February 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions - Closing time - February 2000

Current Issue
February 2000

Closing time

Fear of liability has more planners setting responsible-drinking policies .

By Maria Lenhart

  D uring a November meeting of the National Tour Association at Nashville’s Opryland Hotel Convention Center, something extra was served with the cocktails and canapés: a subtle message about the virtues of drinking responsibly. At each bar station were tent cards urging attendees to “exercise restraint and good judgment in their consumption of alcohol at NTA events.”

The cards were just one precaution NTA had taken to ensure excessive drinking did not cause problems during its annual convention, which drew 3,400 tour operators from around the world. Prior to the meeting, the association issued an alcohol policy statement, published in the convention program, advising members not to overindulge. “Our message is that while we provide opportunities for people to network and socialize, irresponsible drinking undermines these opportunities,” says Hank Phillips, executive director of Lexington, Ky.-based NTA. “We don’t encourage or discourage drinking at our meetings, but we have a responsibility to ensure that events are run in a safe and responsible matter.”

NTA closed all convention events by 11 p.m. and made sure liquor was served only by professional bartenders trained to recognize intoxication levels and limits. Bartenders were authorized to refuse service to any guests who appeared to have had enough. Hospitality suites, which had been operated loosely in the past, were staffed by professional bartenders and required to close by 2 a.m. “The idea was not to stop serving alcohol but to tighten up our controls,” says Phillips. “Earlier closing times mean that people have less time to drink.”

These might sound like measures taken by an organization that has experienced alcohol-related problems at past events. Not so. NTA’s 47 previous conventions were incident-free, and the association never exercised such controls. Yet this year, says Phillips, reports of an accidental drowning death, believed to be alcohol-related, at another travel industry convention prompted NTA leadership to take preventive action.

NTA members appreciated the new policy, according to Phillips. “Rather than feeling put out, people told us the alcohol policy was both caring and professional,” he says. “People these days recognize the dangers of alcohol abuse.”

Drying up?
NTA is one of a growing number of organizations that are being proactive about keeping drinking under control at meetings. Ironically, this emphasis on prevention comes at a time when the amount of alcohol consumed at meetings appears to be declining.

“We don’t have scientific documentation on this, but planners are saying alcohol is less of a problem at meetings than it once was,” says Edwin L. Griffin Jr., executive vice president/CEO of Meeting Professionals International in Dallas. “People are taking meetings more seriously these days, and they want to get something out of them.”

Cynthia Lett, a business etiquette consultant and former meeting planner, agrees. “I’ve noticed a trend during the past five years for people to drink less at meetings,” says Lett, director of The Lett Group in Silver Spring, Md. “Twenty years ago, drinking was a real problem at meetings, and hospitality suites were especially bad places. People said and did things they shouldn’t have, and a lot of jobs were lost after conventions.”

If consumption is down, why are organizations becoming more vigilant? The answer could be that any decline in heavy drinking has been more than offset by a rising number of lawsuits resulting from alcohol-related incidents at meetings and company parties. “Some businesses now are so concerned with liability issues stemming from drinking that they’re not even serving alcohol at holiday parties,” says Jim Peters, president of the Responsible Hospitality Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Scotts Valley, Calif., that sponsors awareness programs on reducing alcohol abuse in social settings.

Suing the host
Atlanta-based meetings attorney John Foster, partner in Foster, Jensen & Gulley LLC, notes toughening liquor liability laws in many states and localities have greatly increased the chances of a meeting sponsor, known in legal terms as a “social host,” being named in a lawsuit. Only a decade ago, social hosts rarely were held responsible for alcohol-related incidents at meetings. Today, they are. If personal injury or property damage occurs after minors or obviously intoxicated guests are served alcohol during a meeting, the hotel or restaurant is not the only party vulnerable to a lawsuit.

Exactly who is liable in such cases often is ambiguous. “Frequently, responsibility for the safe serving of alcohol falls between the cracks,” says Foster. “The meeting sponsor thinks the hotel is responsible because it is selling or serving the alcohol, and the hotel thinks the meeting sponsor is responsible because it controls the event. More than likely, if an intoxicated person injures a third party, all parties to the event will be defendants in the resulting lawsuit, and the court will have to decide whom to hold responsible, according to the facts and state law.”


Attendees are drinking less and enjoying it more. That is the assessment of hotel food and beverage directors, who say today’s meeting attendees are less likely to drink heavily but are growing more particular about brands of liquor and types of wine.

“People want a taste experience, not just a drinking one,” says Barry Peterson, director of catering and conference services for the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco. “They are asking for top-shelf brands in vodka and gin, single-malt whiskeys and premium wines.”

