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Behind the Scenes of a Banquet Are Professionals
 Worrying about Everything
By Aissatou Sidime, San Antonio Express-News
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Oct. 21, 2005 - There's a lot more to serving a banquet than just setting a plate on a table and offering the diners coffee or tea. A keen eye for detail, hospitality and lots of planning are the keys to success, according to Jesus Socias, banquet director for the Marriott Rivercenter and Marriott RiverWalk.

Socias recalls the intensive preparation before serving a foreign president when he worked at the historic Biltmore Hotel in Florida.

He had 30 servers line up in tuxedos and practice pouring wine into crystal glasses before the event. Servers had to number each glass to correspond to one of the 15 wines on the printed menu. Bottle labels had to face attendees during the pouring so the seated person could read the vintage. All pourers had to begin and end their pouring simultaneously, and fill precisely one-third of each glass.

About 107,000 people work as banquet managers for hotels, catering firms and restaurants, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number of banquet managers is growing in restaurants because banquet sales are generating a larger share of restaurant revenue, according to a survey by the National Restaurant Association.

In their most basic duties, banquet managers coordinate the ordering and placement of table linens, china, dinnerware and serving equipment. They verify that chefs have prepared orders that match the photos that were shown to the customer. They time the presentation of each food item to fit the event's program, music and lighting.

Banquet managers draw diagrams of room set-ups to be used by serving staff; arrange transportation for off-site events; calculate the number of workers that will be needed; and contract staff based on whether the event includes reception, banquet, buffet dinner, beverage service or coffee breaks.

Sal Santa Cruz, 36, a Marriott Rivercenter and Marriott Riverwalk banquet manager, keeps a copy of each day's banquet event orders. He calls it his "Bible" when on duty.

"It's all about the details," he said. "Everything is assigned so that we have accountability." Santa Cruz's job includes inspections to make sure each attendee gets the same experience at the events he oversees.

"If there's a stained chair, we remove it," he said. "We make sure linens are on the right side and that all silverware is straight." Banquet staffers aren't just behind the scenes.

"It's a department that's all over the hotel," said Julio Castillo, 29, a banquet manager at the Hyatt Hill Country Resort & Spa. "So we want the staff to smile all the time, to thank guests, to offer them options when they seem to need help and to encourage them to come back."

Socias, who oversees 100 regular banquet servers, 17 supervisors and three banquet managers, focuses closely on a job candidate's soft skills when screening applicants for the Marriott Rivercenter and Marriott Riverwalk.

"You really want someone who's well-spoken, loyal, focused on grooming, anticipates needs, is timely and comes prepared," he said.

St. Philips College offers a two-year associate degree in restaurant management. But many banquet managers start out as servers and then take individual classes on food handling, dietary trends among consumers, hospitality and wine tasting. Marriott executives usually promote a promising server to a "working captain" position in which the employee specializes for a period in serving one type of meal event.

"That way we set them up to succeed and they don't get overwhelmed," said Socias, 42, who's worked with hotel banquet staffs since he was 19.

Like restaurant waiters, banquet service staffers often earn hourly pay plus a percentage of tips. Marriot pays $2 to $3 an hour plus 12 percent of the tips from all events held during the pay period. That way all servers of comparable experience earn the same amount per hour, regardless of whether they work large, high-dollar events or serve coffee to just 50 people.

Banquet managers earn between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, Socias said. Nationwide, they average $32,000 plus a $3,000 annual bonus, according to the National Restaurant Association.


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