When Gary Biggs arrives at an important business dinner, he instantly begins ticking down a mental checklist: He checks the temperature of the room. He tests the chairs at the head table to make sure they don’t wobble. And he not only scans the glasses for film or stains, he conducts this inspection from a squatted position so that he sees the glassware from the same angle as a seated diner.
That’s just the beginning of a long list of details that Biggs knows to examine after more than 27 years as a protocol professional, someone who specializes in setting up events in a way that is designed to avoid misunderstandings or embarrassments.
Preparations for a dinner event are only part of the lessons that he and his partners, Nancy R. Mitchell and Robert Leitzel, offer to their clients.
Their business, Protocol Partners-Washington Center for Protocol, was founded in 2004 and provides instruction and consulting services to professionals looking to polish their comportment at work-related meals, meetings and events.
In a town where a large share of the workforce moves within the protocol-heavy worlds of government, military or diplomacy, and still others conduct international business with people of different cultures, Protocol Partners aims to help clients navigate the sometimes tricky landscape of business communication and behavior.
“We try to show how every company and every person is a global citizen now,” Mitchell said.
At a February seminar in a tastefully decorated, subterranean dining room at the Willard InterContinental hotel in downtown Washington, the partners and other experts doled out advice for handling basic business situations.
A proper handshake? That’s three forearm pumps with an open posture and eye contact. Giving a toast at a business meal? Keep it short and don’t ad lib. It’s not a wedding. Wondering where to pin a name badge? Not in your boutonniere hole. Put it on your right side, where a greeter’s eye is inclined to go.
“It’s almost like playing a sport,” Mitchell said. “If there were no rules to follow, we couldn’t conduct the game. People wouldn’t know what was expected of them.”
Protocol Partners also offers more specialized guidance for the jobs of those who coordinate or host events for prominent executives, dignitaries and heads of state.
For these situations, two mantras came up repeatedly at the seminar: No distractions, no surprises. That atmosphere is achieved, the partners say, through extensive advance planning and attention to detail.
For instance, at an event where there are to be Muslim attendees, they suggest inquiring ahead of time as to whether those guests would be comfortable if alcohol is served.
They also recommend producing highly specific itineraries for hosts and visitors that include details such as what entrance they should use, whether gifts will be exchanged and with whom, and when they last met the people they’ll be seeing.
Adrienne Nardi, a special projects coordinator at Sandy Spring-based Transportation Management Systems, came to the seminar to brush up on these finer points of hosting a delegation of important visitors. Her employer, which manages the parking and transportation plans for major events such as the 2012 Olympics and the 2010 World Cup, is aiming to boost its special offerings for VIP guests.
“We felt like this training would enhance that service, to do [it] in a more professional way,” she said.
She said the segment of the seminar about precedence — the way certain ranks and titles might affect an interaction — was especially helpful.
Since the seminars last just a few days, Mitchell said the partners do not expect to transform every participant into a protocol expert.
“We hope that we raise their awareness about the psychology of protocol: How people think, what’s important to them, how history and tradition in their culture has played a role in what they expect and how they behave,” she said.
Protocol Partners currently has 25 corporate or government clients for whom it provides in-house training or on-site consulting services. The District-based company offers three to four seminars each year that are open to anyone who wishes to register.
To build their curriculum and advise clients, the partners draw from their experience as protocol officers for the government and military.
Biggs worked for 15 years as the protocol officer at the Pentagon in the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Leitzel previously served as executive agent for international counterpart visits for the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mitchell was the director of special events at the Library of Congress for 23 years. She said she hadn’t been previously trained in protocol, so she had to learn it on the job. As she planned more than 400 events a year, Mitchell was in frequent contact with the State Department, various embassies and her visitors’ advance teams to learn the cultural nuances that would make guests feel welcome and respected.
“Protocol got the job done,” Mitchell said. “It’s the foundation to keep things on an even keel.”