Rob’s Rules: Sensitivity

July 4, 2009

RR Sensitivityby Rob Schaefer

Many years ago, when I first debuted as an industry speaker, I spoke on the five human senses and how I consider their impact on my event guests. Sight, sound, taste, touch and smell are more than textbook phrases; they can be critical elements for party success. Pleasing or painful, a smart planner understands human sensitivity. It can be overwhelming to try and consider every sensory element for a room full of diverse people. The key for me is to always associate “sensory” with “seasonal.” Ask yourself, “What makes sense right now?” If it is summer, then lighting is naturally brighter. If it is fall, then linen colors that reflect change or transition make sense. If it is winter, the palate responds to rich flavors such as stew and spices. And bulb flowers and budding branches remind us that spring represents new beginnings.


Sight equals light. The number one comment you will hear is that it is too bright or too dark at an event. With the use of modern A/V and personal computers, bright light and sunlight can make it difficult to see the screen. However, a dark room can encourage drowsiness. The most effective way to overcome this is by varying the light level. Bring the lights up when possible and lower them again for presentations. Speakers can find themselves unable to read in a dark room next to a bright screen. A podium light or reading light can make a huge difference in the manner they present themselves.

Remember that fluorescent light can be harsh and alter the color of objects, including people. That ruby red linen you were so fond of can suddenly seem like a giant tomato patch. Consider your options and test the lighting in your event space. Think about what you are trying to achieve and then modify the lighting accordingly. For example, a make-up or skin care line would never want its presentation held in a space that gave guests a grayish pallor. I have brought in lamps and candlelight to combat bad lighting. Also, note that an amber tone or pink light bulb can work magic!

Dramatic lighting at evening functions is always a popular choice. However, I only use strong colors on walls and ceilings and not on guest seating. “Going Green” may be the topic of the celebration, but looking green may make your date a candidate for the “X Files.” Pin-spotting centerpieces can be stunning, but make sure the lights are shining down and not across the arrangement. Guests who have the DJ lights or pin spotlights shining in their face are miserable and feel like they are being interrogated! Rob’s Rule: Dramatic color up the walls and soft amber light down.

Candles are a source of beauty and add to the atmosphere, but they need to be used with caution. Everyone looks good in candlelight, but keep in mind that too many candles can heat up a centerpiece quickly. That stunning centerpiece with a delicate bouquet can suddenly smell like a compost pile! Remember that when flowers warm up by candles or strong sunlight – especially roses, lilies and orchids – they release their scent in abundance. I have seen guests become nauseous and even get headaches from this.


People have high sensitivity to smell – the billion-dollar perfume industry shows us that. We want our sheets to smell like sunlit fields, our kitchens to have an aroma of apple pie and our cars to smell “new” again. It is scientifically proven that we respond to and purchase items due to smell. Real estate agents now bake fresh chocolate chip cookies in their client’s home during the open house and retail furniture stores are baking cookies to encourage a dining room or kitchen table purchase! Studies have shown that men respond to the smell of cinnamon, lavender and vanilla, as it stimulates the more “pleasurable part” of the brain. And they have found women react positively to the smell of chocolate, black licorice and coffee.

Rob’s Rule: Keep it neutral or natural.

I never use air fresheners or strong scented candles in my event space. Make it fresh with lots of natural air or baking soda, or fresh flowers in moderation. Burn a cinnamon stick to give the room a lovely home-baked feel, or use themed culinary treats to transport guests to another place. Nothing makes an event theme stronger than the right cuisine. Fresh Parmesan cheese and olive oil remind us of Italy. Crisp bacon frying and buttermilk pancakes conjure thoughts of warmth and comfort. Evergreen and peppermint remind us of the holidays. These are simple fixes for a stale room.

Also remember that guest placement can be a factor as well. If the dining table is near the restroom door, guests might smell bleach or cleaning products. Fish, such as salmon, can be overwhelming when wafting from a kitchen without appropriate ventilation. When throwing a company party, remind everyone that a little cologne goes a long way. I have had guests ask to be moved because the person they are seated next too reeks of cheap perfume. And if you provide a light spray or rosewater in the powder room, guests should dab not douse.

Rob’s Rule: Unless someone is standing less than three feet from you, they should not be able to smell your cologne.


Food and Beverage is the most effective and satisfying way to make an event extraordinary. I have found that people have powerful taste associations. Hot buttered popcorn makes us think of the movies, Pumpkin pie reminds us of Thanksgiving, and personally, the taste of cherry reminds me of cough syrup and being ill – YUCK!

The flavors you choose can reinforce the event theme and drive home points in subliminal ways. For example, you are planning an employee appreciation party for a toy manufacturer in a standard hotel banquet space with no natural light. You also just learned that their hottest selling toy is a Ninja action figure.

