“Royal wedding cocktail 1” flickr photo by Elegant Cuisine https://flickr.com/photos/69358668@N04/6522776795 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

So you’ve decided to work as a freelance bartender. Great! Often you’ll be working with professional event organizers who know exactly what to tell you. Perfect. But sometimes you’ll be working for a client who has never hired a bartender before, and doesn’t know what you need to know.

Below is a list to help guide you on your party booking with an inexperienced client.

Here is a list of 10 things to ask any potential client:

1. When is the event?

Confirm and triple-check the time and date of the party to avoid miscommunication and to avoid embarrassing scheduling mistakes.

You MUST show up!

Please make absolutely certain that you are free on the day of the party you are confirming with the customer. While it may seem obvious, I have heard so many stories of bartenders who failed to show up on the day of the event. It’s unprofessional and a great way to ruin your reputation before you even start! I have found that in my dealings with staffing companies and my repeat clients that they know they can rely on me. If I commit to work a party, I work it.

Bonus tip: What happens if you really are sick?
I have only canceled once in over three years due to illness. The morning of the party, I woke up with a fever and sore throat. I called the booking agent immediately and she was panicked. However, I also told her I would work to get her another bartender….and I did. I called a contact I had asking if she could work that night and luckily she was free. I made the client happy, the booking agent happy and my friend made good money that day.

Lesson learned: Always ask good bartenders (and servers) you work with for their contact information and tell them why. If you enjoyed working with them and you have a gig that requires additional staff, you have good contacts that will benefit them, you, the client. It’s a win all around.

What time do the guests begin to arrive/what time to the festivities begin?

These are very important questions. If the party starts at 2pm and they want you to start at 2pm because “nobody ever arrives on time”… this could be a problem. You don’t know what you’re setup is like until you get there or how long it will take you to organize it. I have worked parties where the table was set up, but nothing else. I had to make many, many trips up and down the basement stairs to bring up the liquor, soda, cups, mixers, pitchers of pre-made drinks, etc. It wasn’t fun.

You would want to let your client know that respectfully, you need to arrive one hour prior to the start time of the party, or the time the guests will begin to arrive in order to make sure you help make their party run smoothly and make it special. It may not take you one hour, but I have found that’s rarely the case since you don’t know where everything is (as it’s rarely all kept in one place). It will take time to get a lay of the land.

2. What type of party are you having?

This is a great way to break the ice with the client. Remember, they don’t know you and are inviting a stranger into their house for an event where they will be preoccupied and know you will be left mostly on your own.

In order to help put them at ease (so they don’t think you’ll run away with their best silver), you can congratulate them on this celebration. I suggest trying to show some of your pleasant personality and perhaps tell them that you’re excited to help them celebrate in the best way possible. Events are stressful and we are hired to help make the event run smoother. It’s a party….we should be happy to be there during ANY celebration (and getting paid is a good reason to smile while you serve)!!

3. What is the address or location?

This question is important to get a small understanding what you are potentially walking into. I’ve been at a client’s house where there was a full wet bar and lots of different types of liquor that made it a very pleasant experience. I’ve also been to a house party where I had to use a tiny card table where I had little room for bottles and had to keep bending to the floor to grab items I needed to make drinks. The next day, when my back was sore, I estimated I bent down around 600 times.

You may not want to ask too many in-depth questions about where you will be stationed. (This isn’t going to change anything and may only make the client nervous.) You’ll find out the rest of these details when you arrive. But definitely cover the basics so you have a sense for what you will be walking into:

  • Will there be a bar for me to work at? If not, a table?
  • Where is the nearest sink?
  • Where is the nearest refrigerator / freezer?

4. What are the hours of the party? (Start to Finish)

Always be prepared to stay later if the client still needs you. Some parties can be rocking and rolling for up to several hours more than expected. I have been at parties that ended early (the cops showed up due to the noise) and the guests decided to call it a night. I was able to have my station cleaned up a half hour prior to my scheduled ending time. In those cases, feel free to help the servers clean up to make up the time. I have also worked parties where I stayed almost three hours later. I didn’t mind since I left with a lot of extra tips!!

