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Making private events profitable

Restaurants see gold in tech-enabled, fully customized private parties

For private events in a restaurant, it’s no longer enough to provide a space and a set menu. Diners want more, and operators are rising to the occasion. In the process, restaurants are streamlining and elevating their events business and profiting.

"Our events business is growing in all aspects," said Kiran Pinto, a managing partner at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises who oversees Lettuce Parties and Gem Catering & Events. The Chicago-based restaurant group, which has more than 100 restaurants, has increasingly turned its attention to events and events-only spaces, such as the Ivy Room, where guests can rent out a ballroom, courtyard and lounge, and RPM Events on the Water, a 6,000-square-foot space scheduled to open in the fall.

"The addition of the events space is just in response to requests from our guests and what they were looking for and asking for," said Pinto. "But in all of our restaurants as we are building them out, we're incorporating private dining rooms into them."

These designated spaces host everything from business gatherings to baby showers and birthday dinners, and of course, lots of weddings, Pinto said.

Tech tools have eased the booking process.

A guest looking to book a private event might start at one of Lettuce Entertain You's websites, for example, filling out a query through Tripleseat, a sales-and-event-management web application used by more than 5,000 restaurants.

Jonathan Morse, the founder and CEO of Tripleseat, has watched the space grow. Tripleseat users are "all looking for what everybody is looking for, which is a unique space first and foremost," he said.

And they're willing to pay for them.

"When we started tracking the average event in 2009, it was $2,500. It has grown in the last 10 years to $4,500/$5,000 in 2018/2019," Morse wrote in an email.

RPMOnTheWater_RPMEvents_PizzeriaPortofino_Nighttime.jpgPhoto: A rendering of RPM Events on the Water

Centralizing the party process

Tock, a reservation platform that recently began partnering with Tripleseat, has found that private dining and events often account for up to 30% of revenue at restaurants with a private-event space.

In 2013, Florida-based Grove Bay Hospitality Group had one restaurant. Today they have nine restaurants, five of which are private-event friendly. The restaurants, including Glass & Vine and Stiltsville Fish Bar, host everything from business dinners to wedding receptions.

The group is also preparing to open a two-story waterfront project on seven acres next to Coconut Grove’s city hall, which will include an event space.

"Now we're much more organized, centralized and using technology," said Francesco Balli, Grove Bay Hospitality co-founder and CEO.

There's one dedicated sales manager for the group, rather than having each restaurant work independently to plan each event. The sales manager fields inquiries, many from Tripleseat, and plans events.

"By centralizing, we solve quite a few problems," Balli said. Previously, team managers were busy running restaurants and private events seemed like an afterthought.

Once the party is booked, the relationship continues for the operator.

"When we first started, we had a menu brochure for our guests to choose from and we catered that 80% of the time," said Melissa Johnson, the executive director of Columbus, Ohio-based Cameron Mitchell Premier Events, which hosts over 1,500 events a year.

"Today our guests are looking to talk to our sales associates and design their unique experience, so set menus are not as relevant," she said. "Guests want more single-bite [appetizers]”. The days of a traditional ‘steak or salmon’ dinner are the outlier and guests are looking for a space within the restaurants to make their own private-event space like a lounge, or special-event venue.  Menu pairings with cocktails versus wine are on the rise as well."

Glass_&_Vine_(8)_photo_credit_Deep_Sleep_Studio.jpgPhoto: Glass & Vine, part of Grove Bay Hospitality Group's portfolio
Credit: Deep Sleep Studio

The planner’s concierge

OpenTable, which hosts a private-dining portal for its restaurants, has seen similar trends.

"It's all about customization now," said Caroline Potter, chief dining officer at OpenTable. "Private dining is a competitive marketplace, and, as a result, we're seeing restaurants become more flexible and inventive when it comes to accommodating guests' special, personalized requests."

Hospitality Boulevard, a restaurant and bar conglomerate that includes Maxie's at the LINQ Promenade in Las Vegas, even has a "planner’s concierge" on their list of event amenities.

The "concierge" is one point of contact for the "ultra-stressed" party planner, said Joey Pintozzi, a partner in Hospitality Boulevard. Many party planners are coming to Las Vegas from out of town, and the concierge can leverage local contacts.

"If you can get that particular person in charge of the party calm and smiling, you've won part of the battle," Pintozzi said.

It's still the hospitality business, after all.

"The only real difference for us in terms of one of our restaurant properties versus one of our event spaces is we are open [only] for our guests. So, if on a Monday evening in January we don't have an event booked, then the culinary team is not here necessarily, the service team isn't here. Whereas in the restaurant business you're still open, so you're still staffing the back of house, the front of house, a host, those sorts of things," said Pinto of Lettuce Parties.

"The hospitality part is certainly the same, I think that's what our guests love about it so much is we are here to make it really simple for them," she said.

Charlie_Bird_I_00035.jpgPhoto: The private dining room at Charlie Bird

A gathering room

While restaurants are increasingly opening large private-event-specific spaces, they haven't forgotten about the more intimate private dining room

"Private events is not just what it sounds like. It's not just somebody having a birthday party or bridal shower or wedding celebration, although sometimes those things are part of it. Large-party dining is a really big part of it," said Ryan Hardy, the executive chef and partner at New York City-based Delicious Hospitality.

A ten-top, for example, can be tricky to accommodate in most dining rooms but you don’t want to turn them away. They may be perfect for a private room.

Ten-tops "tend to take a little bit longer to dine on average, so we as a business have a harder time doing the same amount of covers than if they were individual tables. So, the best way to do it is to have some sort of additional room that we can dial up or dial down depending on the needs of the guest or the group itself, etc.," he said.

At Charlie Bird, Delicious Hospitality's first restaurant, the private dining room has high-end wine dinners and wedding reenactments for up to 14 guests. And noting the success of the Charlie Bird private room, the team put in two private-dining-specific spaces in Legacy Records, which opened last year.

"To be able to have private space is critical to the bottom line, in terms of revenue but it's really critical to be able to take on some of these larger parties," Hardy said.

Contact Gloria Dawson at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @GloriaDawson

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