May 06 2009
“The thing about business is that it is never just about business. So often business lunches – which is to say business meals, because today they can include breakfast and dinner too – are about everything except the nominal business at hand: they’re about personality and interests. Of course, if you’re in the midst of a deal with someone you know well, meals tend to be much more workmanlike. But at the beginning of a relationship they can provide enormous amounts of insight – the way someone talks about their industry and their hobbies can give you crucial clues about their value system and approach to life.
For example, I once had lunch in Miami with a young entrepreneur who was wild about art, and that’s all we really talked about. Afterwards I thought, “That’s why he’s so creative with his business.” And another one of our clients is a good example of how well this approach can work. He owned a luxury American liqueur brand and relished the opportunity to entertain potential acquirers, and did so with spectacular effect. When we were selling his brand he brought in a professional bartender for the week to concoct cocktails combining his liqueur with each of the five potential acquirers’ spirit brands. On five successive days he came up with several cocktails for each of the acquirers, with a cocktail tasting after breakfast, one after lunch and one in the late afternoon. That’s an effective way to sell a brand. Generally, I drink very little, so it was a memorable experience for me.
As a rule, I never bring up business at a business meal; I let my client or guest do so. Since we work with a lot of self-made individuals, who are often excited about what they’ve done, it usually comes up quite naturally. Successful people tend to be open to hearing new or different ideas. I think this is true no matter where you are in the world, or what sector you’re working in. There may be minor differences, but really, meals for me all serve the same purpose and I go into them with the same criteria in mind.
For business purposes, a restaurant always has to meet three tests. First, it has to offer confidentiality, with the tables spaced out enough for privacy and possibly even a private room if I’m eating with someone very well known. Second, it has to be quiet enough so you can hear each other without shouting. And third, it has to be geographically close to my base. In Paris, for example, I often go to Le Relais Plaza (pictured) or Alain Ducasse, which are both at the Plaza Athénée just around the corner from my office, though the latter is only open for lunch two days a week, which is a pain. If it’s breakfast, I try to have the meal in my office – we have our own dining rooms in Paris and New York.
Otherwise, I find hotel dining rooms especially good at meeting these requirements. The Four Seasons is a staple of mine in almost every city in the world, except London, where I like The Dorchester best. In New York I always stay at the Four Seasons and have breakfast meetings there every day. In Toronto I also stay there; ditto Palm Beach, Chicago and Boston. In Los Angeles, I tend towards The Beverly Hills Hotel or The Peninsula Beverly Hills.
There are a lot of restaurants I like personally that I would never use for a business meal. Nobu in New York, for example, and China Tang in London I love, but they are so noisy they would be terrible for business meals, though great fun out of office hours!
Wherever you end up, however, you can’t put a time limit on a meal; after all, you never know where a conversation might take you, and if you suddenly cut someone off because an hour is up, that can destroy a relationship. Once I met a guy for what I thought would be a quick lunch, and we ended up talking for three hours. You just never know.”