Even beer drinkers have grown sophisticated. “There was a time when we might have done an event with kegs of beer,” says Michael McDonough, food and beverage director for the Hilton Anaheim (Calif.) Hotel & Towers. “Now we’ll do stations with various microbrews. The emphasis is on tasting something, not mass consumption.”

At the New York Palace, food and beverage director Bret Matteson sees corporate clients holding shorter cocktail receptions but spending more on premium food and drink. Some are holding dry events. Eighty members of a major financial institution recently sat down to afternoon tea in lieu of a cocktail reception.

Who is most likely to drink heavily at meetings? Sources point to young employees and those in sales and marketing. Least likely to overdo it are engineers and other high-tech employees. Says the Hilton Anaheim’s McDonough, “They prefer snack foods and soft drinks.”


Verdicts against meeting sponsors are not common, but they can be costly. Foster cites the case of a Florida-based air conditioning company that was found liable for $800,000 following a drunk-driving accident in the late 1980s. “At a meeting, the president of the company bought drinks for people at the hotel bar and charged them to his corporate card,” he says. “As one of the salesmen was driving home, he ran a stoplight and killed a family of four. Relatives were able to sue the company because the drinks had been put on the company card.”

When it comes to alcohol-fueled behavior that puts attendees and meeting sponsors at risk, drunk driving is only the tip of the iceberg. “If you looked at all of the sexual harassment that happens at corporate meetings and how often liquor is involved, I’m sure it would exceed 50 percent,” says hospitality industry attorney Steven Rudner, principal at the Law Offices of Steven Rudner in Dallas. “Meeting planners need to keep things under control, because heavy drinking can cause so much trouble. People lose their judgment.”

Because liquor liability laws vary so widely by state and local jurisdictions, Rudner advises meeting planners to be aware of laws governing the meeting site, or simply to assume the toughest laws will apply. The best approach is “not to assume who is responsible, but to assume it could be you,” he says. “These days, people will sue everyone the hotel, the organization sponsoring the meeting, anyone they can.”

Hotels in the hot seat
With meeting sponsors facing potential liability problems, planners need to lay the groundwork for the safe serving of alcohol well in advance of the meeting, preferably before any contracts are signed. Meetings attorneys suggest inserting into contracts with hotels or catering companies language that shifts liability to them as the servers and sellers of alcohol. “Hotels will not volunteer to do this, but most will comply if asked,” says Foster.

Contracts should stipulate that the hotel or caterer must comply with all state and local liquor laws, carry liquor liability insurance and use bartenders and servers who have received training in the safe serving of alcohol.

Such points also should be emphasized in the pre-conference meeting with the hotel. “You don’t want the hotel to take the position that this is your meeting and you alone are responsible,” says meetings attorney James Goldberg of Goldberg & Associates in Washington, D.C. “Let the hotel know that servers have the authority to check IDs and to refuse service to anyone who has had too much. Tell servers to let you know immediately if there are problems.” Hotels, because they have a vested interest in avoiding liquor-liability problems, usually are willing to work with planners on strategies to keep alcohol under control. A growing number of hotels are offering responsible alcohol-service training programs to all their employees who have contact with guests. Although some are required by state or local jurisdictions to provide such training, many also are motivated by the threat of lawsuits stemming from improper serving of alcohol.

Among the training programs widely used by hotels is CARE (Controlling Alcohol Risks Effectively), developed in 1991 by the American Hotel & Motel Association’s Educational Institute in Lansing, Mich. CARE, which comprises a four-hour seminar and a 45-question exam, covers such topics as the physiological effects of alcohol, handling inebriated guests, ensuring minors are not served and complying with laws governing alcohol service.

“When we developed CARE, there were not state laws mandating training, but many of our member hotels said they were being plagued by lawsuits because of excessive drinking by guests,” says Gail Turner, manager of the Educational Institute’s Center for Allied Programs. “Since we instituted CARE, no participating hotel has lost an alcohol-related court case.”

Keeping watch
No matter how well trained bartenders are, the meeting planner and others in the host organization should take the lead in monitoring events for signs of alcohol abuse. “The host organization is in a much better position than the hotel to be the best judge of when someone has had too much alcohol,” says attorney Rudner. “The bartender doesn’t know the people and how they normally behave, but the meeting planner and others in the organization are more likely to know the attendees.”