5. How many people will be attending? (ask about adults and children)

This question will give the client the opportunity to elaborate a bit. They will tend to go into detail and let you know things like,

‘The older people will not be drinking and there’s about ten of them. There are about 4 kids ages ranging from 6-12 years old, 3 babies that don’t walk yet, and two teenagers. The rest of us drink mostly beer and wine, we have some whiskey drinkers, but my brother will want really good Bloody Mary’s.’

This question is really helpful, not just to tell you how many guests to expect, but it also tends to open the door to really useful information about the type of guests in attendance.

6. What will we be serving?

Will you be pouring wine and beer all night, or manning a fully stocked bar? Will you be responsible for serving sodas and juice to children in addition to cocktails for adults? Does the client want you to prepare a signature cocktail for the event? It’s important to know what you’re serving in advance to make sure you are fully prepared.

7. Dress code.

You would like to know the attire the client would like for this event. If it’s a BBQ, I would suggest a black polo shirt. It doesn’t show the stains like a white shirt would. If it’s a 50th wedding anniversary, perhaps suggest the tuxedo shirt and bowtie with to be respectful for the couple being celebrated. This is for you to work out with the client, but I recommend having a few suggestions in case they aren’t sure what they are looking for.

8. Are there any special requests?

This is a loaded question as it invites the client to think of anything special they may want. This could be anything from a special drink menu (and they make you work at this) to asking you to greet each guest at the door with a glass of champagne.

I feel out the client a bit before I get to this question as there are many times I don’t ask it. However, if the client seems like they are going a bit over the top with the party in general, you may want to ask so you’re not surprised on arrival to find out that you will be having a lot of different blender drinks and only have one blender. This is also your chance to explain any difficulties their requests may represent, such as needing several blenders for each specialty drink or making sure they will have enough ice on hand to handle these requests.

This is another great open-ended question that lets you build rapport with the client while letting you learn more about the event and letting them know you are concerned about providing excellent service to their guests.

9. Is there a schedule that needs to be kept?

This question would be most relevant if it is a formal event or if the event is being held at a hall (rather than a residence). You may have a wedding where the cocktail hour is in one room for a certain time, then the bar is moved to the larger room during the reception. There may be a request to have a champagne toast at a certain time and you need to be ready. Make sure you are aware of the schedule so you can prepare in advance if necessary

10. Will a tip jar be allowed?

This is a tricky question. In general, I would recommend asking about the tip jar in advance, as part of your rate negotiation. For example, you can suggest one hourly rate without a tip jar, or another lower rate if you’re allowed to set a tip jar on the bar.

Be aware that tip jars can be a touchy subject! I recently worked a party through a staffing agent. The agent worked the same party as a server. It was a wedding at a private house. The ceremony was in the backyard and the party commenced right after. This being a wedding, I was wringing my hands when I got the gig asking if a tip jar was allowed. Sadly, it was not. However, the mother of the bride, insisted I have one. I told her it’s okay, don’t worry about it. She went into the house, got a big jar, wrote the word TIPS on it and put it up for me. I knew she was the mother of the bride, therefore I didn’t object when she put it on the bar. If it were any other guest, I would have said no. However, the staffing agent saw it and came down on me hard. I told her who put it up there and she said okay, but it took her a bit to calm down.

You’re already working the party for a good rate and very likely to get a gratuity from the client directly. If you’re not allowed additional tips, don’t worry about it. There will be other gigs were the tips will be amazing!! It’s important not to appear greedy. This doesn’t get anyone anywhere when working to get repeat business.

Now you have your checklist of questions, you should be ready for your event! Every event is different and you should be prepared for anything – but this list of questions should give you a little bit more information about what to expect.

“Royal wedding cocktail 1” flickr photo by Elegant Cuisine https://flickr.com/photos/69358668@N04/6522776795 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Lisa Freeman

Lisa Freeman has been bartending private parties as a side hustle for 3.5 years, working events from small birthdays to large 350-person weddings. She's also a former accomplished ballroom dance competitor, enjoys martial arts, and is always looking to try new things (hobbies, side hustles, and otherwise!)