or no, mail the response card back to save the host from tracking you down via phone or e-mail.
3) Act like a guest and show respect to your employer and fellow employees by following simple rules of etiquette and doing what is asked of you.
4) Never bring anyone not listed on the invitation, including spouses, children, dates and Fido.
5) If you are given entrée options, what you select on your response card is what you will eat at the event.
6) Be sensitive to others at your table with special needs and be willing to give up your seat to accommodate someone else. It will be noticed.
7) If there is no map card, look up directions before you start flying down the freeway. Most venues will not have someone answering phones on the weekends because they are busy setting up for the event.
8.) Be on time and call ahead if there is a problem that will cause you to be late. Follow up with a note of apology if you are late or cannot attend the function at the last minute.
9) If there is a seating error, be discreet, flexible and sensitive to your host.
10) Remember that an invitation is your first taste of an event. It can be a powerful tool to excite, intrigue, inspire and motivate guests to attend.

This column is meant to provide practical advice, tips and rules of engagement you need in the meeting and event planning industry. If you have a question, whether it’s how to dress, how to address your guests or what to serve as the main course, e-mail Rob at [email protected] Your question might just inspire the topic of his next column! Rob Schaefer is Vice President of Steven Becker Fine Dining in St. Louis.

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