It seemed like a good idea at the time. For years, officials at the Milwaukee Art Museum had been renting space to groups for special events — many of them including food and drink — without any problems. Then along came a group whose meeting turned into a bacchanal. Attendees got rowdier and more drunk as the night went on, covering art works with food, alcohol, and, in some cases, vomit. At one point, four men were seen climbing onto, and groping the breasts of, “Standing Woman,” a sculpture by early 20th-century American artist Gaston Lachaise.

How could things have gone so wrong? The major culprit was alcohol — freely available for a $30 admission charge — which was in plentiful supply, while food was not.

Part of the Culture

If precautions are not taken, alcohol and meetings can be a combustible mix. Here are some safeguards you can take.

One way to go is to ban all alcohol from your events, but that can be risky for many groups whose members may feel that an event without alcohol is an event to skip. Michelle Gothan, senior marketing coordinator for Early Warning Services LLC of Scottsdale, Ariz., used to work for a company whose owner was adamantly opposed to including alcohol at business events.

“If someone goes out of town on a business trip and decides to invest his time in attending an event, where is he most likely to go? One where he can drink alcohol or one where he can drink iced tea and water?” In fact, she says, some of the [attendees] “were really fuming. I mean, I heard about it.” While a no-alcohol policy has not deterred attendees from flocking to receptions at the Religious Conference Management Association's annual conferences, groups whose attendees hail from less abstemious organizations likely would feel the pinch.

But planning events with alcohol brings its own set of challenges — one of which is that the planner sometimes might end up feeling like a kindergarten teacher, whether it's laying out the ground rules for an event or keeping an eye on attendees whom you suspect might imbibe a bit too much.

Protect and Defend

If you're going to hold an event at which you serve alcohol, you'd better make sure that you research it, say planners experienced at holding such events. Some questions to ask include “What's the history of this event?” “Is it being held in the same location where it was held previously?” “Did anyone get drunk in the past?”

Planners also need to know their groups. While attendees at corporate events likely will watch their behavior because their bosses are present, at association meetings, where they're out from under the boss's eye, things can be quite different.

Whatever the situation, it's important to have a game plan. Make sure that bartenders are TIPS (Training for Intervention ProcedureS)-trained. Have teams of staffers walk around during the event to monitor alcohol consumption and behavior. And expect that some attendees will imbibe too much; it can be worth the money to book hotel rooms in advance so that you can keep drunk attendees off the road.

In the end, a meeting planner needs to know that in planning an event, she did everything possible to be safe. Ask yourself what you would say you did to protect your attendees, your staff, and your organization if you should be put on the stand in a courtroom.

To Serve or Not to Serve

The liability issues associated with serving alcohol are complex and can vary from state to state. But there does appear to be one foolproof way of avoiding liability: Don't serve someone who shouldn't be served.

“Don't be reluctant to empower servers (assuming that service is by hotel or caterer staff) to refuse service where an attendee appears to have had too much to drink,” says James Goldberg, an Association Meetings columnist and principal in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Goldberg & Associates PLLC, when asked what he would suggest if a meeting planner asked for one piece of advice regarding alcohol service.

Easier said than done? Perhaps. But it helps if you always hire a bartender, even in a hospitality suite.

One Safe Solution

Of course, one way to avoid the inebriation problem is to keep attendees from getting drunk in the first place. One Ontario, Canada-based company offers a product that gives attendees the opportunity to track their blood alcohol levels during an event.

Using its Blood Alcohol Quotient software, Ladybug Teknologies Inc. of Cambridge, Ontario, can help attendees to make informed decisions about when they have had enough to drink.

When hired for an event, Ladybug personnel will set up breath stations, the quantity depending on the number of attendees. Each attendee is given a mouthpiece that they can use to blow into a Breathalyzer.

Attendees can go to the breath stations “at will,” says Ladybug CEO Sherry Colbourne. “There's no pressure and no judgment.” Every time the attendee uses the station, the BAQ software records the time and corresponding blood alcohol level so that the attendee has a complete picture of how that blood alcohol level changes over time.

Colbourne says that every time the attendee goes to the station, he is asked to estimate his blood alcohol level — and he invariably underestimates it. “People are stunned to see how poorly they judge their level of impairment,” Colbourne says. “And they're usually shocked to see how high their blood alcohol level is after one or two drinks.”

Gabrielle Clermont of Dandy Productions, Guelph, Ontario, found that Ladybug not only serves an educational service, but also provides some entertainment value.

“I had one event with about 300 attendees,” she says. Only “about five didn't participate. Everyone was curious to see what it was all about.”

“I have one client who, because they are offering an open bar, is requiring attendees to use the service,” Clermont says. “As people come into the venue, they'll get a drink bracelet and give us their car keys. When they want to leave, they'll have to visit Ladybug. If their blood alcohol level is under 0.4, then they will get their keys back.”

Serving Tips from Lawyer James Goldberg

  • 10-Step Program

    Consider using a distinctive name badge for any attendee who is under 21.

  • Be sure that the contract requires the venue or caterer to comply with all alcohol service laws, such as not serving minors or anyone who appears to be intoxicated. Emphasize to the venue or caterer that they have an obligation not to over-serve anyone.

  • Consider a contractual requirement that all alcohol servers complete liability training. Some states mandate such training.

  • If you observe an intoxicated attendee, you have just assumed “ownership” of the problem (and thus potential liability). Come up with an alternative to letting the individual drive.

Arlene Sheff, CMP, a senior meeting and event planner for The Boeing Co., Seal Beach, Calif., suggests that planners take these 10 steps when serving alcoholic beverages:

  1. Provide pre-meeting information outlining guidelines for drinking responsibly.

  2. Serve only beer and wine.

  3. Provide sufficient food (avoid salty snacks) and complimentary nonalcoholic beverages.

  4. Provide drink tickets to control consumption.

  5. Include a dual indemnification clause in your contract.

  6. Instruct bartenders not to serve anyone who appears to be intoxicated.

  7. Never allow people to serve themselves. Always hire a bartender, even in hospitality suites.

  8. Cut 15 minutes off your cocktail party — no one will notice, and you'll save money.

  9. Close bars before the end of the event. Do not announce a “last call.”

  10. As a precaution, pre-arrange taxi service and hotel accommodations.

Check out:
7 Steps to Limit Liquor Liability
The Business of Cocktails