You choose the following catering package that includes:
o Three passed hors d’oeuvres, including pot stickers with soy dipping sauce, mini spring rolls and vegetable tempura
o Asian stir-fry stations with beef, pork and chicken, steamed vegetables and rice, dim sum and miso soup shots and chocolate or cream-filled fortune cookies, drizzled with caramel sauce
o Standard ivory linens with hurricane candle centerpiece
o Saki and Orange Blossom martini signature drink With the décor budget you can get woven bamboo runners and crisscross them on the table.

Go “green” by using the hurricane candle container filled with live green bamboo stalks guests can take home. Instead of a DJ you can purchase current Asian top 10 CDs to be played on the in-house sound system. Buy low soy candles in red and gold cups and ask to borrow a sample of the Ninja doll for each table from the toy manufacturer. He can hold the menu or program that you create on your home computer, printed on recycled paper, using an Asian-style font.
For $20.00 more, you buy some beautiful paper fans and have the hotel use them to decorate the hors d’oeuvre trays. Add the chopsticks you “borrowed” from the take-out place and a geisha figurine from the dollar store and you have a look!

Always be thinking about which culinary flavors are going to stand out and make guests feel that they went somewhere? The menu is more than what fills the belly, it is how you make a statement!

Prepare yourself. You will never please everyone from a culinary standpoint. However the best events I’ve designed had very diverse and exciting menus that fired up the palate.

Rob’s Rule: Seasonal is sensational.

When in doubt, base your theme on whatever is in season. For most people, the palate responds positively to seasonal flavor. We can’t wait for BBQ in summer, citrus flavors in spring and baked goods in fall. Remember that garlic and salt increase thirst, so they are not a good choice for an all-day meeting. Peanuts suppress the appetite, so never serve them before a wedding or banquet. Wine, cheese and fish sour the breath, so provide mints or mouthwash in the restroom.


Let’s face it, guests like to touch things. The human skin is the body’s largest organ. It decides if you are hot or cold, comfortable or uncomfortable. We respond to the things we touch by the pressure distribution on our skin. Marble feels smooth because it allows an equal distribution of pressure under the feet. We want to dance across it! Guests want things like soft napkins that are not rough on the lips, comfortable chairs that will support their backs and china that feels real and expensive. To make your event a good sensory experience, I suggest mixing elements on the table. I pair silk cloths with stone urns, silver flatware with wooden charger plates, handmade paper stationery with crystal. It works!

Your primary medium to make an impression with touch is your linen and tablescape. The “hand,” or grain of a fabric, gives it texture. I often spot guests noticing high-end specialty linen, such as damask, and running their hand across it. Rob’s Rule: Match the fabric to the function. A BBQ should have cotton check or burlap cloth, whereas at a black tie dinner, you would see silk or matte satin linens.

You cannot be an event planner without hearing complaints about being too hot or too cold. I often find myself looking at a crowd of men in tuxedos and ladies in strapless dresses. Finding a pleasing room temperature can be a challenge. I generally try to keep a room between 72 and 74 degrees with air circulating. I keep several attractive black wraps for ladies to use at formal functions and soft cotton knit wraps for day events. However, with modern air conditioning, ladies should know to bring a sweater or wrap if they choose to wear short-sleeve or sleeveless tops. Drafts make people feel uncomfortable. Avoid placing your tables in the direct path of vents, ceiling fans or worse, in the direct path of a sound speaker.


I have found that many people, especially musicians, have different opinions on what is considered background music. Sound is a very personal thing, and be it Bach or rock, it will affect your event – for better or for worse. I feel that background music should be slightly lower than normal conversation – hence the term background.

Whenever possible, I prefer musicians to play without speakers at small functions. Guests quickly become tired and cranky when they are forced to talk louder than the music. However, no sound or too much sound can clear a room.

Fountains are a lovely and restful feature to a room, but the sound of water makes some people sleepy and causes others to use the restroom more. The vibration of speakers and amps, and the humming noise which often accompanies them, can be extremely irritating to your guests. If you feel the vibration of a speaker during dinner, the music is too loud. I have also noted that repetitive sounds can grate against guests’ nerves.
Music and special sound effects need to enhance the progression of an event, not dominate it. Speak to your entertainers before the event and be present during the sound check. This is the time to make changes.

Rob’s Top Ten Sensory Suggestions

1. Associate sensory with seasonal. What makes sense now?
2. When utilizing lighting effects, place dramatic color on walls and ceilings and direct soft amber tones down on guests.
3. Keep aromas neutral or natural. Avoid artificial fragrances and chemicals.
4. When it comes to cologne, dab not douse.
5. Seasonal is sensational. People almost always respond positively to culinary that is fresh and in season.
6. Wine, cheese and fish sour the breath, so always provide mints or mouthwash in the restrooms.
7. Match fabrics with the function – casual with casual, formal with formal.
8. Make tablescapes practical but not predictable. Varying table elements and adding contrasting textures such as stone with silk, keep things fresh and exciting.
9. Keep rooms cool with circulating air but avoid drafts, vents and fans.
10. Background music should be slightly lower than normal table conversation.

This column is meant to provide you with 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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