In the case of large cocktail receptions, Cynthia Lett advises planners to recruit volunteers or staff members from the association or corporation holding the meeting to keep watch during the event for potential problems. “Bring in a few people to oversee the situation, and teach them to put a halt to bad behavior in a discreet way,” she says. “If people have had too much, take them aside and gently urge them to slow down. Or take someone out of a drink line and introduce him to someone. Start a conversation. Above all, don’t wait until the person is drunk.”

Lett urges planners to pay particular attention to attendees under 30, the group she believes is most likely to drink heavily at functions. “Young people may be nervous about trying to fit in with the corporate structure and believe that alcohol will help their social skills,” she says. “If they have a mentor or someone who shows an interest in them, they won’t abuse.”

Also, when it comes to serving alcohol, good service is not fast service. Too many bar stations in a large ballroom and unsupervised bars in hospitality suites can spell trouble.

“It’s really not a bad thing to have to wait in line for a drink; it slows down consumption,” says Rudner. “Even if hotel or restaurant employees are well trained, it’s not fair to expect good judgment from them if they are told to serve beverages quickly and keep the lines moving. When there is too much liquor served on demand, you can’t monitor it.”

On-site support
At any large meeting, it is likely that recovering alcoholics or substance abusers will be among the attendees. Recognizing this, some associations offer 12-step meetings, based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model, at scheduled times during their own major conventions. Meeting Professional International, for example, schedules daily 12-step meetings during its annual conventions and professional education conferences. “It’s a way to give members who need it a time-out and an alternative to the bar,” says MPI’s Griffin.

Short of offering formal support at the convention site, planners might include in registration packets information on where to find such programs in the area. “Conventions and business trips are hard for people in recovery, and we always recommend that people seek out 12-step meetings while on the road,” says Anne Vance, chief executive officer of Crossroads Center, an alcohol- and substance-abuse treatment center on Antigua, in the British West Indies. “Whatever makes it easier for them to do so is a good idea.”

Sending a message
Another wise precaution is to issue guidelines on responsible drinking to attendees before the meeting. If your company or association has a policy on alcohol consumption at events, let attendees know about it. If not, take steps to get one established.

“Guidelines for drinking should be part of the pre-meeting information, right along with where the venue is and how to get there,” says Arlene Sheff, customer relations adviser for the Boeing Co. in Seal Beach, Calif., and a meetings management instructor at California State University, Fullerton. “It’s important to remind people that excessive drinking will not be tolerated. While you would think people would know this already, new or inexperienced employees sometimes do not.”

Jim Peters of the Responsible Hospitality Institute agrees. “We always recommend that companies send out a memo prior to the event that makes it clear alcohol abuse will not be tolerated,” he says. “Firms also should outline steps they have taken, such as hiring a licensed caterer who will check IDs and not serve anyone who is obviously drunk.”

Far from putting a damper on the event, Peters says, such guidelines usually are well received by attendees. “Most people do not drink excessively, and most do not like to be around those who do,” he says. “This is not a punishment.”


The following alcohol policy, issued last August by the Lexington, Ky.-based National Tour Association, is published in NTA’s convention materials and summarized on tent cards posted at bar stations during events.

“Alcoholic beverages are a part of many NTA events. An individual’s decision to partake is a matter of personal choice and is neither encouraged nor discouraged by the association. Reasonable and appropriate measures are taken by NTA to ensure that consumption occurs in a safe and responsible manner.

“NTA creates opportunities or its members to engage in business with each other. The association also provides opportunities for friends and colleagues to network and socialize. Irresponsible drinking could undermine these opportunities. All members are expected to exercise restraint and good judgment in their consumption of alcohol at NTA events.”



To keep alcohol consumption from spoiling a party, follow this advice, compiled from planners, attorneys and other expert sources.

Empower servers. Make sure all hotel or catering servers are trained in the safe serving of alcohol. Authorize them to check ID and to refuse service to anyone who has had too much to drink.

Tend bar. Never let attendees help themselves to liquor. All bars at receptions and in hospitality suites should be professionally staffed.

Offer dry temptations. Get creative with fruit smoothies, espresso drinks or sodas made with Italian syrups.

Close early. Limit the length of cocktail receptions, and set a closing time for hospitality suites.

Hold the liquor. Consider limiting alcohol to beer and wine. Have servers pass trays with champagne, wine spritzers and sparkling water.

Feed them. Never serve alcohol without food, but avoid salty snacks that encourage drinking. High-protein items absorb alcohol best.

Keep watch. Enlist staff members or volunteers to watch for signs of problem drinking and, if necessary, to intervene.

Provide transportation. Offer alternatives to drinking and driving. Reserve hotel rooms for those who need them.

Get covered. Purchase liquor liability insurance for any event at which alcohol will be served.


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