Jewell Cares: BizBash Hall of Famer George L. Jewell’s Speech: ‘Fads Die, Quality Lives On’

Jewell Cares: BizBash Hall of Famer George L. Jewell’s Speech: ‘Fads Die, Quality Lives On’

George Jewell of Jewell Events Catering was inducted into the BizBash Hall of Fame during the BizBash Expo & Awards in Chicago on August 18. The remarks he made that day—reflecting on an event career spanning more than 40 years—prompted some of the attendees present to suggest we publish them. Here goes:

“Thank you for this wonderful honor, which I accept not only for myself, but for all the members of the hospitality industry, who together make this one of the world’s most exciting professions. In my 40-plus years (never mind how many plus) in the business, I’ve planned and catered thousands of events, from modest to grandiose, from a fifth birthday party to a gala in honor of the Princess of Wales. It is gratifying to know that all these clients have entrusted us with such important days in their lives, their weddings and business triumphs, their commemorations and celebrations.

“Humbling, actually, since I’m really just an English farm boy, who was lucky enough to find my passion early in life. I received the formal culinary education that I think is essential for caterers, no matter how avant-garde they fancy themselves. And I gained valuable experience during five years of apprenticeship, not with Donald Trump, but with hotels and caterers in Europe.

“Deciding that America was the place to be, I arrived here in 1963. Uncle Sam decided that my culinary degree was just what they needed in the mess hall and drafted me into the army. After that experience in mass feeding, catering looked easy. Being full of myself, it was easy to convince people that I was it! I don’t suppose the English accent hurt—I may not have known it all, but I sounded like I did.

“I’ve been asked countless times the secret of my longevity. When I graduated from culinary school, the big thing was beef Wellington en croute. Now it’s deconstructed croute Wellington with beef. Then, ‘Jello’ meant pureed fruit. Now it’s pureed herbes de Provence with smoked chicken. Meat loaf was what the children ate in the nursery. Now it’s a gala dinner entrée. We’ve done yakitori, rumaki, teriyaki, and sukiyaki so many times I can’t remember if they’re in or out. Fads die. Classic quality lives on.

“The secret? My staff would tell you that I’m still writing menus because I’m too stubborn to quit. Stubbornness is an asset in this business. But I’m also lucky (or deluded) enough to know that there isn’t anything else I would rather be doing. Event planning could be considered an extreme sport—full of risk, accomplishment, disasters, and triumphs. To those who seek the benefit of my experience, however, I would offer the following:

“To those who are ‘thinking about going into the hospitality field,’ I say: If all you’re doing is ‘thinking,’ then find another profession. ‘Think’ won’t get you through 20-hour days when the truck breaks down and the staff gets lost and the centerpiece shatters. ‘Think’ won’t cut it when the bride changes her mind about the whole damn thing, when the whole damn thing is a $300,000 wedding. And ‘think’ definitely doesn’t help when the wind flips over the porta-potty. To stay alive in this business, you have to be so passionate about entertaining that you can’t imagine doing anything else. You have to be educated, with a true foundation in classic food concepts. You have to be driven to be the best, be curious, and take creative risks. And you have to have good shoes. You have to respect your relationships, with your clients, your vendors, your staff, and your competitors. They have a lot to teach you. Be open enough to listen.

“You have to be prepared to be right. My staff might occasionally say that I’m a tiny bit overbearing. But executing a complicated event demands instant decisions. Be smart enough to make them.

“You have to be prepared to be wrong. That Monday morning phone call to explain why the frisée was missing from the salad is never easy, but it could save a client and your reputation.

“You have to keep up. Your client has already had the chic new appetizer at two other parties this week. Today’s new idea just expired and you’d better have the next one ready. Be creative enough to find it.

“You have to keep in touch. Never stray from the basic foundation knowledge on which all great events are built: Respect. Courtesy. Consideration. Relationships.

“You have to be clear. Honest and transparent communication with vendors and clients are the surest path to a successful event. As the economy dipped, tastings became less common, but I think they are still the best method of insuring clear expectations all around.

“But most of all, I would say, ‘Enjoy!’ Be open to inspiration everywhere. Take every opportunity to visit galleries, libraries, gardens, beautiful homes, new places, and landscapes. Bring all the images home and build them into your events.

“And take every opportunity to learn from your colleagues and competitors through the marvelous trade organizations such as BizBash, which illuminates events worldwide, spreading knowledge that makes us all stronger.

“Back in the day, business research meant having lunch with Mrs. Everywhere, who’d attended a competitor’s gala that weekend, and beguiling her (there’s that English accent coming in handy again) for information. Now we can participate in any number of seminars and conferences designed for sharing of knowledge among event planning leaders.Then, rushing a contract to a client meant typing it on a typewriter and sending it with a driver in a truck. Now we email, fax, tweet, and text in less time than it takes to froth a cappuccino.

“And that’s perhaps the crux of any advice I could give: To be successful in this mile-a-minute business requires maintaining classic standards of good taste, respect, and grace, while keeping ourselves open to the social changes and technological marvels that surround us.

“I’m constantly astounded by the quality of fabulous events that I observe. (Some of them are even mine). And I’m amazed by what I see planners accomplish on even a limited budget, with their deep knowledge, wild creativity, and high energy.

“I’ve been privileged to have had a front row seat on an extraordinary industry. Thank you for this and for all you do.”

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